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Fucking Stationery

John’s got some nice examples of local stationery products up in his latest post at Sinosplice.

Children’s notebooks are particularly good comedy value here, combining as they do bizarre Pokey the Penguin-type illustrations with excellent specimens of Chinglish translated and typeset by guerrilla Dadaists. (One of my six year-old students back in Harbin had a notebook that bore the legend “YOU WALKE DDOWN THE AlSLE WEARING NO THING BUTA SMILE AND LOOKED JUST LIKE AN ANGLE.” A ruler in the school supply store across the street bore the words “SATURDAY NIGHT JUICY FEVER.”)
The first picture John has up in his post is a capital example of this:

notebook01

Leaving aside the question of how the designers of the notebook heard about my nickname, I thought it might be fun to talk about how this sentence probably came into being, and how one gets from the strange-but-not-actually-offensive 土豆,你想干什么?(“Potato, what are you trying to do?”) to “Soil bean you want to fuck what?”

The boring part first: “soil bean” is just a character-for-character transliteration of 土豆, “potato.”

I’ve more or less gotten over Chinglish, I think — I’ve certainly generated more than my share of malaprop Chinese, and fair’s fair — but some things are just always funny, and one of those is the word 干.
干 has a range of meanings (partly since it now has to play the role of three separate characters), but the two most common are “dry” and “to do,” which have the two readings gān and gàn respectively. The fourth-tone reading, “to do,” can also mean “to screw,” and so it is not as uncommon as you might think to see supermarkets advertising “fuck goods” when they mean ‘dried goods,’ or better yet, gluepots promoting sex and drugs. An acquaintance once dissolved a roomful of people into helpless cackling with a bottle of shampoo that advised the user to “with towel, to lightly fuck the hair.” Two years later, it still makes me happy whenever I think of it.

Anyway, the problem word here is 干, but that doesn’t answer the question of why it is so commonly rendered inappropriately. I personally quite like the idea of some shadowy cabal of guerrilla mistranslators being responsible for the cavalcade of fucking in English signage and packaging here, but if I’m going to be honest with myself I suppose I have to admit that I don’t really believe this to be the case.

There are several competing theories. One, proposed by Victor Mair, is that the mistranslation arose from a misreading of the handwritten word “PUSH.” There’s a certain kind of baroque, Rube Goldberg-esque elegance to the theory, but it strikes me as extremely implausible. I got into the discussion over at Language Log with my own theory, which is that there is, somewhere, a machine-translation program that in some cases maps 干 to “fuck,” perhaps in cases where it’s trying to construct a sentence with a verb. I have no evidence for this at all — just the assumptions that:

(1) By now, everybody on the planet knows at least the words “fuck,” “OK,” and “Coca-Cola.”
and
(2) This is not a mistake that any human being would make, but it does seem to be the kind of weirdness that machine translation is so excellent at generating.

Another Language Log reader disagreed, positing instead that people are just looking at dictionaries of “colloquial English” and picking the first entry for 干 that they find, but I’m not convinced.

Anyway, back to the topic of stationery. I at one point had a great set of “HAPPY RAT” notebooks. There wasn’t much in the way of Chinglish (other than the standard “thls hlgh-qu altTy notebook will make you want to wrlte wlth lt a11 thetlm e”), but the covers featured drawings of the eponymous Happy Rat happily engaged in his ratty studies, and also running away (but still Happy) from poorly drawn objects that were either ghosts or unhappy amoebae. There wasn’t any fucking, but they were still excellent notebooks.

Update 12/10: See, I told you so.

7 Comments

  1. Micah Sittig wrote:

    I’m with you on the machine-translation theory. It’s gotta be the same program that changes 休闲 into “lie fallow” and 火锅 into “chafing pot”.

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Juhuacha wrote:

    Actually, I think that you are on to something with the “shadowy cabal of guerrilla mistranslators” as I know someone who used to translate stuff for some pen company in Japan (where he had to be more clever with the mistranslations as there was a better basic level of English there).

    Either way, I bet that they have a cool gang sign.

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  3. John wrote:

    Your theory makes the most sense to me. It’s the same program people in Guangdong use to create those crazy subtitles, translated back into English from Chinese.

    The one you’ve got pictured here is my new Spanish notebook. :)

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  4. Paul King wrote:

    I also agree that it might be because of machine translation. I just wonder what kind of program always renders the word 干 into ‘fuck’, because that’s far from its most common meaning.

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  5. juan luis Garcia wrote:

    It´s hard,,,right ???
    I´m a japanese translator myself….
    Anyway,,,I was sending you this post to tell you about something else…

    Why don´t you monetise your blog and try to make some money with it ???

    If you have a great deal of visits and even if you don´t ….you could use an affiliate program like selling posters and art prints…. they give 25-30% of the sales done through your site….

    If you´re interested,,,do let me know,, and I´ll send you the link…

    Friday, November 2, 2007 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  6. danjo wrote:

    The guy who runs The Chinglish Files (http://www.chinglish.de/) has been talking about the causes of these mistranslations lately, including his latest post. And there is a great post/picture involving “fuck” back on July 5th (having trouble directly linking to posts on that site).

    Monday, November 5, 2007 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  7. Feds wrote:

    I don’t know, I think over-40 types would not know what the word ‘fuck’ meant. Or anyone from outside the main cities who might end up with lame translation jobs. And a machine would probably default to the first meaning of the word, which likely is ‘dry’.

    All this makes for lots of hilarity. And a lot of advertisers looking like dorks.

    Thursday, November 8, 2007 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. New Notebooks | Sinosplice: Life in China on Monday, October 29, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    […] Brendan has a good post on how English like in the top notebook above comes to […]

  2. Pure-Essence.Net » Chinglish on Saturday, November 10, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    […] Chinglish explained and more Chinglish. […]

  3. 博客李淼 » Chinglish和其它 on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 1:43 am

    […] 鉴于mirror同学提到了含蓄,我决定还是含蓄一点,将F-word中的一个字母去掉,就像Newsweek这些杂志喜欢做的那样-当然这样很装。为了补偿,我给出那篇老美文章的链接。 […]

  4. […] recently wrote a post in which he discusses the possible origins of offensive translations of the word 干. He strongly […]

  5. […] so frequently translated as “fuck” in inappropriate situations, while John Pasden and Brendan O’Kane have blogged about related cases recently as […]

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