Lost in translation

JJW reminded me of something I forgot to mention in my bike ride write-up: I saw someone in a cycling jersey with the picture of a Chinese food take-out box, and the Chinese characters biao yian (Mandarin. Cantonese would be biu yeen.) It means “performance” and was probably made by Performance Bicycles.

In English, ‘performance’ has multiple meanings. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the definitions include “the way in which someone or something functions”, and “a presentation, especially a theatrical one, before an audience.” The former is what the manufacturer intends (having their brand associated with speed, power, and efficiency); but the latter is what the Chinese words ‘biao yian’ means. It would have been funnier, and more accurate, had the manufacturer put the image of twenty Peking Opera actors in full make-up riding one bicycle on the cycling jersey instead.

On chatting with my colleague Kelvin, I found out that they could have put biao xian (Mandarin) (Biao yeen, with a different accent, in Cantonese), and that could mean performance in the sense the manufacturer had intended: the way someone or something functions.

With the trendiness of feng shui, and traditional Chinese medicine in mainstream pop culture, using Chinese characters as symbols for their ‘meaning’ has also become popular in jewelry, T-shirts, schlock you find at Cost Plus, and tattoos. The translations errors, range from LOL wrong to subtle.

I think of it as karmic retribution; after all, growing up in Asia, you’d get foreigners making fun of the bad English translations they’d see in signs in hotels, shops, etc. (The worst was its institutionalization in Nury Vittachi’s ‘Traveller’s Tales’ column in the Far East Economic Review. FEER was a weekly magazine published in English; the Asian equivalent of Time or Newsweek)

To which I’d retort, “I’d like to see you try to learn Thai or Chinese and write a sign and see how gramatically correct and typo-free you can make it!”

Today, with the items sold in the US, they tend to use words that are translated corrrectly, but represent ideas that Americans find meaningful; which Chinese wouldn’t really choose to use. It represents a difference: what values are important within each culture. I think it also shows what values Americans think, somewhat superficially, are associated with Chinese values (maybe they got fixated with kung fu and Zen Buddhism.)

On items marketed to Americans:

Ai (Ngoi): Love
Xin (Sum): Heart
Le (Lok): Joy
Ji (Chi): Wisdom
Meng (Mong): Dream

But in China, the words/characters you’d find on items would be:
Xi (Hei) : Happiness (used especially in connection with weddings, which traditionally were arranged, rather than love matches!)
Fu (Fook): Fortune
Lu (Luk): Prosperity
Shou (Sow): Longevity

There’s a calligraphy/painting by Sun Yat Sen with the word ren: which means to endure. Apparently, it’s not that famous, although I’ve seen it in several places, including the Tsui Heung Tsun restaurant in Hong Kong in the 80’s. According to Kelvin, you’d find ren in kung fu studios.


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