"Do civilized BJ men"

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Zeyao Wu found this photograph on Weibo (a Twitter-like microblogging website in China):

Zuò wénmíng yǒulǐ de Běijīng rén
Be a civilized and polite Beijinger

The mistranslation arose because the verb zuò 做 can mean either "do; make" or "be" (in the sense of "act / serve as", as well as having many other meanings ("become; perform; give [a party]; play [a role]; produce; etc.").

The situation becomes even more complicated because there are several other verbs that mean "do; make" and "be", and they all have specific functions.  This multiplicity of basic verbs for "do; make" and "be" causes great confusion for learners and translators of Mandarin.

I won't list all of these "do; make" and "be" verbs here, because they take up several days or even weeks in a Mandarin course and several chapters in a Mandarin textbook.  I will only mention the other important verb "be" beside zuò 做, namely, shì 是.  This is the copulative or equational verb "be".  Distinguishing between zuò 做 and shì 是 is one of the biggest challenges facing the beginning student of Mandarin, not to mention resisting the urge to use shì 是 with stative verbs / adjectives like hóng 红 ("[be] red").

Similarly, if you want to encourage someone to be a polite and civilized Beijinger, it would be incorrect to use equational / copulative shì 是 as the verb.  Conversely, although it is correct to use the verb zuò 做 ("do; make; be") in this case, it is quite wrong to translate it as "do" or "make", as happened with the translation in the above photograph.


  1. Michael Watts said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 12:24 pm

    A couple tangential thoughts:

    "BJ men" is likely to be misinterpreted by Americans. It shows a pretty common style of city abbreviation in China – B for bei, J for jing. I've always found this a little more interesting than it really should be because of how it applies to Shanghai. The abbreviation (in this style) for Shanghai is SH, which seems to make sense as Shanghai starts with SH. But in fact what's going on is as above – S for shang, H for hai. This is weird if you think of "s" and "sh" as being separate consonants.

    English speakers perceive a difference between stative "be" and activity "be". At least, the difference is accessible enough that it was written into a joke in the dialog of Friends:

    Monica: You told me to go out and be a caterer, so I went! I be'ed!

    In the minds of Monica (and the writers, and the part of the audience who understood the joke), was is too overtly stative to be acceptable in that sentence.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

    Well, I imagine that I am not the only reader who was surprised to discover that the article was not, in fact, about the possible mis-interpretation of "BJ" after all … Which reminds me — in an earlier thread, there was discussion of "chug" and its possible misinterpretation by Scots; in today's Guardian (or possibly yesterday's), the headline writer is obviously completely oblivious to the "other" meaning of "edge" — he/she wrote "Canelo Álvarez edges Gennady Golovkin by majority decision in classic fight".

  3. David Marjanović said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 2:20 pm

    Monica: You told me to go out and be a caterer, so I went! I be'ed!

    That blows my mind.

    (…No on-topic pun intended.)

  4. Michael Watts said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

    The state/activity distinction is observed more robustly elsewhere, as when the response to "be polite!" is "I am being polite! [right now, through special effort]" as opposed to "I am polite! [all the time, because that is the kind of person I am]". But there are no acceptable past-tense forms of the activity sense. In more fluent English, I would expect

    You told me to go out and be a caterer, so I did! [go out and be a caterer]

    However, eliding the full verb phrase is practically obligatory in that instance; it's pretty awkward to vocalize "I did be a caterer".

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

    @David Marjanović: A co-worker of mine liked "be" (present tense), "be's" and "be'd" for those more active meanings. I never tried to pin down what her criteria were.

  6. DaveK said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 10:08 pm

    @Michael Watts:
    “I did be a caterer.”
    “I did become a caterer” Do this mean that “become” is a transient verb of being?

  7. Michael Watts said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 11:11 pm

    What does "a transient verb of being" mean? I would say that "become" expresses a state transition; in the state/activity/accomplishment/achievement tetrachotomy, it would be one of those last two.

  8. rosie said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 4:22 am

    @Michael Watts Re past-tense forms of the activity sense. Anything wrong with "was" and "was being"? E.g. as possible responses to "I told you to be polite and you weren't", either "I was!" or "I was being polite!".

  9. Eleanor said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 7:35 am

    I'm reminded of the time when I hissed at one of my miscreant children to "BEHAVE!" and got the furious response: "I *AM* HAVE!" ("Have" rhyming with "wave", obviously.)

  10. Thaomas said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

    The "ser/estar" problem of Spanish in spades! :)

  11. Michael Watts said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

    @rosie – I think "I was!" / "I was polite!" are stative. (Like how "ten years ago, I knew this stuff backwards and forwards" is stative despite being explicitly time-restricted.)

    "I was being polite!" is clearly the activity sense, and clearly refers to the past, so it would be fair to say that my comment earlier overreached a bit. However, there are many contexts where you'd like to express the activity sense in the past without being forced into using a progressive form.

    At this point, you're reaching the limits of what I can say, but I'd be pretty happy to see Mark Liberman or a syntactician (do we have one currently posting to LL?) address the question.

  12. Martha said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

    The "be's" in Monica Geller's "be-ed a caterer" and "was being polite" feel very different to me.

    "I was being polite" describes a temporary state, versus "I was polite" describing a general state. "I was being polite [at that time] because I was [a] polite [person]."

    Compared with Monica going out and doing something. If "cater" weren't already a verb, she could have verbed it in her sentence to communicate the same thing. "You told me to go out and be polite, so I polited!" (with "politing" having a more active meaning than simply "being polite").

    At least in my mind!

  13. DocRock said,

    September 20, 2018 @ 11:23 am

    Not translations! http://misscellania.blogspot.com/2018/09/brain-just-like-potato.html

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