More Perils of Direct Translation

This was originally posted at my blog-city site, but since I have new readers, I thought I’d re-post it here.  It made me chuckle!

I stumbled across this hilarious photo on the internet recently.  It is a classic photo that illustrates why word-for-word translation can be a very dangerous activity.

It reminds me of my early days of learning Chinese.  There used to be a huge political slogan sign on the campus of the university where I was studying.  The slogan was an 8-character phrase.  As the year progressed, and my Chinese ability progressed (or so I hoped), I used the sign to monitor my ability to recognize characters.  First I could recognize one, then two, until one day I looked at the sign and carefully read out each of the 8 characters.  “Yay,” I thought.  “I can read this!” But then realization of the difficulty of Chinese characters set in, because even though I could recognize and read every single character that was used to make up the slogan, I had absoslutely no idea what the sentence meant.  Not a clue! It made absolutely no sense to me, based on what I knew to be the meanings of each character.

Chinese is a contextual language.  There are only about 50,000 (only???) characters in the language, and only about 5000-8000 in everyday use.  That means that all of the range of meaning that needs to be communicated must be done using only 8000 characters. Obviously, then, each character must have more than one meaning.  Many characters, in fact, have as many as 5 different meanings, and those meanings are often totally unrelated.  In order to read and understand meaning, you must know the multiple meanings of the characters to be able to judge what they mean in each particular context. Simply opening a dictionary will rarely do the trick.

Ok, enough of the mini Chinese lesson.  I know you’re dying to know how the Chinese sign should have been translated!

Here’s what each of the characters means individually (reading from left to right):

yi = one

ci = time (as in occurance)

xing = sex, kind, type, nature, gender, form

yong = to use

pin = thing, stuff (yongpin=a thing, a product)

The correct translation for yi ci yong pin is “disposable product,” or something that is by nature only used once.  Think disposable chopsticks, plates, cups, etc!

Anybody out there ready to sign up to learn Chinese?  Go ahead!  Be brave!