Lost in Translation

As you may have perceived, my Chinese is functional, but not good enough for translation work. That doesn’t stop me. I’m often involved on the English end of translations. Hiring a competent professional translator is neither easy nor cheap. Usually a Taiwanese person with some knowledge of English and the material will be conscripted to convert the Chinese into “English”. These translations tend to retain a pretty strong Chinese feel. It is my job to turn that into actual English. It is tricky because the client often expects English to function like a high-context language. (See: A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places).

Chinese often emphasizes flowery speech and beautiful form over mundane matters of accuracy and clarity. The tendency is especially marked during formal speeches, for governmental or business purposes. I’m often asked to help translate such speeches. The preliminary translation that I receive is usually full of grandiloquence and little substance. Something like: “It is my greatest honor and privilege to welcome the most esteemed, distinguished, honorificabilitudinitatibus gentleman from that most splendiferous country, Luxembourg, where he is an inestimable manager of legendary perspicuity.” It is comically baroque. To those of us with hopelessly stuck in English brains, we’d say they’re gilding the lily rather much, if we’re being kind; or, they’re flinging the BS high and far, if we’re being accurate.

My first reaction is to get rid of the useless twaddle. Those ridiculous over-the-top honorifics sound farcical. But, it is precisely that part of the speech that most Taiwanese executives care about and are anxious to see accurately translated. I have been told on numerous occasions not to be too concerned about getting the actual substance of the speech correct, as long as all the various magniloquent phrases are accurately translated and that each appellation is included. What are you supposed to do? If you provide the desired translation, the boss ends up looking like an imbecile. If you don’t, they may just turn around and put that drivel back into the speech. If they will be speaking to a group of Westerners I usually try to explain that English doesn’t work quite the same as Chinese. I’m often met with incredulity, but usually manage to get them to follow my English advice. If the speech will be to a group of other Asians, I inform them that the translation is bad English, but since their audience may nonetheless enjoy it, they need to make a cultural judgement whether to keep the overwrought wording or not.

The bias toward simplicity and directness in English is lost on the Taiwanese. My wife studied English literature in university. One of the courses that she took was a professional English class, writing and speech-making for formal occasions. She recently shared with me the advice she got in the class. It was distinctly Chinese and included such gems as never use a simple word if you can find a big—preferably incomprehensible—word. According to the class “big” is too simple, “immense” would be better, but “elephantine” being less common would be preferable, while “Brobdingnagian” would clearly be best. If you’re lucky no one will understand, while simultaneously being impressed by your incomprehensible vocabulary, or should I say your sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Annoying, right? Theoretically my wife is aware this is wrong-headed, but she still constantly asks if the new vocabulary she’s learned would be considered a big word. If it isn’t, she’ll ask me for an alternate “big” vocabulary word. It is hard to get past that Taiwanese mindset.

Her professional English class likewise emphasized the importance of complex grammatical structures. Passive voice sentences were preferred over the clarity provided by active voice sentences. Passive voice makes the meaning less direct, less clear, and obviously—from a Chinese perspective—to be preferred. The teachers believed it sounded more sophisticated and professional. Even better if it was a compound-complex sentence with each clause in turn using passive voice construction, obscuring the meaning behind lost subjects, and objects that refer to unknown words and clauses. From a Chinese perspective, obviously one should prefer the complex circumlocutory nature of such sentences—it matches the high-context nature of Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re getting it exactly wrong.

This is what happens when a Chinese speaker’s preference for linguistic ornateness comes face-to-face with English’s low-context preference for simplicity and clarity. Chinese language, like the culture, places a premium on form (here). Choosing an artistic turn of phrase or using an impressive word is important in Chinese. In English, such things can be nice if it’s not overdone, as long as you don’t sacrifice function—clear communication—to achieve artistry. In Chinese thinking it doesn’t matter so much if you’re effectively communicating as long as the language you use sounds good.

Vignette #8: The Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix

I was out with a group of guy friends the other night, drinking and trying to demystify the world’s most nebulous enigma. Chicks. There’s nothing unusual about that. All around the world men set out every evening to help each other come to grips with the female mind. Just as often the sun rises on those conversations with no deeper understanding having been achieved. It’s the universal male pastime—beer and quack theories.

When expats do it though there is an extra level of opacity between them and their love interest—culture. It is truly hard to know if the craziness is cultural, clinical bonkeritis, or female. As someone who has spent his whole life among expats I can tell you that these discussion focus heavily on the cultural. Sometimes the discourse can get quite sophisticated. Guys trying to add their own refinements to the scientific advancements being made by comedians working on the Hot-Crazy Matrix (Video). A friend once eloquently argued for adding a third axis to the Matrix to plot cultural factors, kind of an index of Chineseness. Beer doesn’t just produce pee; it produces brilliance.

On this most recent night of drinking, it landed like a bombshell on the evening’s drunken social psychological analysis of my bud’s wife when it was realized that she’s crazy. No cultural component involved. The bias towards cultural factors is so pervasive in these late night philosophy sessions that it took twenty-odd years of marriage, and discussion with the bros, to cut through the cultural noise and recognize a psychological issue.

The tendency to give primacy to cultural factors is natural. Expats live in an environment where the prevalent culture affects every aspect of our lives, sometimes in confusing ways. We’re used to dissecting the effect of Taiwanese family dynamics, education, interpersonal relationships, and other cultural norms on our lives. Often expat men are slow to realize when the problem isn’t that she’s Taiwanese; it’s that she’s a woman.

The Great Chinese Language Scam Revealed

I have a theory. I do not believe that Chinese is a tonal language. It is alleged that Mandarin has four tones: 1st tone (a high flat tone); 2nd tone (a rising tone); 3rd tone (a dipping tone, where the tone falls and then rises again); and, 4th tone (a falling tone). I don’t think so.

If Chinese really were tonal that would mean that at some point in prehistory the language’s inventor had to be sitting around choosing words for his new language, and decided that it would be smart to assign an awful lot of unrelated items/actions essentially the same word. Imagine the scene: Our ancient scholar sits under the banyan tree naming things brought by his assistants. First they bring him some rope, he looks at it judiciously, and says, “I shall call this ma (麻) [hemp]”. Next the assistant leads in a horse, the great sage deliberates, and calls it ma (馬). Just then a toad hops by stalking an ant, and the sage looks upon it and names the toad ma (蟆). When the toad catches the ant, the sage exclaims, “Look that ma just ate a ma (螞)”, giving predator and meal the same name. Just then the sage’s mother comes to see him. He looks upon her with filial eyes and calls her ma (媽). But, then she spoke angrily to him and asking why he was lying in the tree’s shade with chores still to be done. “Ahh, ma why must you always [thinking on the fly the scholar decided his mom’s actions were best described as, you guessed it] ma (罵) [scold] me so?” In a moment of bold inspiration he ended the sentence with ma (嗎) indicating to his mother that he was asking a question. Quite proud of his achievements he decided to take a little morphine, or what he fondly called ma (嗎), and drifted off to sleep.

Notice that in the story there are different words in English for the different things. That is logical and expected. However, in spoken Chinese they’re all the same word. The characters are different, but they developed much later than the oral language. I randomly chose the ma sound, but could just as easily have used shi, xi, chi or any other Chinese sound.

It’s ludicrous on the face of it.

Obviously the language’s oral indistinctness causes limitless opportunities for miscommunication. For example, if I’m saying something about miandian am I talking about Myanmar or a bread store. Who knows? Or, if I’m mentioning koujiao, am I referring to the corner of the mouth, a blowjob, or garnering your wages? Well, it’s hard to say. Maybe you can get it from context—is the penis pointing towards the corner of the mouth or scraping the tonsils? Obviously this is no way to make a language.

If we were to accept that Chinese is tonal, then we’d also need to accept Ma ma ma ma, ma ma ma as a valid sentence. That’s problematic. I would contend that no one would be thoughtless enough to create a language that way. Even if one person were that crazy, certainly no one would adopt such a language. It would be a dead language before it got started. It would be lunacy for tones to play a central role in expressing meaning, therefore there are no tones in Chinese. Q.E.D.

What I think is happening is that the Chinese are playing the greatest practical joke in history, and it is Andy Kaufmanesque in its surreal brilliance. Nobody expects it from the Chinese. Everybody thinks they have no sense of humor. Turns out they’re freaking hilarious!

I see them giggling behind their hands as foreigners try to pronounce Chinese with ridiculously exaggerated tones:

Foreigner #1: NIIiiIII  HHhaaAO MA?

Foreigner #2: HHEEennNN HHhaaAOO,  NIIiiIII  ne?

Foreigner #1: HHEEennNHHhaaAOO 

Chinese Man #1: Aiyah, listen to those two foreigners.

Chinese Man #2: What a pair of silly tits. Seriously, who’d speak like that?

Chinese Man #1: I can’t believe we’ve been pulling this for millennia.

Chinese Man #2: It never gets old.

If you’re a student of Chinese, just when you start making progress with tones, someone will crank up the joke and tell you that you’ve been doing the tones all wrong. They’ll claim that if a 3rd  tone word is followed by another 3rd tone word, the preceding word changes to 2nd tone. If there is a series of 3rd tone sounds in a row, then each in turn changes to 2nd tone, until the final 3rd tone word, which reverts back to 3rd tone.


should actually be

nNiiII  HHhaaAOO


They’re pulling your leg. It is an obvious practical joke. Who is going to keep track of how many 3rd tones they will be saying in a row, and which will be the last in the series? If that much calculation were required while speaking no one would ever be able to produce a sentence.

Even children are in on the joke. Ask a young Chinese person to teach you a tongue twister sometime. They may teach you a genuine tongue twister like:

吃 葡 萄 不 吐 葡 萄 皮 ,不 吃 葡 萄 倒 吐 葡 萄 皮

Chi pu tao bu tu pu tao pi, bu chi pu tao dao tu pu tao pi

This will have you tripping over the words. But, if the child has a sardonic sense of humor he might suggest this tongue twister:

媽媽騎馬。 馬慢, 媽媽罵馬。

Mama qi ma. Ma man, mama ma ma

Not a terribly tough “tongue twister” is it? Even having never spoken Chinese, you should be able to say this one very quickly. It is almost all the same word. See, this joke operates on many levels and can be appreciated by a diverse cross-section of Chinese society.

Well played my Asian friends, well played.

Help! I’m Living in a High-Context Family

My wife, Venus Chen, contributed most of the ideas in this article. Mainly I just organized and wrote up her perception, and provided specific examples. I independently reached a similar set of conclusions, but she has dealt more intimately with these issues and has a deeper perspective.

When I first arrived in Taiwan I was constantly told how tight-knit families are here. It didn’t take long to figure out this was at best a communal fiction. Most of my Taiwanese friends shared almost nothing with their families—they were virtual strangers. The familial feelings in Taiwanese families are not based on love and warmth, but duty and obligation, with an artfully applied dash of guilt. If you don’t recognize it, that’s the formula for filial piety. The closeness in Taiwanese families is a closeness that expresses itself in form more than reality. (See: Form Over Function).

The adult children should come home and visit the parent’s the prescribed number of times per month, and deliver the prescribed amount of money for support. If during these regularly scheduled visits there is no meaningful interaction, and all present just stare like zombies at the TV, that’s fine. It is not about being close as a family—it is about observing correct form. When we first married, during one of our first weekly trips home, I went along, and was surprised when we arrived and the parents left. Venus and I sat alone for a couple hours watching TV until they returned. No familial closeness had been achieved, but form had been observed. I don’t quite follow the logic, but I suppose if the neighbors had been watching, they would have thought what a good daughter and marginally acceptable son-in-law, they visit weekly. (High-context cultures prioritize perception over reality).

Many Taiwanese choose to hold back most aspects of their lives from their parents. Usually they just give parents some small irrelevant pieces of information about their lives, trying to provide an illusion of involvement. One of the reasons for this is that Taiwanese kids are afraid to make mistakes. Parents, teachers, and schools do not provide a safe environment to fail. Consequently, the young never learn how to screw up, pick themselves up off the floor, and try again. That fear extends into adulthood where it is compounded by the fear of losing face that comes with admitting failure. If they fear that something may not work out, it’s easier to hide it. The classic example of this would be the daughter who gets engaged before her parents are even aware that she has ever had a first date. The most extreme example I can think of is a former student who met, dated, lived with, got engaged to, and married someone without her parents being any the wiser. I bumped into her two years after she married and her parents still didn’t know, despite weekly visits home. That example is exceptional, but in day-to-day family life small secrets and misdirection are the norm.

At the same time the default position of parents is to strive toward controlling their children’s lives. This is understandable for young children, but extends well into middle age. At its core is the fear of failure. If I don’t exert maximum control over my children, they may fail. I will feel bad if they fail, but also what will that do to my face if it becomes known that my child is a failure. Taiwanese parents don’t have the conception of we did our job, we raised a good child, now we should trust their judgement, and allow them the opportunity to sink or swim on their own, only coming to the rescue, in a nonjudgmental way, if necessary. That is not the Taiwanese way.

Parents here, of course, feel sad that their children won’t share with them. They feel sad that when they make an effort to help and the children get mad. Their experience, knowledge, and goodwill is not appreciated. The children, likewise, may be generally unhappy with the status quo. They might like some advice from their parents, but instead they get parents just telling them what to do, or more likely what not to do. It is not really advice, but just an attempt at control. So, kids often simply avoid all the drama by keeping parents out of the loop.

Where’s the Beef?

My wife is a vegetarian, so I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about meat. I lust after it. I make elaborate plans for preparing it; the way I’d lovingly caress the supple flesh, gently rubbing in the dry spices, or how I’d pound a center-cut shank with my meat mallet until it yielded to my will and became the soft piece of beef I want. Don’t even get me started on boozy marinades, the combination of alcohol and beef could have me on an hours-long flight of fancy.

When I say I dream about meat I mean beef. No point fantasizing about chicken breasts. I come from Western Canadian, farming and ranching country. Beef really is the only meat there. Pork—the other white meat—is suitable for health freaks. Chicken and fish? Those are practically vegetables, appropriate for the daintiest of lady’s, hippies and assorted pansies. Beef. Grass-fed. Well-aged. That’s a man’s meat.

Since Taiwan joined the WTO you can buy almost any food that you want [here]. Good quality beef is a bit of an exception. For a price excellent steaks in high-end restaurants can be found. I had one of the best steaks of my life in a Taipei restaurant. It cost as much as a quick trip to Hong Kong for British pub grub, but it’s available. However, if you’re just a dude with a hankering for a slab of well-marbled beef to throw on the barbie—good luck.

Local grocery stores mostly carry anonymously sourced frozen beef. It’s sliced paper thin for boiling in a hotpot. There might be some relatively thin steaks from Australia or the USA. If those countries are capable of producing a decent piece of beef they’re not sending it to Taiwan. It is some sad looking meat. The US beef that comes to Taiwan is all corn fed, so—as far as I’m concerned—relatively tender, distinctly tasteless, and suitable for the trashcan. On rare occasions I’ve run across a nice piece of Aussie beef that somehow accidentally got sent to Taiwan. However, generally the quality is low, usually just a mix of muscle and gristle with no marbling. Of course it’s unaged—it would waste time and space to age such a piece of beef. The end result is a piece of flavorless shoe leather.

There are a very small number of specialty butchers, where you may, on occasion, find good quality beef. I’m aware of one that sometimes has aged, grass-fed, Alberta beef. It is to die for. In recent years a number of high-end groceries have popped up around Taiwan that have decent Western products. Often you can find a respectable looking steak with the right buzzwords on the package; grass-fed, aged and flash frozen. I haven’t tried a lot of these, because when I start finding myself spending around 1000元 on a medium-sized piece of sirloin, I start thinking someone ought to be cooking it for me.

If you do find a restaurant that has decently sourced beef, there’s a good chance that they’ll do a nice job cooking it. It didn’t used to be that way. It was ridiculously difficult to get a restaurant to serve beef that hadn’t been dried out like a sun-bleached turd. The server practically went into paroxysms of fear if you asked for medium-rare or rarer. Inevitably, when the beef arrived it would be overcooked. Ironic considering undercooked chicken is common, but beef—you practically had to march into the kitchen and cook it yourself if you wanted it rare. With the influx of Western restaurants consumers seem to be more knowledgeable and most restaurants are now willing/able to cook beef to the customer’s preference. Fewer of rare beef also explains why it is hard to find a steak thick enough for grilling in Taiwan. Why cut your steaks 4-5 cm. thick—it just makes them harder to dry out.

There are some Taiwanese style “steakhouses” here. They serve a thin minute steak, with lots of sauce, on a hot cast iron griddle with an egg and a bit of spaghetti. It is very affordable. In my early days in Taiwan, back before Western restaurants were on Taipei’s every corner, I used to frequent 我家牛排 and similar local steak joints. It was a pale imitation of a steak dinner, but it was at least an imitation. Funnily, paralleling the interminable rumors in various Western cities of cat being served in this-or-that Chinese restaurant, there were constant rumors of horse being served in this-or-that Western-ish Taiwanese steakhouse. I found it reassuring to see whatever ridiculous culinary xenophobia fueled such rumors in Canada almost exactly paralleled in Taiwan.

Taiwan has become something of a foodie paradise, so why is it so hard to get good beef here? I believe it’s because the Taiwanese are just not that fond of beef. It does not play a starring role in Chinese cuisine. There is an emphasis in Chinese cooking on the importance of fresh ingredients. The idea is if it’s on the plate at lunch, it was clucking in the field at breakfast. That might be good for fish, and okay for chicken or pork, but beef doesn’t work that way. You’re not allowing its flavor to come to the fore. Of course you’re also left with a stunningly tough piece of meat. It’s truly a marvel how beef in Taiwan can be cut paper thin, boiled, and yet still be too tough to cut.

It is even a somewhat common practice in Taiwan to observe a prohibition on eating beef. It isn’t exactly a religious ban. The idea is that farmers rely on cows to help around the farm, thus as a mark of respect beef shouldn’t be eaten.  Many farm families observe this prohibition. They didn’t really rely on cows for help—those were water buffalo, a rather different thing. I think this practice exists because giving up beef is not a heart break for many Taiwanese.

Where’s the beef? Not here.

Gratuitous beef porn. Enjoy.