To save Germany

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Cheng Fangyi sent in the following photograph of a sign in China:

What this actually says is:

Néng chī shì fú, jiéyuē shì dé 能吃是福,節約是德。
("To eat is a blessing, economizing is a virtue.")

The structure of the two parallel clauses is identical; it is both simple and straightforward: SUBJECT (consisting of a verbal nominative) + COPULATIVE + PREDICATE NOMINATIVE. Since the translator got the first clause right, both in terms of grammatical analysis and semantic content, they should have been able to apply similar operations to the second clause. Their inability to do so indicates that they didn't really understand English on their own, but were relying entirely on translation software, without even checking the result at all.

There's no way that a fluent speaker of Chinese could interpret the dé 德 of the jiéyuē shì dé 節約是德 clause as the dé 德 of Déguó 德國 ("Germany", lit. "Dé-country", the country whose name begins with the sound dé, i.e., < "Deutschland"). And jiéyuē 節約 ("saving; economizing; being thrifty"; i.e., "not wasting") is a common lexical item, so that shouldn't have thrown them off either.

Another strange aspect of the translation is that, although the two clauses are considerately separated by a space in the Chinese, all of the words of the English run on without a break (the boundary between the two clauses should be marked by a comma or semi-colon or a conspicuous space), making it seem as though "to save Germany" is somehow a consequence of "to eat is a blessing" — a truly bizarre prospect.

Bottom line: no one with even a minimal understanding of English bothered to check the result of the machine translation.


  1. Isoraķatheð Zorethan said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 10:16 am

    It looks like the translation machine is attempting a "To P is to Q; to P’, Q’" sentence pattern, but lost all the punctuation.

  2. J.Xiao said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 10:16 am

    If they did translate the second clause as 'To save is Germany', that would actually be an amusingly accurate description of the frugality of Germans.

    The quaint Chinese translation of the term Deutsch(-land) i.e. 德意志 (dé yì zhì, lit. 'virtuous mind') sure did contains the 'virtue' connotation though, as least in the mind of the original translators who utilized a form of phono-semantic matching. Of course, not that any fluent Chinese speaker would interpret the dé as Germany in this case.

  3. Observation said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    I think ellipsis may have been responsible for the strange second clause: 'To eat is a blessing, to save a virtue.' The machine may have left out the comma.

  4. flow said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    the japanese translation by google is not so bad after all:


  5. J.Xiao said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:14 pm


    Google does translate the 德 in the second clause into Germany in all languages. It is weird because when referring to German stuffs, 德國 is rarely abbreviated as 德. (Well, maybe an exception would be the still-not-often-used word 德式 lit. German-styled)

  6. TR said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    I don't know Chinese, but I'm struck by the parallelism of tones in Néng chī shì fú, jiéyuē shì dé: rising-high-falling-rising, rising-high-falling-rising. Is this accidental or a deliberate effect?

  7. Pompeius said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

    But it's good to now for sure. I understand now that I can make my country safer by eating.

  8. Gary said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

    Any thoughts/studies on how or if the characters assigned to countries' names have influenced Chinese perceptions of those countries? Are Germans believed to be, on the whole, more virtuous? The English, brave? The French, law-abiding? Do the Chinese think America is especially beautiful?

  9. Gary said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    Any thoughts/studies on how or if the characters used in countries' names influence Chinese perceptions of those countries? Do they see the Germans, on the whole, as more virtuous? The English, brave? The French, law-abiding? Do the Chinese think America an especially beautiful country?

  10. Keith said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    I think you have to look no further than Google Translate, which with the comma in the Chinese gives the phrase "Eat is a blessing, saving is Germany" while without the comma (bit with a space separating the two groups of four characters) it gives "Eat is a blessing savings are Germany".

    I am sure that Google could, at some time in the past, have given the English text shown in the photo, and that if you try this in a few years' time the result will be no doubt different. One day, it might even be correct…

  11. Wentao said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 5:34 pm


    I would say it is accidental. When Chinese speakers read or write, they seldom pay attention to the pattern of tones, and I can think of only two exceptions: either they are composing classical poetry with a rigorous meter, or they are coining nice-sounding names.

    However, on a related note, there may be some underlying historical reasons in the similarity (or contrast) of tones when it comes to similar (or opposite) ideas. Since tones are thought to be descended from lost consonant endings, I guess there might be some phonosemantics going on as well. In fact, I find the topic of phonosemanticism in Chinese most engrossing and would love to see Professor Mair dedicate a post to it some day. :)

  12. mondain said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    As Prof. Mair has noticed in the post that 'all of the words of the English run on without a break,' a tentative reconstruction could be 'to eat is a blessing ; to save [is] Germany' where the repeated copula is omitted in the second clause of the parallelism. If that is the case, the machine translation did at least get the syntax right.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 10:54 pm


    Already did it in 2012.

    "Phonosymbolism and Phonosemantics in Chinese"

    Includes references to literature and a long SPP review on the subject.

  14. dw said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 4:53 am

    @Victor Mair:

    At the end of your aforementioned wonderful post: "Phonosymbolism and Phonosemantics in Chinese", you tease us by saying:

    In a forthcoming post, I will turn to the question of genuine Sinitic etyma (which are defined by sound and meaning, NOT by character structure), with some surprising results in comparison with the number of Indo-European, Semitic, and other roots.

    I'm unable to find this post. Is it on LL somewhere, or is it still "forthcoming"? Thanks!

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