WeChat COVID-19 ditty

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[This is a guest post by David Moser]

This little Stück of piecemeal wordplay has been making the rounds on WeChat. It seems to be an amalgam of several little coronavirus memes that had appeared in isolation.

gélí rénquán méile 隔离人权没了
bù gélí rén quán méile 不隔离人全没了
tiānshàng biānfú, dìshàng Chuānpǔ 天上蝙蝠,地上川普
yīgè yǒudú, yīgè méipǔ 一个有毒,一个没谱
bù dài kǒuzhào nǐ shìshì 不戴口罩你试试
shìshì jiù shìshì 试试就逝世

A rather literal translation might go as follows:

隔离人权没了 With the quarantine, there are no human rights.
不隔离人全没了 Without the quarantine, the humans will be all gone.
天上蝙蝠,地上川普 In the sky are bats, on the earth there's Trump.
一个有毒,一个没谱 One has a virus, the other has no clue/no plan.
不戴口罩你试试 Just try not wearing a face mask.
试试就逝世 If you try it, you'll die.

The first bit of wordplay involves a homophonic regrouping:

rénquán 人权 + méile 没了 and rén 人 + quán méile 全没了

The next two lines just involve successive rhyming 4-syllable couplets:

biānfú 蝙蝠,Chuānpǔ 川普,yǒudú 有毒,méipǔ 没谱

And the last bit of wordplay is again two (near) homonyms:

shìshi 试试 "try", shìshì 逝世 "pass away"

With a little bit of trial and error, I arrived at the following creative translation that attempts to convey some of the punning and wordplay:

隔离人权没了 In quarantine, not a single human right.
不隔离人全没了 No quarantine, not a single human left.
天上蝙蝠,地上川普 In the heavens, bats flying; here on earth, Trump lying.
一个有毒,一个没谱 One is contagious, the other outrageous.
不戴口罩你试试 Just try not wearing a face mask.
试试就逝世 You try, you die.

What's interesting to me as a translator is that even this little exercise is a microcosm of the problems we invariably encounter in translating from Chinese to English. First of all, it is impossible to achieve the syllabic parsimony of the original. In every line except the final one, the number of syllables in English is significantly greater than the number in the Chinese. This is largely due to the fact that in transferring the information from Chinese to English, the translator is very often compelled to add information into the target English translation, in order to construct a sentence that comports with the requirements of idiomatic English. This C-E disproportional syllable ratio is famously evident in English translations of Classical Chinese (wényánwén文言文), but is also a fact of life for modern Chinese, as well.) Of course, this state of affairs is encountered in the translation of all languages, but is compounded in C-E translation due to some of the deep differences between Chinese and English sentence structure. One of these major differences is the topic-comment feature of the Chinese sentence, as opposed to the default subject-predicate convention of English. We are faced with the translation challenge from the very first line of the above WeChat ditty, where gélí 隔离 serves as the "topic" for the "comment" phrase rénquán méile 人权没了, whereas gélí 隔离 as topic can be simulated in English with a formulation like "[as for] quarantine…" This topic-comment structure obviates the need in English of various linking functions (e.g., prepositions such as with, in, during, as to, for, etc.), and the lack of agreement requirements for aspects such as tense and number provide for an economy of expression that is very difficult to achieve in English. Added to this is the monosyllabic tendency of the average Chinese morpheme, which often allows the option of greater syllabic concision to the writer. The upshot is that both the average information load of a Chinese sentence as well as the average syllable count, are aspects that all C-E translators have to grapple with. The linguist Wang Li 王力 observed that: "jiù jùzi de jiégòu ér lùn, Xīyáng yǔyán shì fǎzhì de, Zhōngguó yǔyán shì rénzhì de 就句子的结构而论,西洋语言是法治的,中国语言是人治的。" ("With regard to sentence structure, Western languages are rule-based, while Chinese languages are reader / person-based.") What Wang Li meant was that gleaning the meaning of a Chinese sentence requires, on average, more processing of contextual and inferential clues on the part of the reader, whereas Western / Indo-European sentence structure tends to require more explicit indicators of semantic and logical relations. These differences are what makes translation from Chinese to English so challenging, so fascinating, so much fun, and so damn hard.

 

Selected readings

[With thanks to Perry Link and Douglas Hofstadter]



20 Comments

  1. william holmes said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 6:31 am

    NIce job!
    In the English version I saw, the second line is done as "no quarantine, no humans left" — thus playing off the first line's "no human rights".

  2. Andrew Thomson said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 8:40 am

    When I read this: "topic-comment structure obviates the need in English of various linking functions," I finally had a handle for what I've noticed (probably years late) in the Comments section of Youtube videos. Instead of posting what I would think of as a "comment," people make up a tiny conversation, usually just two lines, which conveys what they feel is the salient point of the video.

    Sample forms:
    [person who made the video]: blah blah
    Me: omg
    or:
    [person the commenter doesn't like]: blah blah blah
    [person who made the video]: oh yeah, well blah

    …. economy of expression, with no linking function other than the colon. In English, however trite. There sometimes follows a series of attempts to intensify the original.

  3. Brandon Seah said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 9:11 am

    My try at the first two lines:
    With the quarantine, there are no human rights.
    Without the quarantine, there are no humans, right?

  4. Sniffnoy said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 9:48 am

    The English translation you came up with still seems like it could be made a bit tighter, still has a few too many words to my ear.

    E.g., "Here on earth" can be shortened to just "down here". You can probably do something similar with "in the heavens" ("up above", say?). You can drop the "is" in "One is contagious". And instead of "one/the other" you could maybe just use "one/one" (that might be a bit too far though).

    For "Just try not wearing a face mask.", mabye instead turn it into, "You want to go unmasked?"

    And of course the first two lines can be done as "no human rights" / "no humans left" instead of the longer "not a single".

  5. Ross Presser said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 10:37 am

    Since I'm not a Chinese speaker, the parsimony of syllables makes the English translation less "catchy" or accessible to me. In particular I'd prefer this line:

    In the heavens, the bats are flying; here on earth, Trump is lying.

  6. John Shutt said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 10:48 am

    Small possible further tweak: "You want to go unmasked?" -> "Want to go unmasked?"

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 4:34 pm

    "In shame he lived, in maskless shame he dies." Wait, I may have the wrong culture.

    I like the versions with right-left wordplay.

    Speaking of unneeded syllables, "face mask" may not always be redundant, but it is with "wear", especially in this context. Nevertheless I've been seeing it a lot.

  8. ktschwarz said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:57 pm

    Given that English encodes semantic and logical relations more explicitly than Chinese, I would expect machine translation to be more successful from English to Chinese than Chinese to English. Is that the case? Or does the difference in sentence structure make it equally difficult?

  9. David Moser said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 6:25 pm

    @ktschwarz

    Good question, not sure if there is any research in this area. But notice in the little piece above 天上蝙蝠,地上川普, without context, is 蝙蝠 singular or plural? "the/a bat in the sky" or "bats in the sky"? Not a problem when moving from E to C, but going from C to E you have to make a decision. This sort of information load problem is, in general, trickier from C to E.

  10. Rebecca said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 10:39 pm

    I wish I read or spoke Chinese, translation always sacrifices verbal nuances. My attempt:

    Stay home, the economy dies
    Go out and you'll play with your life
    Fever, cough, diarrhea
    Trump has no idea
    Wildlife keeps unmasking more lies

  11. Rebecca said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 10:41 pm

    Oops, typo. That was supposed to be "pay with your life"

  12. RJP said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 5:45 am

    I actually prefer Moser's "Just try not wearing a face mask" to the alternatives suggested. I like the way "try" is repeated on the next line, which the alternatives lose. And "unmasked" has connotations of exposing someone's identity.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 6:23 am

    I didn't try to work from the original Chinese, but instead from Victor's literal translation. Results follow.

    隔离人权没了 With quarantine, no human rights;
    不隔离人全没了 No quarantine, turn out the lights.
    天上蝙蝠,地上川普 Above are bats, on earth we've Trump;
    一个有毒,一个没谱 One bears a virus, one's a chump.
    不戴口罩你试试 Eschew a face mask if you wish
    试试就逝世 Your resting place a Petri dish.

  14. David Moser said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    @Philip Taylor

    Very nice, extremely creative! The English flows much better than my version. "Chump" is the perfect rhyme.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 11:00 am

    Thank you for your kind words, David — very much appreciated. With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that there are many other possibilities for the final couplet, including :

    Forgo your face mask if you choose —
    You've nothing but your life to lose …

    and

    Forgo your face mask if you must —
    And hasten your return to dust !

  16. Dave Cragin said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 4:40 pm

    When I read David's 天上蝙蝠,地上川普 "In the sky are bats, on the earth there's Trump," it immediately made me think of the classic saying:

    上有天堂, 下有苏杭 Shang you tiantang, xia you su hang*. In the sky there is heaven, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou (which is a figurative translation that sounds nice)

    Or the more concise translation "above there is heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou." (which is accurate, but is a bit dry & less engaging than the figurative one). I think the more figurative translation gives it a feel of a saying as opposed to a simple statement.

    This saying also illustrates another point David made, i.e., the monosyllabic tendency of the average Chinese morpheme. That is, Suzhou and Hangzhou are "abbreviated" as Suhang.

    In addition, previously on this blog we had discussed that Chinese is a reader responsible language, whereas English is a writer responsible language. That is, in Chinese, it's the reader's responsibility to figure out what the writer meant; In English it's the writer's responsibility to make the reader understand. David's comments have given me more insight into this concept.

    *An aside: if you're a foreigner and you can say this, the Chinese will love you. Hangzhou & Suzhou have a special place in the heart of China.

    One piece of feedback: It would have added much readability if the final long paragraph was broken into a few paragraphs. It's hard to read long blocks of text on-line (even if it as interesting as David's).

  17. David Moser said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 6:04 pm

    @Dave Cragin

    That's a great observation, any native Chinese will be subconsciously aware of the 上有天堂, 下有苏杭 resonance. I think I was, too, but couldn't make any use of it with this particular semantic context.

    I went back and read the "reader responsible language" and "writer responsible language" post. Fits in perfectly with Wang Li's observation, thanks.

  18. David Moser said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 6:34 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    Wonderful! With your last two couplets as inspiration, I took the liberty of constructing two more slightly different versions:

    A quarantine? No human rights.
    No quarantine? No humans left.
    In the sky the bats looming; on earth Trump is fuming.
    One has a disease, the other aims to displease.
    Forgo your face mask if you choose —
    You've nothing but your life to lose.

    With quarantine, no human rights.
    No quarantine, no humans left.
    In the heavens bats fly; on earth, Trump's our guy
    One is a disease carrier, the other is a progress barrier.
    Forgo your face mask if you must —
    You'll hasten your return to dust !

  19. ktschwarz said,

    April 26, 2020 @ 12:39 pm

    Wang Li compares Chinese with Western languages in general, but among European languages, English is the *least* explicit! As translator Claude Piron has discussed, translating English to French often requires taking apart noun piles and using prepositions to show their structure. Does "basic oral health survey methods" mean methods for a survey of basic oral health, or methods for a basic survey of oral health, or basic methods for a survey of oral health? The translator needs external knowledge to decide, since it isn't encoded in the English.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 3:04 am

    Thank you for that Claude Piron link, M. Schwarz — absolutely fascinating reading.

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