Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fun with translation

Our various guides have been trying, with very limited success, to teach us bits and pieces of Mandarin. I've heard before that it's a complicated language, but hadn't really grasped how complicated before now. The main complicating factor is the inflection -- Mandarin has five distinct inflections or tones-- rising, high, high rising, low-falling rising, and high-falling. For instance, the word "ma" can mean mother, hemp, horse, scold, or be a question marker, depending on the tone. Hence one could plausibly say "Jeeze, Mom, can you get off my ass about the horse? I'm trying to toke down here" by just repeating the same syllable five times.

I learned today that because of tonal ambiguities of the word "nihau," I have probably been walking around sayng "Bird!" to people all week instead of "hello." It could be so much worse.

I am comforted in my ignorance by the fact that the Chinese have some serious issues translating English, particularly on signs. They're good word-for-word, it's just stringing them together and especially idiom. "This is a civil place!" proclaimed the sign at the museum today, and indeed it was, despite my presence. "Do not write on the Great Wall arbitrarily!" exhorted a sign at the Great Wall, the sort of rule that is every defense lawyer's dream. A store we passed was called "Modern Bosom Friend," which would be a great Tom Hanks remake vehicle. And, in the category of strange signs that I am going to Hell for even mentioning, two days ago the breakfast buffet had a dish labeled "Pork My Lai." If it makes you sick, Nixon will commute your dysentery to a mild headache two days later.

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