Thursday, November 27, 2008


So what is the hottest fashion item in China these days? Well, from what I observed it is t-shirts and bags with sayings on them in English. Have you noticed that in the past several years Chinese characters have become very popular as decoration in the USA? They adorn fabric, wallpaper, jewelry, and yes, t-shirts. Do we as English speakers know what these particular combinations of characters mean? Uh… no. Indeed, it has occurred to me that though I am sporting a shirt with what appears to me to be a beautiful example of Chinese calligraphy; I could very well be wearing a shirt that has something quite funny or even offensive written on it.

This also appears to be the case in China where random words and phrases are used as fashion statements. Sometimes they kind of make sense, like our guide Tracy wore one that said ”Dearly Wish To Be Perfect”. But mostly the words appear to be quite arbitrary and either makes no sense at all or could just be poor translations of what is trying to be communicated. Here are a few examples: “Baby Bumpy” and “Passion Active” and “Golden Snow” and “The Cute End Hopes To Be”. Here are a couple that another mom that traveled with us remember: “Hot Wind Life” with a picture of shoes and “Army Life” which was wrapped around a smiley face. (Thanks Love S.!)

Teddy bears are also quite popular on t-shirts, and not just for women. At the Chengdu airport was spotted one middle aged man sporting a black t-shirt with a large rhinestone teddy bear on it with the following statement: “BEAR 400% BRICK”…..alrighty then. Again thanks to the other mom Love S. who not only remembered the exact wording but looked it up and discovered that Be@rBrick is actually a toy popular in China and that the percent sign means the size of the bear (to find out more click here. Funny thing is that I saw these all over the place while we were there and even brought home a small one with an opera face painted on it. So I guess that t-shirt made sense after all.

I truly wish that I had been faster with my camera and had captured more examples, but since the shirts we saw were usually on people walking in the opposite direction on the street, it was difficult. Far be it from me to have chased down some innocent Chinese person in pursuit of reading their shirt. Can you imagine the headline? “Crazy Foreigner Yells To Be Watching The Shirt!” The article probably would have gone on to say that I had fallen flat on my face in my pursuit, certainly that would most likely have happened owing to my ever present graceful abilities, I do seem to have a flair for falling.

Menus were also a good source for literal translations gone awry. One restaurant we ate at, which turned out to have really delicious food, had a very interesting menu. Here are a few examples of dishes and their translations into English: “The Black Pepper Sheet Iron of the Fillet Steak Burns” and “The Fatty Cow Sheet Iron of the Type Pickles Burns” and my personal favorite: “The American Carbon Roasts a Cowboy Row to Burn” Hmmmm, I am guessing that charred meat is involved somehow in each of these dishes. Then on another page of the menu there was “Sleeping The Pepper Fries Cow” and “The Bacon Fries a Cabbage”. I am thinking about turning a couple of these into t-shirts of my own on my Café Press site! Quite attention grabbing, don’t you think?

Translating Chinese into English I am sure must be very difficult, for one thing one must take characters that convey whole words or even concepts in Chinese and translate them into letters that form words in English. It’s gotta be tough. If you want your English name translated into Chinese, say you want a chop made ( a “chop” is a stamp or seal carved into stone), the sales person whips out a translation dictionary and looks up the sounds of your name. The combined sounds could end up as a jumble of words that make no sense or a combination that means something quite bizarre and amusing. On my first trip to China I had a chop made for a friend who’s first name is Bernard. The young woman at the shop pulled out her battered dictionary and looked up the sounds of “ber” and “nard” and proptly started to giggle. “What is it?” I asked. At first she just shook her head, but I persisted. She told me that those sounds translated into something like ‘stinky old uncle’. “Perfect!” I cried, for indeed, this name for Bernie was spot on and he being a person with a great sense of humor, would appreciate the merriment at his expense.

Signs translated into English were much appreciated by us while traveling; it is very kind of the Chinese to even think of us and our need to know where we are as English speakers. We saw this sign at the temple where they did not want you taking photos inside, it read: ‘Don’t Burn Incense and Film In The Hall’. And when we arrived at the Han Mei Lin Museum, the sign directing us where to park read ‘paking’ and was elegantly engraved into stone markers. Perhaps this one had been translated by someone who had visited Boston?

I will be forever grateful that Coca Cola was more readily available for this most recent trip to China, I so very much craved the stuff back in 2001 but couldn’t find it anywhere. This time there was Coke and Pepsi and even diet Coke, yippee! In fact, Coca Cola was first sold in China in 1927, it was then that shop keepers who sold the new drink attempted to transliterate the name into Mandarin and created home-made signs with characters that were the nearest phonetic equivalent to “Coca-Cola" without regard to the meaning and ended up with a product called “bite the wax tadpole” or in another case “female horse fastened with wax.” Doesn’t sound too refreshing does it? So The Coca Cola Company got busy mighty quick in trying to find suitable characters that approximated the sound of their product without it meaning something totally absurd. The closest Mandarin equivalent that fit the bill was “K'o K'ou K'o Lê” and means “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.” Much better than tadpoles and wax, no? So obviously, the translation problems run both ways.

We searched in vain to find some of these English translation t-shirts while we were in China, but apparently we didn’t know where to shop, and we did go into just about every back alley we saw. However, we did purchase many t-shirts with Chinese writing on them as souvenirs. And no, I don’t have any idea what they say, although BFF Pegeen did try and get someone to translate them while we were there and was just told “it’s okay, it’s okay, nothing bad.” Sure hope we don’t discover otherwise someday while wearing one!



Jenna said...

My favorite example of this from China was a huge tote bag with a picture of Snoopy on it...except what it said under his picture was "Spoony". That one kills me!
With your love for funny language, I think you'd really like the Hawaiian language. The trick is to pronounce every single letter you see. Their pidgin is amazing...I can actually understand it now! It's funny how one added word can change the meaning so much. For instance: "Pau" (pronounced pow) means "done" or "finished". Like: "I'm pau with this meal". "Pau Hana" means the workday is done...but really means "let's go get drunk". Seriously! ;)

kim said...

Very funny! I know what you mean about wondering what my Chinese t-shirt symbols or jewelry means. I want to see your hair (previous blog)! Come on girl - take a picture and post it