Close enough: glossing Sinographic Mandarin with Pinyin Mandarin

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Intriguing t-shirt that is making the rounds these days:


(source)

The characters say:

zúgòujìn

足夠近

"close enough"

The Pinyin says:

chàbùduō

差不多

"almost"

The two idiomatic terms, though expressed in quite different ways with dissimilar orientations (to be explained in detail below), amount to roughly the same thing, so it is reasonable to gloss one with the other.  However, with 127,000,000 ghits to 2,410,000 ghits, "chabuduo" is far more common than "zugoujin".

A fuller list of translations and definitions of "chabuduo" would go like this:

differ [by] not much

differ not [by] much

almost

nearly

pretty much

similar

about the same

good enough

just about (right)

not bad

not far-off

sort of; sorta

kinda

"Chabuduo" amounts to an attitude toward life or a philosophical stance, depending on how seriously you want to take it.  It's a lackadaisical mindset that I deplore.  For example, in my Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese course, when we are reading texts, if a student says that a passage "chabuduo" means this or that, I get upset and sternly rebuke them by telling them that parsing and analyzing structures and sentences must be done meticulously and rigorously.  One cannot be "chabuduo" in one's approach to grammar and meaning.

Thoughtful, discerning Chinese themselves do not approve of the "chabuduo" outlook that is so pervasive in their society.  A Google search for "chabuduo" will give you an idea of what people think of it.

A Chinese scholar whom I respect deeply was Hu Shih 胡適 (1891-1962).  Aside from his promotion of the vernacular and script reform, one of the many reasons for which I admire Hu Shih was the fact that he wrote an essay called "Chàbùduō xiānshēng zhuàn 差不多先生傳" ("Mr. Chabuduo") in which he critiqued the pervasive noncommittal nature of his countrymen.

"Zugoujin" doesn't have as many translations and definitions as "chabuduo":

close enough

near enough

sufficiently close

Furthermore, as shown above, "zugoujin" is far less well known than "chabuduo", so it would make sense to gloss the former by the latter.  As a matter of fact, I cannot help escaping the feeling that "zugoujin" is not authentically Mandarin.  Somehow it strikes me as translatese from English "close enough".  It just doesn't ring true to me as a genuine Mandarin construction.  My instinct is partly borne out by the fact that one can find occurrences of "chabuduo" in Qing period (1644-1911) fiction and probably earlier, whereas it's hard to find evidence of "zugoujin" before the 20th century, and it seems to have appeared first in the sciences (including math) and social sciences (making it highly liable to borrowing through translation).

In terms of euphony, "chabuduo" just rolls off the tongue and lips, but "zugoujin" is clunky and easy to garble.

To supplement my own reactions to the pairing of "zugoujin" and "chabuduo" on the t-shirt pictured above, here are some observations by advanced graduate students from the PRC:

1.

The Pinyin here ("CHA BU DUO") refers to "差不多" ("almost, nearly, just about; about the same, similar; just about right [enough], not far off, not bad"), while the Chinese characters "足够近" simply mean "close enough (in distance)".

The product description explains that:

It seems that the designer is illiterate with the Chinese script but knows the spoken word "chabuduo" and its meaning. The designer might have made a mistake when converting into Chinese characters "足够近" from the Pinyin "CHA BU DUO" ("差不多") which indeed can refer to both "close enough" on some specific occasions (e.g., when reversing a car) and "(not) good enough / neither very good nor very bad", although "chabuduo 差不多" refers to non-negative meanings under most circumstances.

Although the design seems most likely to be a language mistake, it coincidentally resembles a popular usage of pinyin that arose on Chinese social media in recent years to some extent, which I would call "deliberate inconsistent phonetic gloss". Chinese netizens may use wrong romanizations together with the superficial Chinese characters intentionally to indicate their hidden sarcasm, complaint, anger, excitement, celebration, or other actual emotions or thoughts. For example, one may complain about the hot weather by typing up “tiānqì tài hǎo (re) le" 天气太好(re)了” ("the weather is really good", ignoring the "re" and taking into consideration only what's written in characters), insinuating the real feeling of “rè 热” ("hot"), omitting "hǎo 好" ("good"), causing the sentence to mean "the weather is really hot"). I'm not completely sure if the designer is familiar with this usage and tries to convey any other messages.

2.

This shirt is hilarious!  The mismatched pinyin and characters is a gěng 梗 ("shtick") that has been quite used amongst Chinese netizens for the recent years. In most cases, characters are things that one superficially wants to present — or has to — even forced to — present; and pinyin, usually in parentheses, are things that one really — or secretly — wants to say.

E.g., Měitiān zǎoshang shì mèng (nao) xiǎng (zhong) jiào wǒ qǐchuáng 每天早上是梦(nao)想(zhong)叫我起床。

On the surface this sentence says: “It is my dream that wakes me up every morning”. But it really wants to say that “It is my alarm clock that wakes me up every morning”. Why would he put “naozhong” (i.e., nàozhōng 闹钟 ["alarm clock"]) as mismatched pinyin for "mèng xiǎng 梦想" ("dream")? Because “dream” sounds more “correct” and “bracing”, while an alarm clock, although realistic, tends to convey fewer connotations of "wěi guāng zhèng 伟光正" (“great and bright and correct”). So, for example, in the context of China’s exam-based education system, a student can only secretly express the truth if different from the “great and bright and correct” standard answer!

Something more sensitive: Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó shì yīgè yǐ gōng (te) nóng (quan) jiējí lìyì wéi dàibiǎo de guójiā 中华人民共和国是一个以工(te)农(quan)阶级利益为代表的国家。("The People's Republic of China is a country represented by the interests of the workers and peasants") — taking into account only the characters, while ignoring the Pinyin.

On the surface: (represented by the interests of) “worker and peasant classes”

Reality: (represented by the interests of) “the privileged bureaucrat classes”

Now it should be much easier to comprehend why tequan / 特权 ("privileged") can only be represented by mismatched pinyin in parentheses following gōng nóng 工农 ("workers and peasants") in characters….

Selected readings

[thanks to Mark Metcalf]



8 Comments »

  1. Joshua K. said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 12:02 am

    I think an analogous shirt in English could just display the words:

    ALLMOST CORECT

  2. M said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 3:46 am

    The "geng" your second student was describing sounds a lot like ruby/ateji as used in Japanese to convey sarcasm/humour/subversive meanings.

  3. John Swindle said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 7:33 am

    Close enough for government work.

  4. Chris Button said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 9:11 am

    Very funny. I’d wear that.

    @ M

    I think you mean “gikun” for the ruby readings. I think “ateji” would go the other way round with the kanji being applied to the reading rather than the reading to the kanji.

  5. DaveK said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 5:25 pm

    Whatever, dude

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2022 @ 5:57 pm

    There are deeper linguistic messages in what's written on this t-shirt, ones that I think the designers themselves are not fully conscious of.

  7. klu9 said,

    August 5, 2022 @ 11:56 am

    No regerts!
    Reminded me of an engineering business nearby that went by the name "Presicion".

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 9:27 pm

    "差不多 zhēn gòu jìn"
    arguably clevererer

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