Englishy Mandarin

« previous post | next post »

The following feature from the Nandu website includes many strange and droll language games:

Before analyzing and explaining all of the playful language on this page, I should note that the article is about China's longest-serving delegate ("reelected" 12 times for a total of 59 years) to the National People's Congress, a woman named Shēn Jìlán 申纪兰. People are making a big fuss about her and saying that she was "reelected" so many times because she rubber-stamped whatever the CCP wanted. I personally don't think it's such a big deal for two reasons:

1. I doubt that in the history of the PRC there have ever been more than a token handful of dissenting votes against whatever the CCP leadership wanted, so she's probably no worse than all the other delegates in that respect.

2. We have our longevous senators Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond.

I should also mention that the Nandu ("Southern Metropolis") website is intimately related to the Southern Weekly, the feisty, rebellious newspaper that was in the limelight so much during the month of January when it stood up to Communist Party censorship of its New Year's editorial. Both the Nandu website and the Southern Weekly belong to the Nánfāng bàoyè chuánméi jítuán 南方报业传媒集团 ("Southern Media Group"). See "Once Bookstore".

Now, let's take a look at some of the fun things on this page.

Duànzi shì xì, xì wài shì zhēn
段子是戏, 戏外是真
("The jokes are [just] for fun, [but] besides the fun there is [still some] truth.")
Note: duànzi 段子 ("joke, banter"), e.g., huáng duànzi 黄段子 ("sexually suggestive joke")

Google Translate inexplicably renders xì wài shì zhēn 戏 外是真 as "The Wall Street Journal is true." If you put 戏外是真。(with a period) in Google Translate, it yields "Outside the movies is true", which is only slightly better.

If you try to translate xì wài shì zhēn 戏 外是真 into Spanish, Google Translate gives "The Wall Street Journal es cierto", in German "The Wall Street Journal ist wahr", in Japanese " Uōrusutorīto Jānaru wa hontō desu ウォールストリートジャーナルは本当です" ("The Wall Street Journal is true"). It would seem that this is some sort of hoax being played by an employee of Google Translate.

Ironically, if you want to translate xì wài shì jiǎ 戏外是假 ([but] besides the fun there is [still some] falsity") into English, Google Translate gives you "The Wall Street Journal is a fake" and something similar in all other languages. However, if you just translate 戏外是 ("beside the fun it is"), Google Translate yields "Off screen is".

There have been several such incidents at Google Translate. One I can remember right now occurred in 2007 when Kimi Räikkönen, a Finnish racing driver won the F1 world championship. If you entered "Räikkönen is champion" on Google Translate, the Chinese translation would be Ālóngsuǒ shì guànjūn 阿隆索是冠军 ("Alonso is champion"), referring to Fernando Alonso, a Spanish driver, 3rd overall in that season.

Nándū pínglùn 南都评论 ("Nandu reviews") is a column on the Nandu website. This feature on Shen Jilan is the first in a series called Nándū wǎng 南都网 ("Nandu website") jin[g]句, which the column cleverly announces as consisting of:

jīnjù 金句 ("[memorable] verses")
jīnjù 今句 ("current sentences")
jīngjù 惊句 ("surprising sentences")
jǐngjù 警句 ("epigrams")

Then we come to the weirdest and funniest part of the page. "How are you?" is rendered into Englishy Mandarin as "Zěnme shì nǐ" 怎么是你? and "How old are you?" is translated into the same type of bizarre Englishy Mandarin as "Zěnme lǎo shì nǐ" 怎么老是你? The real meaning of the first Mandarin question is "How could it be you?" and the meaning of the second Mandarin question is "Why are you always around?" Of course, these mistranslation are intentional and diabolically clever.

Finally, here are some pronouncements widely attributed to Shēn Jìlán (taken from interviews she has given during the last couple of years):

1. Wǒ cónglái bu tóu fǎnduì piào. 2.“Zhōngchéng” èr zì kě xíngróng wǒ yīshēng. 3. Wǒmen yào gǎnxiè dǎng, gēn dǎng zǒu. 4. Dǎng zuò de shì dōu shì duì de. 5. Wǒ shì dàibiǎo qúnzhòng, bùshì dàibiǎo gèrén. 6. Wǒmen zhè shì mínzhǔ xuǎnjǔ, nǐ jiāoliú jiù bù héshì, bù xuǎn nǐ, nǐ jiù bù yào "gè" rén.

1.我从来不投反对票。2.“忠诚”二字可形容我一生。3.我们要感谢党,跟党走。4.党做的事都是对的。5.我是代表群众,不是代表个人。6. 我们这是民主选举,你交流就不合适,不选你,你就不要"各"人。

1. "I never cast a dissenting vote." 2. "'Loyalty and sincerity' can describe my whole life." 3. "We should be thankful to the Party and follow the Party." 4. "Everything that the Party does is correct." 5. "I represent the masses, not myself." 6. "These elections of ours are democratic. It's not fitting to go out and campaign. If [somebody doesn't want] to elect you, then you shouldn't go out and trouble [VHM: she uses a Shanxi colloquial expression] them." With principles such as these, no wonder she has gotten "reelected" 12 times!

[Many thanks to Gianni Wan, Fangyi Cheng, and Sanping Chen]


  1. Carl said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    The Hacker Jargon file has a well known entry for "Haha, only serious"—http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/H/ha-ha-only-serious.html

  2. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 2:06 am

    Before I read this post, I hadn't known that "longevous" was a word.

  3. Jean-Michel said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 2:07 am

    I doubt that in the history of the PRC there have ever been more than a token handful of dissenting votes against whatever the CCP leadership wanted, so she's probably no worse than all the other delegates in that respect.

    From what I can tell, all NPC votes were unanimous until 1982, when there were three abstentions; by that time Shen had already served in the body for 28 years. (The first "no" votes came in 1988.) Since then there have been some more mixed results, like a bill on Shenzhen in 1989 (1,609 for, 274 against, 805 abstentions) and the approval of the Three Gorges Dam in 1992 (1,767 for, 177 against, 644 abstentions), but nothing has ever actually been voted down–although some bills have been withdrawn from consideration.

  4. Max said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 2:48 am

    I believe Google Translate translates everything via English: it used to only allow certain language pairs, and these were (almost?) all English-X and X-English. Thus it's no surprise that a mistake in Mandarin-English translation survives in Mandarin-X for other values of X.

  5. Simon Fodden said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    Like Stephen, I too learned about "longevous." Many thanks. This has quite made my day. Now I have to resist giving it a French pronunciation.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    @Stephen C. Carlson

    The reason I long ago learned the word "longevous" was because the Chinese are always talking about shòu 壽 / 寿 ("longevity"), more properly in Modern Standard Mandarin chángshòu 長壽 / 长寿, and I sometimes needed an adjective to describe that, so I found that "longevous" was just perfect for that purpose.

  7. Lee C. said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    I noticed once that Google Translate was changing the names of cities in Sweden to cities in the USA while translating a certain webpage. I hypothesized at the time that Google was matching the rather short sentences on this webpage to some children's book it may have already had a translation for, and the translator of that book had chosen to substitute city names.

    Could the strange translations here have to do with a match to a piece of text that Google thought it had the translation for, but was mismatched?

  8. Ted said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

    外是 must be an abbreviation for "Wall Street Journal" in some text that Google is relying on. ("Wai shi" = Wall Street; actually makes a certain degree of sense.)

    Either that or the translation engine took the phrase "The Wall Street Journal is a joke" a little too literally.

  9. Daniel Barkalow said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    Surely, 戏 外 indicates a newspaper with neither comics nor a crossword. The Wall Street Journal is merely the most prominent example of something that isn't entertaining.

  10. AB said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    With reference to Google Translate changing geographical names:
    and related.

  11. Matt said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

    Not to derail, but… speaking of language games in Chinese, is there any chance of an official LL post about the recently published Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake? The fact that it sold out its first print run apparently aroused the interest of the English-speaking media, but none of the articles include any examples of what the translation actually looks like. At best, they link to this article by the translator, but of course access to that is barred to us wretched refuse.

  12. William Steed said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

    Could the Raikkonen/Alonso mismatch be motivated by user-submitted corrections? With the option to submit a better translation being used to optimise translation, could a bunch of people deliberately miscorrecting Google Translate give the eventual output?

  13. Captain Quirk said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

    I just input "戏 外是真" (with a space after the first character) to google translate, and it gave "Play outside is really" when I input "戏 外是真." (with a space and a period at the end), it returns "The drama outside is true." Omit the space, and it is exactly as outlined in this blog ("The Wall Street Journal is true," "Outside the movies is true," respectively).

  14. DG said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 12:59 am

    Google translate can pick up on all kinds of random stuff on the web. A few incorrectly aligned instances can lead to this sort of behavior.

  15. Bathrobe said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    I heard this 怎么是你 and 怎么老是你 from a Chinese friend a couple of years ago and I also thought it was diabolically clever. I would translate them back into English as something like: 'How come it's you?' and 'How come it's always you?', which captures the parallelism in the two sentences and the progression of the joke, although perhaps slightly off semantically.

RSS feed for comments on this post