Bilingual bricks: Google as "Valley Song"

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Here is a closeup of a remarkable work of installation art that is being shown at this year's Venice Biennale:

There is a short article on this thought-provoking work in Art & Science Journal. Written by Lea Hamilton and entitled "Lost in Translation: Shu Yong’s Guge Bricks", it includes five exceptionally clear photographs.

Anita Hackethal has written a brief essay about the artist and his work: "shu yong: great wall of guge bricks at the china pavilion". Since Hackethal's essay is both informative and illuminating, plus being well illustrated, I quote here the opening two paragraphs:

in his installation for the venice art biennale 2013, chinese artist shu yong constructs a sculptural reflection on the divide between eastern and western values and the 'googlization' of culture in contemporary society. yong solicited 1500 different maxims, quotations, mottos, and popular phrases from fellow chinese citizens and translated them word by word into english using google. he then wrote both the chinese and corresponding english literal translation for each selection in calligraphy onto a piece of xuan rice paper, which was embedded into an individual transparent brick of cast resin, shaped to the proportions of those in the great wall of china.

the resulting mass of 1500 'guge' bricks forms a solid wall in the exhibition courtyard, before crumbling into disorder at one side. they are an artifact to a particular moment in time and culture, where newly popular circulated words join traditional quotations before all are subjected to machine translation that jumbles and displaces their significance: 'into a new era' and 'marching towards science' join 'garlic you cheap' and 'boy crisis' in the translated english. shu yong finds these bricks a fitting metaphor for the ways that eastern and western cultures remain divided: even in the age of globalization and realtime communications, the transparent wall will remind us to confront the hidden 'walls' between different countries, nations, and individuals. at the same time, the chinese public's inclusion of words like 'photobomb' among the bricks is a reminder of cross-cultural influences.

In case you were wondering, "guge" is the Chinese transcription of "Google": Gǔgē 谷歌 (lit., "Valley Song"). However, since we're dealing with simplified characters in the PRC, Gǔgē 谷歌 conceivably could also mean "Grain Song", but I don't think that's what Google intended. The simplified character gǔ 谷 ("valley; grain") collapses two traditional characters, gǔ 谷 ("valley") and gǔ 穀 ("grain") into one. This is the same type of problem that led to the monumental confusion between "dry" and "f*ck", which we have covered in this and other posts on Language Log.

[h.t. Petya Andreeva]


  1. Spencer said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

    so in Chinese, whenever its translate a name its doesn't really have meaning. It's just a romanization for English, so for example of Google (谷歌 ). you can't really directly translated to(Valley Song) because its doesn't make sense, we use it just because 谷歌 (Guge) sounds like google.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 5:24 pm


    That's not "romanization", it's transcription.

    Many, if not most, foreign companies try to pick a transcriptional name that has a felicitous meaning in Chinese, e.g., Bǎishìkělè 百事可乐 (Pepsi Cola, lit., "everything pleasurable") and Kěkǒukělè 可口可乐 (Coca Cola, lit., "palatable and pleasurable").

  3. hanmeng said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

    Let's not forget “bite the wax tadpole”:

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 6:16 am


    Obviously, "bite the wax tadpole" didn't prevail over "palatable and pleasurable"!

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 6:32 am

    I was waiting for someone else to make this point, but traffic on the LL highways is slow on the weekend, and the point is of sufficient importance that it needs to be made before too much time passes. Namely, one of the symbolic messages of this powerful work of art is that Google, through language and technology, is breaking down the Great Firewall (and other walls) that have been erected around China. The DEMOLITION (chāi 拆) of the wall is not as direct and violent as that employed in the destruction of old homes in Chinese cities and towns during the past twenty years or so, yet it is happening — slowly but surely.

  6. Mike Rogers said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    There's a brick to the lower right that translates "beard engineering". A quick search revealed that there's a company in the UK called "Beard Engineering"; that it is advertised as a 'metal machining service' leads me to believe that 'Beard' is a surname. Google Translate tells me the Chinese suggests the engineering of facial hair. Is this another example of a transcriptional name, or is there a culture of sculpting facial hair that's large enough to warrant its own brick?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    @Mike Rogers

    I noticed that brick too, and I thought that many Language Log readers would be puzzled by it. "Beard engineering / project" is actually a fairly common expression in China. I will explain momentarily what it means.

    First, húzi 胡子 really does mean "beard" and gōngchéng 工程 means "engineering; engineering project; project; undertaking", hence húzi gōngchéng 胡子工程 may be translated literally as "beard engineering / project".

    Húzi gōngchéng 胡子工程 refers to a prolonged, drawn-out, delayed project, one where those responsible fail to meet deadlines.

    The expression "húzi gōngchéng 胡子工程" is often used as a criticism of state-owned industry, which has a reputation for being highly inefficient

  8. Jerimiah said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    I would definitely agree that Google is having an effect on breaking down boundaries, but things like 斤斤计较 getting translated as preoccupied are still markers of how much remains to be done. Any thoughts on how that could have possibly happened?

    I do believe that one day there might be effective automatic translation, but that day will be far, far in the future. I applaud Google's efforts for making free (if questionable) translation available, nonetheless.

  9. Theodore said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 11:42 am

    So is "beard engineering" the kind of project that takes so long you grow a beard? Or is it the kind of project led by men with beards?

  10. Matt said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

    Was there originally a different Chinese word for "cola" that has now been swept away before Big Cola's "可乐"? (Or do two words coexist, so that generic cola and *-Cola aren't even obviously the same flavor?)

  11. JS said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    Qì​shuǐ(r) 汽水 means 'soda', but don't know if it antedates kě​lè 可乐 or if so by how much…

  12. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 4:28 am

    @hanmeng: the bite the wax tadpole story never happened. Check your sources.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 5:33 am


    I answered your question about "beard engineering" very clearly in my previous comment.

  14. JS said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    @Alon Lischinsky:
    I would be interested to learn it "never happened," but the article you link (which echoes hanmeng's) does say that early, non-sanctioned renderings of the brand name "conveyed nonsensical meanings [like] 'bite the wax tadpole'." Still need a real source, of course… closest I can find is an undergraduate thesis at Shanghai Normal U. offering koukenkela 口啃蝌蜡 (mouth-nibble-tadpole-wax) as such a transcription; others suggest kekoukela 嗑口蝌蠟 (crack w/ teeth-mouth-tadpole-wax). Don't know how much of this is more than speculation, but it would almost be stranger if this tale had no truth to it at all…

  15. Kevin McCready said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    Speaking of traffic on the LL highways, I tweeted @LanguageLog 16Sep asking "is there a way to get updates on Victor Mair posts only?"

    I haven't heard back.

    Wondering, Victor, if you can help.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    @Kevin McCready

    Sorry, I don't know how that might be done. I have to go into each of my posts from time to time to see if any new comments have been added.

  17. Janet Williams said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 3:01 am

    I recently fell in love with Bing Translator as it accurately conveyed the concept of 赔钱货 (péi qián huò ) as: 1) A money-losing proposition, and 2) Girl; daughter. I used the term in my Letters from China: Part 10 post. The quality of the translation amazed me and I therefore ranked Bing slightly higher than Google. On Bing, 斤斤计较 is translated as Haggle.

  18. Janet Williams said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 5:40 am

    Out of interest, I found that Bing Translator translated 胡子工程 as Beard works and “beard-growing” project; prolonged project.

    It does look like Bing is quite responsive with cultural issues in its translation. It's worth watching.

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