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Archive for November, 2009

猪肝面

猪肝面

Originally uploaded by gacorley

This happened to me a while ago, but I was recently reminded of it:

几个星期以前,我去一个学校旁边的小饭馆吃饭。我已经吃过菜单上的能看懂的菜,所以我就点了一个不清楚的。我点的是”猪肝面“,因为我知道”猪“是什么意思,还有我很喜欢吃面条,可是我不知道”肝”是什么。看到那个字,我知道有一个肉字旁,所以我知道是一种器官或身体部分,还有因为偏旁(干)我知道怎么念,可是什么身体部分我不知道。

A few weeks ago, I went to a little noodle restaurant near our school. I had already eaten those items I could read on the menu, so I ordered something I wasn’t quite sure of. What I ordered was 猪肝面 (zhu gan mian). I knew what 猪 meant (‘pig, pork’) and I like to eat noodles (面), but I didn’t know what 肝 was. Looking at the character, I noticed it had a “meat” radical so I knew it was an organ or a part of the body, and I knew how to pronounce it (gan) because of the phonetic element 干, but I didn’t know what part of the body it was.

我和朋友在谈这件事,希望不是那么奇怪的东西。旁边的桌子有两个中国姑娘,其中有一个会说英语。会说英语的姑娘听到我们的谈话,想了一会然后告诉我们”It’s the liver of the pig.” 不久以后服务员端来了一碗猪肝面,我一下子发现很好吃。现在我常常去那家饭馆吃猪肝面。

I talked about this with my friends, hoping it wasn’t something too strange. At the table beside us were to Chinese women, one of them could speak English. The one who could speak English heard us, thought for a moment and then told me “It’s the liver of the pig.” Not long after that, the waitress brought my 猪肝面, and unexpectedly I found it very good. Now I often go to that restaurant to have some pork-liver noodles.

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When learning another language, you will ultimately come upon words that are difficult to translate. This isn’t because of some magical insight or a concept that "English just doesn’t have", it just comes from that different people will express things in different ways, and because of this different phrases and constructions become popular. In some cases, those terms can get borrowed, though even in borrowings meaning sometimes change (which gives me an idea for another post). And less closely related languages and languages coming from far separated cultures are likely to have more of these differences.

Chinese, of course, is full of terms that don’t have a clean English translation. You could write a book on chengyu (成语), the literary idioms that appear often in print and occasionaly in speech (in fact, I hear there are chengyu dictionaries), or about the poetic dish names seen on many Chinese menus. Some of these interest me enough that I want to borrow them, either because they seem to fit into a broad space covered by many different English words or because they cover culture-specific ideas that aren’t as easy to deal with using native terms. Here are a few of those terms:

1 事(情) "shi4(qing2)" Often glossed as "matters", "affairs", or "buisiness". 事情 is basically stuff that you do, or that occupies your time. For example, if someone asks you to dinner, but you have other things to do (you have to work, study, see another friend, etc.) one response is 我有事 "I have shi", or 我有事情要做 "I have stuff to do". Shiqing can be used in other ways as well. Asking 什么事? "What shi?" is basically equivalent to "What’s up?" (In the more serious sense of "What’s wrong?" or "What do you need?", this isn’t an acceptable greeting, but that’s another post.) So in a way, it’s not just abstract stuff that you do (work, school, etc), but also abstract stuff that affects you.

2 境况 "jing4kuang4" Literally "circumstances" or "state of affairs". This is notable not so much in it’s meaning (which translates fairly well), but in usage. Chinese seems to use it a lot more than English, making a literal translation sound more formal than it actually is. One speech topic in my kouyu book was 说你家里的境况 "Talk about your family circumstances." Translated literally, that sounds like a psychologist’s question about family relationships, but in this instance it was really just basic information: How many siblings/children? What do your parents do? Where do you fall in the family tree? etc.

3 厉害 "li4hai" This is a favorite term for a lot of foreigners. When you look up 厉害 in a bilingual dictionary, some of the first translations are "difficult", "terrible", or "hard to deal with", which confused me slightly the first time a Chinese told me 你很厉害. in reality the meaning is much broader, basically just "extreme" in whatever way makes sense according to the context. So a test that is lihai is probably very difficult, but for a person it could be they are very talented, smart, or athletic depending on what exactly you are complementing. For instance, I have met an Australian guy here who speaks Mandarin fluently (to the point that he can tell funny stories and people laugh — I can’t do that) and knows several forms of martial arts. He is lihai.

4 功夫 "gong1fu" Everyone knows Kung Fu refers to Chinese martial arts. However, in Chinese the meaning of gongfu is much, much broader than that. It actually means "skill" or "hard work". For instance, you may hear a Chinese person say 我花了很多功夫… "I spent a lot of gongfu…" to mean that it took a lot of effort to reach whatever goal he was reaching for. You can also talk about your "soccer gongfu" (足球功夫) or "calligraphy gongfu" (书画功夫), or any other skill that must be improved through lots of time and effort (as such, Linux Kung Fu seems to use the term in the Chinese sense).

5 关系 "guan1xi1" Most people familar with China and Chinese culture already use this term. Literally it translates as "relationship", but when borrowed it’s usually used for a more specific meaning something like "connections". I think all cultures have some concept of using connections or personal relationships to get things, but in Chinese culture it has a certain emphasis, partly stemming from the importance of interpersonal relationships in Confucian philosophy and partly because of a society that still lacks somewhat in government services and rule of law.

6 华侨 "hua2qiao2" "Chinese diaspora" or "overseas Chinese". -桥 can be added to any single-character nationality (and maybe some phonetic multi-character ones) to refer to people from that country or with ancestry from that country living in other parts of the world. Many of the friends I have made here are huaqiao, raised in Germany, Italy, or the US but born to Chinese parents. Some of them are more Chinese and others are more German, Italian, etc, for various reasons.

7 方言 "fang1yan2" Often translated as "dialect", though I have read an interesting argument for translating it as "topolect" instead. It most commonly is used to refer to the "regional dialects", or rather the various Chinese languages and their local variants in different cities. The reason I bring up the "topolect" translation is that if you mention a fangyan you’re probably referring to a particular place. Not as many people will know about Wu or Min than know about Shanghainese or Suzhouhua (both variants of Wu), or Fujianese or Taiwanese (Min variants).

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Via Danwei:

Obama’s "townhall" meeting with Shanghai youth will be streamed live on the Internet at the following URLs: whitehouse.gov/liveamerica.gov/mgck and apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive.

Check it out!

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I’m a little late in talking about this, word is recently that the Ministry of Culture has admonished the General Administration of Press and Publications for blocking the latest expansion of World of Warcraft in China.

A little background: Fully half of WoW’s userbase is in China, about 5 million players, and has penetrated the culture enough that there is even a WoW-themed restaurant in Beijing. Earlier this year Blizzard switched it’s local operations from The9 to NetEase, causing a long server outage. Later GAPP suspended operations in China, citing "gross violations". WoW has had trouble in China before, having been required to flesh out skeletons*, change the color of blood, and even hide skulls in icons and models behind bags or boxes, and the second expansion, "Wrath of the Lich King", was initially rejected because of "a city raid** and skeleton characters". You can argue about how damaging a cartoon skeleton may or may not be on young gamer’s minds (and most of WoW really is a cartoon, nothing in the game is terribly realistic in it’s art style), but there’s always suspicions about ulterior motives, especially considering that limits have been put on overall foreign investment in gaming.

Now the Ministry of Culture has publicly accused GAPP of "overstepping it’s authority". Public feuds between government departments in China isn’t a common practice, but it’s not the first time the Internet has inspired this sort of infighting: The recent Green Dam project, which would have required all computers sold in China to come with some particularly awful and virus-prone filtering software, was openly criticised in Communist Party news outlets and was eventually abandoned mostly due to popular pressure and revelations about the actual flaws in the software.

In any case, the ban on WoW, like many internet regulations in China, isn’t too hard to skirt. It’s always been possible to connect to foreign game servers in China (I’ve done so to check mail on characters, etc. on US servers), so at times when WoW has been unavailable, many Chinese gamers moved to Taiwanese servers to play.

*A small note: I have asked several Chinese friends why skeletons are particularly targeted for censorship in China. So far I haven’t gotten any real answers. I had been wondering if there was some specific cultural reason for this, or whether it was one of those cases where the moral authorities have an odd focus on one particular thing (such as when the FCC back home allows large amounts of blood and gore to appear on television, both real [in news reports] and fake [watch some of the earlier Heroes episodes], but under no circumstances may you show female breasts or utter taboo words without editing them out.) Also, one friend noted that skeletons do appear in Chinese media — not sure where that is.

**Avid WoW players know exactly which city raid they are talking about, of course. I presume anyone else reading this doesn’t particularly care 😛

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