Say Whaa…?!?

I’ve talked before about the oddness of English personal names in Taiwan (here). Honestly, that’s natural. Usually it is people with very limited English trying to come up with an English name—totally forgivable. What is less excusable is when large companies come up with screwed up English names for their products or services.

Kymco, a Taiwanese scooter manufacturer, makes the Dink 125 scooter.  I can’t help marveling at the possible permutations of mistranslation between Chinese and common English usage that led them to the erroneous conclusion that this would be a good name for a scooter.  I can imagine groups of marketing people and upper-level management huddled together in brainstorming sessions, when suddenly someone declares, “Zoinks, I’ve got it!  We will call the new scooter ‘Dink’.”  Bizarrely no one thought to check a Chinese-English dictionary to see how appropriate this might be.  So it is now possible to see many Dinks riding around the streets of Taipei.

Dink has a few definitions, none of them very good. I suppose the most commonly known meaning is idiot or dumbass. It also has a verbal association with dinky, meaning tiny. But, where I come from dink was children’s speak for penis. That is still the association that I make with the word.

Kymco makes a 150cc version of the same scooter that I think is extraordinarily well named—the Grand Dink 150.  The best way I can think of to describe it is if you took a Honda Gold Wing and shrunk it for midgets.  Taiwanese law and tariffs make ownership of motorcycles larger than 150cc difficult.  Men who are trying to look cool, tough or macho have certain credibility problems when they climb aboard their scooters. After all, the scooter’s primary use in other parts of the world is to allow drunken Shriners to ride around in circles without killing themselves.  What is an aspiring tuff to do?  Especially when so many of the scooters are so obviously marketed to young—one might even think pre-adolescent—women, with such blood-stirring names as the Hello Kitty 90, an all pink bike featuring the popular Asian teddy bear/cartoon character of the same name.  Pretty hard to be macho bestriding that.

Into this void steps the Grand Dink 150.  It has a plethora of do-dads including a large fairing, stepped seat, backrest, etc. that make the Grand Dink a phallic symbol in the greatest automotive tradition.  Just don’t mention that the engine is the same size as your vacuum cleaner back home.  Now Taiwanese men with inadequacy issues can ride a giant, well, relatively speaking, phallic symbol like their American and Western European counterparts.  For this purpose I think that the bike’s name is unusually candid.  I mean none of this talk about wild horses or mythical creatures.  It just gets straight to the crux of the matter.  I personally ride one, and let me tell you the girls just “ooh” and “ahh” when you pull up straddling your Grand Penis.

If these types of mistakes can be made by large corporations, like Kymco, with researchers and market analysts whose only job is to come up with names and advertisements, you can imagine the mistakes made by smaller companies with fewer resources.  One extremely visible area where English mistakes can really make you stop and take notice is shop signs.   I’m sympathetic to shop-owners, who may have little formal academic education, but find themselves having to design a shop sign and wanting to add English for a bit of sophistication.  English use on sign frontage is common throughout much of Asia.  Nonetheless, I do feel compelled to lampoon some of the English signs I’ve noticed around Taiwan. (I wish I’d kept a record of the funnier signs from the last couple decades. There have been some doozies, most of them now forgotten). Still…

I used to work in TaoYuan, about an hour drive outside Taipei, and I often puzzled over a fairly enigmatic sign on the way there that simply said, “ASS”.  I’m not sure if it was an advertisement or an indictment.  If it was an advertisement—what were they selling?  If it was an indictment—was it aimed at me personally?  After passing this same sign for about a half year I finally went into the shop and inquired as to its exact meaning.  An exchange that mostly involved me pointing at the shop, the sign, and my own posterior and making shrugging gestures while repeating the Chinese word for the old vertical smile, pigu (屁股).  The proprietor not liking the quality of his shop impugned by an ignorant foreigner engaged me in a loud tirade of Taiwanese that clarified nothing.  If my Chinese is abysmal, my Taiwanese is nonexistent, with the exception of a few nasty words that I did recognize sprinkled into the conversation.  Finally after much gesticulating I was able to make him understand that I wanted to know the meaning of the sign in front of his shop.    The sign turns out to have a wholly benign meaning—Authorized Service Shop—a bit of a let-down really.

Another sign that gave me pause when I first arrived was the “Come in Back of the Bus” sign. It was one of those signs where a light behind the message turned on when it was the correct time to deliver the command—Come Now. Very intimidating. I spent a good number of years contemplating that sign, and considering giving it a go. For those not fluent in Chinglish, of course the meaning is that you should board the bus at the rear.  I don’t ride the bus much anymore and haven’t noticed this sign in a long time. Maybe the bus companies have fixed them, or I’ve become desensitized.

I used to work as an English teacher at the downtown Taipei YMCA.  In the wake of the devastating earthquake of Sept. 21, 1999, that YMCA established a daycare to take care of children while their parents were involved in the various tasks associated with rebuilding.  The downtown Taipei YMCA is the national headquarters of the YMCA and as such proudly hung a banner on the front of their building announcing that they were running the “Establishing Destruction Daycare.”  A sign that amused us English teachers to no end.  Knowing the basic nature of Taiwanese children the sign was oddly fitting.

Most of the previous examples were brought to you by large corporations, government offices, or in the case of the YMCA, an English language center. You would expect them to get it at least close to right. When it comes to small shopkeepers it is perfectly logical that things can get funky.

Hongers, Bangers and Mash: Hong Kong and the Asian-Based Expat

My wife and I just returned from a long weekend in Hong Kong. For a pair of Taipei-ites, Hong Kong offers a quick convenient getaway. The flight is a smidge over an hour and the multiple flights per day keep ticket prices reasonable. It is the Taipei equivalent of driving from Saskatoon to Edmonton for the weekend. Hong Kong has become a nice little escape – nothing more.  It wasn’t always that way. When I first began the expat life, Hong Kong was a lifeline, a beacon of westernization. A place I could go to find the Western products, food and amenities I craved.

I began working abroad in a place called Yeosu, on Korea’s southern coast, at the time little more than a fishing village. They had nothing. There was no Western food, not even snacks, fast food, or bread; nothing Western to eat. If you were inclined to cook for yourself there was no real hope of finding the necessary ingredients. Lettuce for a salad? Maybe on a good day. Steak or pork chops? No, any meat available was sliced paper thin for use in Korean soups and barbeque. Indeed there was a much wider availability of animal bones than meat. The bones were prized for making a healthful soup. There was a shortage of Western style drinks as well. Something as esoteric as a scotch and cigar, forget about it. Of course, there was no English entertainment, no books, no magazines, no TV, no movies; nothing in English. There was no way to buy clothes or other daily necessities. Deodorant? Sorry, not available in Korea.

I was in Korea in 1995-6. It is easy to forget what the world was like before countries joined together in the WTO. Now, even the most distant and disparate of countries are conducting trade, and the products of one country are, relatively, available within the other. We see this in our daily lives in the food we all eat. Cuisine has become much more international. (See: The WTO and My Waistline). Any moderately sized city is going to have restaurants serving a broad range of world foods. A scant couple of decades ago, that was not true.

The first time I came to Taiwan, in 1987, there was almost no Western food. The first McDonalds had just opened, and Jake’s Country Kitchen was operating in Tienmu. That was about it for authentic Western food. I recall being shocked that potatoes, hence french fries, were a rarity. I went to a Taiwanese owned, “American style” steak house, the fries cost a small fortune, and when the meal arrived, amounted to 5-6 hand julienned pieces of potato. I attributed the Taiwanese fondness for sweet potato french fries to the lack of real potatoes on the island. The notion that the Taiwanese might have liked sweet potatoes never occurred to me. Now Taipei is a foodie mecca, there are restaurants offering well-thought-out menus featuring food from virtually everywhere. For a veteran of the expat scene, the quality of the Western food available is stunning. Indeed, sometimes when I return to Canada, I find myself disappointed with the quality of the restaurants, as compared to what is available in Taiwan.

What the WTO didn’t deliver the internet did. The internet has brought a treasure trove of English entertainment and news worldwide. In addition, internet shopping allows the expat to buy virtually any product, in the desired size or shape.

When I first began my expat life in Korea, I used to fly to Hong Kong semi-regularly. I would hit Hong Kong like a whirlwind. I’d just go from fish & chip joint, to Irish Pub, to American style rib and burger joint, to Mc Donald’s in a near endless orgy of Western food intake, broken up sporadically by beers in Lan Kwai Fong, shopping for books, seeing some tv and buying enough stuff to (hopefully) survive Korea a while longer. When I first arrived in Taiwan, it was a similar situation, and Hong Kong was a place I looked forward to going for a touch of home. Things have changed. The availability of Western products and food in Taiwan beggars the imagination.

I still enjoy Hong Kong, but I don’t go there with the same need and yearning. My level of elation was once mirrored by the flight itself, coming into Kai Tak airport from the landward side, as the plane jinked left and right, I could gaze into people’s livingroom windows while the plane seemingly descended between apartment buildings. I would begin vibrating with excitement as the plane itself seemed to vibrate with Hong Kong’s frenetic energy. Now, arrival is a much more sedate affair as the plane slowly descends into the very large, modern, and rather antiseptic Hong Kong International Airport. It is still an amazing, vibrant and enchanting city, but it doesn’t quite make me chutter and soar as it once did.

Food Names

Using English names in Taiwan can be a problem. Restaurant menus might be my favorite example. A lot of Chinese restaurants here feel compelled to offer an English menu. The owners think it gives their restaurant that certain je ne sais quoi. Frankly, I wish they wouldn’t go to the effort.

Food inherently sounds bad in English, even if the translation is good. It is a problem with the language. Britain has contributed to world culture in many ways, but its contribution to world cuisine has been less than stellar, consequently food sounds singularly unappetizing in English. Restaurants in the West know this and put as much of their menu as possible in a foreign language. French and Italian sound delicious and are good choices.  Which are you more likely to order calamari or deep-fried squid, escargot or snails, ris de veau or a calf’s pancreas?

Such subtleties are inevitably lost on Taiwanese restaurant owners who think that an English menu gives their restaurant a certain continental charm. Many restaurants provide English translations for the dishes they serve.  Even small family run restaurants often have menus running up to three hundred dishes.  Developing the English menu is a monumental task that used to frequently fall to the eldest child, who still in school and forced to study English, must be up to the task. Usually they took a very literal approach, thus you could find yourself in a restaurant choosing between the Horse Urine Eggs or the Chicken Blood and Testes in Chafing Dish. I have seen both on Taiwanese menus during my earlier days here. I went with the Horse Urine Eggs. Delightful.

The arrival of Google has really helped with this problem. It is now possible for our hypothetical restaurant owner, or child, to go online and find a reasonable translation for many Chinese dishes. With just a few seconds on Google I was able to create this short English menu for a hypothetical restaurant.

 

豬血糕 Pig’s Blood Cake

皮蛋 100-Year Old Egg

臭豆腐Stinky Tofu

油豆腐Oily Bean Curd

靈芝金銀鴨血羹 Duck Blood, Mushrooms and Tofu Soup

麵筋百葉 Fried Wheat Gluten Puff and Tofu Skin

家常皮凍 Pork Skin Aspic

鹵水鴨舌 Marinated Duck Tongue

拌爽口海苔  Sea Moss with Sauce

米醋海蜇 Jellyfish in Vinegar

鹵水鵝頭 Marinated Goose Heads

拌雙耳   Tossed Black and White Fungus

紅燒牛蹄筋  Braised Beef Tendon in Brown Sauce

火燎鴨心 Sautéed Duck Hearts

美極掌中寶  Sautéed Chicken Feet in Maggi Sauce

幹鍋雞胗 Griddle Cooked Chicken Gizzards

咕嚕肉   Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat

臘八豆炒臘肉   Sautéed Preserved Pork with Fermented Soy Beans

米粉扣肉 Steamed Sliced Pork Belly with Rice Flour

梅櫻小炒皇 Sautéed Squid with Shredded Pork and Leek

幹豇豆燉豬蹄   Braised Pig’s Feet with Dried Cowpeas

芸豆燜豬尾  Braised Pigtails with French Beans

小炒脆骨 Sautéed Gristle

九轉大腸 Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce

鍋仔藥膳烏雞   Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs

 

The problem is, despite a sound translation, the dishes sound awful. If you’re unused to Chinese food, I can understand being turned off by the dish itself. Some of the dishes include things that seem inedible; goose heads, tendons, and gristle. Others just seem putrid; jellyfish, fungus, fried wheat gluten, pork skin, duck tongue, chicken’s feet, intestines, gizzards, pig’s feet and tails. But, among these dishes are some of my favorite Chinese foods. I’m not turned off by the dish itself, but I do find the English names off-putting. A 100-Year Old Egg? Why would anyone want to eat something that old? This is probably a nicer translation than Horse Urine Egg, but only marginally. Stinky Tofu is one of my favorite treats (here), but stinky is a horrible adjective for food. I know it is a translation of 臭, but I think the English has a more unpalatable feel.

The names provide almost no description and are merely a statement of what is in the dish. Despite this, somehow these names manage to be shockingly descriptive, in a negative way. Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat, it is the “with Fat” that makes this sound bad in English. In the case of Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce, even if the fact that they are intestines doesn’t bother you, the name is still unappealing. The juxtaposition of intestines with brown sauce leaves much to be desired. It is hard not to imagine intestine’s other brown sauce. Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs sounds bad in English. Why does the chicken have black bones? What’s wrong with it?

I wish restauranteurs wouldn’t translate their dishes into English.  Chinese is poetic and makes many dishes sound intriguing: 螞蟻上樹 (Ants Climbing a Tree) or 佛跳牆 (Buddha Jumps Over the Wall). I would rather order youtiao than Oil Stick, jiaoyan ruge than Fried Pigeon with Spiced Salt, or mao xue wang (毛血旺) than Two Types Blood and Two Types Innards in Spicy Sauce. If you find yourself faced with a menu that lacks English, do what I did for years, call the server over and randomly point at some dishes. It’s fun. It is like going into a store and buying a mystery box. When you receive the food, then you’ll know what the characters mean. It is a good way to learn Chinese and explore Chinese cuisine.

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.