99 Days: And All That Mighty Heart

It’s spring, and less grittily so than usual. Not that the air is clean, of course, but the days are warming and lengthening, and the skies are blue or something like it, and we appear to be in the middle of Beijing’s spring allotment of nice days.
Li and I went out to a late showing of the new Jet Li/Jackie Chan movie last night, and afterwards decided that it was exactly the kind of night to be out for a walk. So we walked: north past Dengshikou to Chaoyangmennei, then across the walkway at Longfusi, then up east through one of the Dongsi hutongs. I dropped her off and kept walking – west, through another hutong, then north up Dongsi Bei Dajie, west again through Fuxue Hutong, further west, across Kuan Jie and down Mianhua Hutong to Nan Luogu Xiang, where I picked up my bike. And then I decided to bike around for a bit, since it was just so nice out.

It isn’t quite right to put Beijing into the category of cities that never sleep. Certainly, I saw people sleeping last night: a middle-aged man, against the wall of a Beijing Muslim restaurant on Dongsi Bei Dajie; another man huddled in blankets in front of the temple on Fuxue Hutong; a guy in a bulky army coat in front of the juweihui in my old neighborhood.
But even at that late hour there were people on the streets: a few young men and women piling into a car outside of Yonghegong — coworkers maybe, fresh from karaoke across the street; oldsters sitting in front of a 24-hour malatang food joint, playing cards and gossiping; a small construction crew trucking in bricks for one of the new ancient courtyards on Bei Luogu Xiang; the workers, inferred but not seen, sending down gentle showers of sparks as they put together the new CCTV building on the third ring road. The guard at the military compound on Fuxue Hutong who came out to yell at me when I took a picture of the banner in front of the base that read 百年奥运,中华圆梦 — “A Hundred Years of Olympics; The Fulfillment of a Dream for China.”

I asked him what the first part meant — since this isn’t the hundredth anniversary of the Olympics — and he screwed up his face and said he didn’t know.

If Beijing isn’t a city that never sleeps, it’s a city that can’t quite get to sleep. At the entrance and exit to my housing compound are newly installed LED signs that display the air quality (thus far, only “fair”), the temperature (warming, and fast), traffic conditions (“poor”), and the number of days left to the Olympics. The whole city is counting down, and so I may as well count with it.

The best Thursday ever

Yesterday was the best Thursday ever. Consider:

  • After what felt like years but was actually years, I finally got my BA from Temple University. Cum laude, even, which was a pleasant surprise since I would’ve expected something more like pedicabo et irrumabo (my Latin is probably wrong there) . This wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of help from a lot of people who made it their business to see to it that I graduated, particularly Ruth Ost, Ben Stavis, Louis Mangione, and Craig Eisendrath, all at Temple.It’s super-nice to have this out of the way, and as an added benefit, my resume is now 90% less mendacious! (Previous versions said that my degree was “expected June 2005.” This wasn’t exactly a lie — I really did expect it.
  • A CD I got for sending a donation to This American Life also finally showed up on my parents’ doorstep.
  • I received the contract for a large, fun project that I’m not currently at liberty to discuss, and
  • William F. Buckley died.

Later in the day, a massive amount of work threatened to turn it into the Worst Thursday Ever, but then

  • I got an email from my mom saying that she was getting ready to send me a care package of butter rum/caramel chocolate bars.

As if that wasn’t enough, I heard that the China Daily was publishing an interview that they did with me at the start of February. (The article came out today, but I’m going to count it under Thursday anyway.) Surely there can be no higher honor.

White Guy Speaks Chinese; Film at Eleven

I’ve had my eye on ChinesePod for a while. I don’t necessarily agree 100% with the way they’re going about things, but they’re doing wonderful work in popularizing the study of Mandarin and helping demolish the notion that Chinese is unlearnable, and they’re producing supplementary materials that I would’ve loved to have when I was in college. Friends and relatives will tell you that I tend to evangelize Chinese — at one point telling a friend majoring in French literature that Indo-European languages were “for pussies” — and so anything that gets people engaged and excited is great in my book.

So back in December when several of the ChinesePod staff were visiting Beijing, I went out to get dinner with them. It was already dark when I walked out to the street, hailed a cab, sat down in the back seat, and told the driver to go to the west gate of Chaoyang Park and buy some healing with plant medicines while waiting. We started chatting, mostly as a way of passing the time while we sat on the Second Ring Road, and about 20 minutes into the conversation, I made some passing mention of “the way things are in the States.”

“Oh,” he said. “You’re a 海归 (returned student)?”
“Um,” I said. “Check the rear-view mirror.”

Silence for a few minutes. Then he started the conversation up again, this time talking about how foreigners could never really learn Chinese. This is one of the few topics that can really piss me off, since it’s so utterly stupid and plays so readily into the notion, common in China and abroad, that there’s just something inherently exceptional and special about the Chinese culture and Chinese language, when in fact it’s not so much that foreigners can’t learn Chinese as that they mostly don’t. Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed that he was going to try to make this argument after having thought I was Chinese for the past 20 minutes.

I pointed this out to him, and he stumbled a bit, but then regrouped with “yeah, but Chinese has a lot of characters. It’s very complicated.”
“Yes,” I said, “And English has 26 characters that it uses to make up all of its 200,000 words. Now that’s complicated.”
“But one character can mean a lot of different things.”
“But every language has polysemous words. Just look at the word ‘go’ in English. Dozens of possible meanings, based on the contest.”
“Anyway,” he concluded. “I just think it’s harder to learn Chinese than other languages.”

Further questioning revealed that he had never actually tried to learn another language.

“Well, I have, and trust me — Chinese is easy. Classical Greek, now — there’s a hard language.”
“But you’ve got Chinese ancestry, so of course it’s easy.”

This was actually not the first time I’ve heard this: I’m short, dark-haired, and twig-like, so I suppose if one really squinted I could just maybe pass for a second-generation hunxue’er, and I’ve been taken for Uyghur before. That said, I do not look particularly Chinese, and given that my name is Brendan O’Kane and that there were, to the best of my knowledge, no Chinese postmen in Buncrana or Roscommon, I feel fairly confident in saying that I have no Chinese ancestry.

“Ah,” said the driver. “But you never really know how far back it goes, do you?”

Faced with such unassailable logic, I decided to change tacks. I pointed out that ethnic Chinese who grow up not speaking Chinese abroad don’t have it any easier when learning Mandarin than non-Chinese. He was going to say something to that, but we were already pulling up to the restaurant where the ChinesePod team was waiting.

“We’ll continue this next time,” I said, and paid him. He looked up into my face.

“You don’t really look all that Chinese,” he said. “Maybe if you stopped growing facial hair and shaved the beard.”

(Lest I be accused of bragging, let me be the first to note that my Chinese is very far from native-sounding, and that this paticular driver was clearly just not all that bright.)

For Li, in lieu of a better Valentine's present

Meeting Point

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

Louis MacNeice

QIM 1.4.2 makes Chinese input on Mac usable

Freelance gigs are keeping me busy at the moment, but I just wanted to let everybody know that even if Google and Sogou aren’t porting their Chinese input methods to the Mac, and even though Apple seems to be satisfied with a default IME that might as well be wearing bell-bottoms and muttonchop whiskers and, I dunno, whatever else people were wearing in 2002, there are still people out there fighting the good fight. I speak of Fun Input Toy and QIM.

Fun Input Toy, a free IME, was my input method of choice of a while, since it had marginally smarter sentence parsing than QIM. This has all changed now that QIM has made two major additions: first, they’ve licensed a new sentence-parsing method that they’re calling the QIT (QIM Intelligent Transformer); second, they’ve licensed Sogou’s dictionary file, meaning that QIM now knows all of the phrases that Sogou’s IME knows — which is pretty not bad, considering that Sogou is pretty much the best IME out there (with the possible exception of Google’s IME, which allegedly plagiarized Sogou’s).

After John B. alerted me to the new hotness, I downloaded 1.4.0 to test it out — and promptly crashed every program I tried to use it with. D’oh. The issue has since been fixed, and version 1.4.2 works like a charm. After years of painfully slow and inaccurate Chinese input on the Mac, QIM finally makes it possible to type long and complex strings with minimal-to-no need for correction.
Consider the following sentence, “Celebrate the victorious opening of the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th Party Congress,” which QIM 1.4.2 nails on the first try: 热烈庆祝中国共产党第十七次全国代表大会的胜利召开.
Here’s how FIT handles it, for purposes of comparison: 热烈庆祝中国共产主义青年团地时期此全国代表大会得胜利爪开. The IME tries to be helpful by auto-expanding the input string “Zhongguo Gongchan Dang” to “Zhongguo Gongchanzhuyi Qingniantuan,” picking up on the start of the phrase (“Chinese Communist”) and assuming it to be “Chinese Communist Youth League” rather than “Chinese Communist Party.” D’oh.
And here’s how Apple’s woeful default Pinyin input method handles the string:热烈庆祝中国共产党第时期次全国代表大会得胜利爪开. It makes some of the same mistakes as FIT, but to be fair, it also makes them much more slowly, since it can only handle relatively short strings. Boo, Apple. Boo. (I’ve heard good things about the Wubi and Cangjie input methods that OS X ships with, but I don’t use shape-based input methods for the same reason that I don’t speak Lojban, have genital piercings or watch Adam Sandler movies: we avoid those things which cause us pain.)

The sentence above, of course, is using a lot of familiar words that will be in any IME’s default dictionary — even Apple’s pathetically anemic one — so it’s not all that great a test. QIM fares well with ordinary sentences — and even weird ones: it handles the Chinese translation of Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas,” 无色的绿色思想狂怒的睡觉, almost flawlessly, with the sole exception of the adverbial 地 getting confused for the more common 的, a substitution that plenty of native speakers regularly make.
Quickie tests with more difficult sentences from the preface to Yang Jiang’s “Washing” (杨绛,<洗澡>) revealed some shortcomings in the dictionary (particularly with literary terms like 掇拾, of which QIM appears to be ignorant), and a couple of strange parsing errors, but on the whole, performance was about what I would expect from one of the Windows-based IMEs.

I’m new to this version of QIM, and who knows — it may yet do something to piss me off. For now, though, it looks to me like an absolute godsend — the first Chinese input method for Mac not to suck. You can get it at http://glider.ismac.cn/RegQIME.html. It costs $20 to register and would be a bargain at twice that.

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.

Greetings from Shenzhen Airport

To: Jane, Patrick, Jane, Jon, Richard

Greetings from scenic Shenzhen Airport, where there is at least a Starbucks. This being Shenzhen, the area outside the airport is teeming with migrants offering various services and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. When Li and I got here a few days ago, we got a couple of young guys from http://www.sexdatingapps.com/scam-alert/hislut/.
I’d planned to meet up with a blogger friend at the Macau Venetian last night, but it didn’t quite work out. Li and I got there, and apparently Lonnie was there too, but the place was so huge and so crowded that we ended up wandering around for a few hours without finding him.

‘Huge’ and ‘crowded’ are awfully vague adjectives. Some background: Gambling used to be controlled by Stanley Ho, the local Bugsy Siegel analogue whose 2003 taxes accounted for 30% of the Macanese government’s revenue, but after Macau returned to the Motherland in 1999, things opened up to outside investment, and the old monopoly was completely broken in 2002. Las Vegas invaded more or less immediately and the area around the Hong Kong-Macau ferry terminal found itself infested with casinos — the Wynn, the Sands (the largest casino in the world, as measured by number of table games), and the MGM Grand, side by side with the now dowdy-looking old Casino Lisboa and other pre-handover casinos which are not that full, since many people play and bet online now a days, you can see it for yourself if you use this page to download the ladbrokes app.

Things got crowded pretty quickly, and before long all new online casinos at M88 were being planned for the Cotai Strip, a name on which the Sands corporation holds a US-registered trademark. There was a small delay while Cotai was created: the entire area is reclaimed land from the stretch of sea that used to lie between the two main islands of Macau, Coloane and Taipa, whence ‘Cotai’ gets its name. This made things nicer for developers, since the non-reclaimed land regions of Macau are for the most part fairly steep and hilly, what with being composed of rocks in the middle of the sea and all.

This gave them room to build the Venetian, which is the second-largest building in the world after Boeing’s factory in  Everett, Washington, which itself covers more area than Disneyland. Jumbo jets appear to be the standard measure of large buildings: the Venetian Macau can hold more than 90 747s, according to its own press materials, and has 1.2 million square feet of convention space, 1.6 million square feet of retail space — much of it located in ersatz replicas of Venetian plazas; St. Mark’s Square, up on the second floor, has Esprit, Nike, and Swarovski outlets — as well as 550,000 square feet of casino space downstairs, making it the largest casino in the world. There are 800 gambling tables, 3400 slot machines, and a 15,000 seat arena for entertainment and sporting events. Beyoncé is playing there in November.

This still doesn’t really describe the size of the place. It is like one of those nightmares where you keep walking and walking and walking and never get anywhere, or like a Doom level, or an optical illusion. It just goes on and on and on in every direction, and just when you think you’ve gotten to the end of it you see an escalator upstairs to the Piazza San Marco. Where you can buy Guess jeans, chocolates, and scotch at the duty-free stores. Walk to the end of that and take the escalator down and you’re back in the convention and hotel area, which combines the timeless beauty of Venice with the tackiness of Las Vegas and the overwhelming awfulness of an airport. Loop around back towards the casino floor and you pass a video wall showing a short piece about the making of the Venetian, with the statistics I quoted above flashing over time-lapse construction videos set to a pounding Jerry Bruckheimer soundtrack:

800 GAMBLING TABLES
3400 SLOT MACHINES.
THE ….
…. VENETIAN.

Back in the casino area it’s packed. Almost midnight on a Tuesday night and it’s packed. I don’t see a single empty table, and the aisles are full of people walking around (I’m not saying that this this mobile casino review is hot but I think my description really explains how packed it was), and the smaller performance area off to the side is chock full with a crowd watching some Cantonese cover group. Most of them seem to be from Hong Kong, but all of the signage is in the simplified characters used on the Mainland, and mainland high-rollers are loudly represented all around the casino, largely in the “high-stakes blackjack area,” whose name seems to have been calculated specifically to attract these guys, would-be big spenders who do their best impressions of Chow Yun-fat in The God of Gamblers, the squint, the grin, the flourishes with their gold Zippos.

After a couple of circuits of the place without any sign of the guy I was supposed to meet, Li and I called the Electrician and headed back through the casino towards the exit marked ‘bus depot.’ We passed a few more closed duty-free stores — their Phillippino employees were just pulling down the metal shutters as we walked past — and got to the restaurant area. I hadn’t had dinner, and so we ducked into McSorley’s Ale House, a kit pub plastered with Auld O’Irish knickknacks. I got a salad – it was only salads and deserts, the Philippino bartender informed me in almost perfectly unaccented English – and a pint of Tetley’s.

There’s a fun, very free translation of the Rubaiyat into Chinese that renders the verse
Oh, threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise —
One thing at least is certain — This life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The flower that once has blown forever dies.
as
碧落黃泉皆妄語,    Bìluò Huángquán jiē wàngyǔ,
三生因果盡荒唐.    Sānshēng Yīn-Guǒ jìn huāngtáng.
濁醪以外無真理,     Zhuóláo yǐwài wú zhēnlǐ,
一謝花魂再不香.    Yī xiè, huāhún zài bù xiāng.

The third line, 濁醪以外無真理, is supposed to translate “One thing is certain and the rest is Lies,” but more literally means “Outside of Wine there is no Truth,” and this was what came to mind as I sat in the American-managed fake Irish pub there in the middle of the post-Portuguese Cantonese version of a Las Vegas interpretation of Venice, and thought to myself that at least the beer was real.

And now they are calling our flight.

–B

Postcard to my grandmother

Hi, Gran —

It’s National Day – the 58th anniversary of the day Mao Zedong proclaimed from the dais in front of the Forbidden City that the Chinese people had stood up – and I’m writing this on the midnight ferry between Hong Kong and Macau.

Both cities are bizarre hybrids, in China but not really of it — though legally it’s the other way around, which comes in handy when visa time rolls around. Macau is particularly weird: a Portuguese hillside town full of arcades and gallerias and shrines to figures not traditionally venerated as deities, like Monkey from Journey to the West, populated by Cantonese and the occasional post-colonial Portuguese. Both groups use languages that I can read but not speak; Mandarin and English will get you a ways in Macau, but not nearly as far as they will in Hong Kong, where English is absolutely everywhere — the city’s own post-colonial legacy. Beijing and Shanghai, of course, are anglicizing furiously, but you still can’t find an English-language bookstore worth a damn there. You have to go to Hong Kong for that.

So this evening Li and I went across to Hong Kong and loaded up on English books in the bookstores near the ferry terminal in Tsimshatsui, then got a nice expensive dinner at a Vietnamese fusion restaurant nearby. As we were finishing, a waitress told us (in Cantonese that Li deciphered only a couple of minutes afterwards) that a fireworks show was beginning, and so we stepped out onto the restaurant’s patio and watched the beginning of the National Day fireworks as they exploded over Victoria Harbor, the wind scattering the bursts so that they seemed to drift out to sea instead of just blooming in place the way proper fireworks ought.

We walked around for a while before going back to the terminal and getting on the ferry. Through the tinted windows the skyline twinkled in blocks and spires that shifted and parallaxed behind us as the boat pulled away, drifting lazily off like the fireworks, glimmering and glinting and finally fading until we could only infer the city behind us.

— B

HALP HALP O HALP

Dear all:

How can I cheer up my crazy, talented artist girlfriend?

Suggestions that are not “flowers” will be welcome. That is all.

searching-thought-earth-skin-virtue.

Via the chinese@kenyon.edu listserv, two articles in which American journalists write lazily about Chinese in ill-considered English. The issue at stake: whether or not Massachussetts should provide ballots on which candidates’ names are rendered phonetically into Chinese characters. (Everybody seems to agree that voting instructions, at least, should be provided in Chinese.)

First, excerpts. The AP says:

BOSTON – Chinese Americans complained Monday that Secretary of State William Galvin’s opposition to using Chinese phonetic translations of candidate names on election ballots ignores precedent elsewhere in the country, as well as similar translations every day in Chinese newspapers.
Galvin, who is the state’s chief election officer, complained last month that such translations are subject to interpretation and could result in “Mitt Romney,” the Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor, being read as “Sticky Rice” on the ballot.

Mitt Romney == Sticky Rice? That’s craaaaaazy! I wonder if anyone else will find that too hilarious not to repeat. USA Today?

Boston’s 2008 presidential primary ballot could read like a bad Chinese menu.

There might be “Sticky Rice” in column A, “Virtue Soup” in column B and, in column C, “Upset Stomach.”

Those could be choices facing some voters if the names of Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Hillary Rodham Clinton were converted into Chinese characters, according to Massachusetts’ top election official. And that gives Secretary of State William Galvin heartburn.

On Tuesday, Galvin filed a challenge in federal court to a Justice Department agreement requiring that ballots be fully translated to protect the rights of Chinese-speaking voters.

Galvin says Chinese — which uses characters, not letters; has sounds with several meanings; and is spoken in several dialects — will create ballot chaos.

Those inscrutable Chinese, with their morphosyllabic writing system, and their dialects, and their menus with funny-sounding dishes! It’s almost as if their lack of a phonetic script has forced them to use clumsy alternatives!

Both the AP and the USA Today articles describe the Chinese versions of candidates’ names as “translations,” which is flat-out wrong. They are transliterations; that is, they are simple conversions of the sounds of the candidates’ names into a written form. There is no translation of “Fred” into Chinese, because it’s not a word, it’s a name. Ditto for “Thompson” (though I suppose maybe one could translate it by analysing it as “Tom’s Son” — but then you’re still stuck transliterating “Tom,” which is usually done as 汤姆 tangmu). When you get your girlfriend Jessica’s name tattooed on your arm in Chinese? You’re getting a transliteration, not a translation.

So then that raises the question of what symbols are being used for transliteration. I’ve written about this a couple of times before, albeit in the context of company and product names. There are already standard transliterations for most English personal names. Thompson and Romney might still have a chance at choosing transliterated names that they as non Chinese-speakers find more appealing, but Ms. Clinton is S.O.L.; people have been writing about her in Chinese for the past 15 years, and old habits die hard. Are the transliterations really that bad?

A cursory glance suggests not. Xinhua transliterates “Mitt Romney” as 米特·罗姆尼 Mǐtè·Luómǔní. (There may be a different transliteration used in news sources with primarily non Mandarin-speaking readerships.) Every single character used in that name is one used commonly for transliterating foreign words, so even a Chinese newspaper reader who had never heard of Romney would be able to tell at a glance that these five characters are not intended to be read as meaningful. (The dot in the middle, used to separate first and last names, provides a further clue.) But for the sake of argument, a literal translation of these characters would be rice – exceptional [archaic word for snare/common surname] – mother – [meaningless character used only for transliterations and the word for Buddhist nuns]. Show me one thinking person who can get ‘Sticky Rice’ (糯米 nuòmǐ) out of that and I will eat my copy of the 辞海 Cihai dictionary.

The same holds true for the other candidates — the stuff about “virtue soup” and “upset stomach” is pure fabrication based on cherry-picking one or two characters, discarding everything without potential humor value, and interpreting them in ways that no actual speaker of the language would. No Chinese person reading a name like 莎士比亚 would think that it meant “herb-scholar-compete-second-rate,” any more than an English speaker reading ‘Shakespeare’ would interpret it as a badly-spelled command to wave a pointy stick around.

Of course, the characters used in a transliteration can make a difference, and malicious transliterations aren’t unheard of. The uber-scholar Qian Zhongshu famously transliterated T.S. Eliot’s surname as 爱利恶德, which, unlike the candidate names above, does have a coherent meaning when read in Chinese — one that might fairly be interpreted as “Loves profit and despises virtue.” (The standard transliteration of his name is now 艾略特, a purely meaningless phonetic approximation.)
Then there are positive transliterations — like the US Korean War leaflets that encouraged Chinese soldiers who wanted to stop fighting but couldn’t bear the shame of crying 投降 *I surrender!” to instead shout out 爱责仁德 “love, duty, humanity, virtue!” — four perfectly admirable things that happen to be pronounced ài zé rén dé.

That said, Galvin’s objection, at least as quoted here — that transliterated names could lead to misunderstandings and “ballot chaos” (which incidentally sounds like the name of a really boring video game not like CSGO, that you can play with Csgo Boosting online) — is simply untrue, and the journalists who wrote the articles linked to above are guilty of lazy thinking, bad journalism, and the same kind of ignorant exoticist bias that leads people to keep writing about how the Eskimos have two million words for snow.

I also think the Chinese Americans’ contention — that someone who has passed the US citizenship exam and is engaged enough to follow candidates will be somehow unable to resolve Xīlālǐ · Luódémǔ·Kèlíndùn to Hilary Rodham Clinton — is pretty dumb, though perhaps not impossible. After all, the briefest glance at the English-language China blogosphere will reveal people whose deep-seated political convictions remain unsullied by actual knowledge.

A plague on both their houses.

The title of this post? Well, I thought it would only be fair to “translate” (in USA Today’s parlance) my feelings on this whole thing: 搜思土皮德 Sōu Sītǔpídé.