Who’s worried?

15 Dec

Last week I caught up with a former coworker for lunch.  There have been some interesting legislative developments recently about an aspect of her business so we were discussing how/if they were planning on capitalizing on the change.

She said it had been very difficult to get the decision maker (who sits outside of China) to take the changes seriously and it really felt like her team was pushing to try to market the appropriate new solution.  Then she asked if I had heard the expression “皇帝不急,太监急"(Huang di bu ji, tai jian ji.)

I hadn’t heard that phrase before and asked her to explain.  She said that it meant that the key person (the emperor) didn’t think something was important but his underlings were all running around trying to find an answer.  The phrase seemed to fit the situation perfectly as she just described it.

The next day I told my husband I had learned a new phrase.  He listened, corrected my pronunciation slightly and then asked me if the woman who taught me the sentence was married.  Taken aback, I said that yes, she was.  He then gave me the literal translation of the phrase.

Literally the first part is the same – The emperor isn’t worried – but the second part is – but the eunuchs are worried.  You can see how that translation emphasizes a slightly different point of view.  The overall idea is the same, but the specific words have a different focus.

We had a good laugh – and I decided not to use that phrase for a while.  I don’t feel my Chinese is quite good enough to work that one subtly into conversation.  Give me another couple of years – I am not worried.

In another language note – last week I went to an event where the current US ambassador to China (Gary Locke) spoke.  He will soon be stepping down from his post and was explaining why.  His translator had a style very similar to his so I started to see if I could see the translator in the crowd.  To my surprise – he was a white, foreign face! The man was amazing.  In comparison, my Chinese is terrible.

Translation is not an easy job and there is so much more than just translating words – there is the feel, the meaning, the historical context, the rhythm and the underlying shared background.  This language continues to draw me in.

Have you had a moment when you proudly used a phrase that didn’t turn out quite right?  Or have you viewed a masterful translator in practice?  What aspects do you remember?

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5 Responses to “Who’s worried?”

  1. Every Day Adventures in Asia December 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    I remember having a rather animated argument with Kiran Nagarkar on the Hindi word “jugaar” which I was translating as a creative quick ‘work around’. Basically the idea of slapping together a solution which may not last but gets things functioning (sort of) with whatever limited resources are on hand. To me it is a perfect way of describing how things often function here in India.

    However, the eminent author had an entirely different meaning and basically was provoking a discussion in front of the American students (we were having a joint Skype lecture).

    In this case, I stuck to my point of view but had a moment of “Have I been getting it wrong all these years???” Checked with a dozen people, confirmed my pronunciation, and heaved a sigh of relief when I found the word ‘jugaar’ or ‘jugaad’ in Wikipedia too.

    And it turns out Kiran was also right… as he was providing the translation of a Marathi (not Hindi) word which has a similar pronunciation but entirely different meaning! Doh!!

    Alas this was years ago and I don’t recall the definition he used… but the moment of “Eeek? Am I getting this totally wrong??” remains a very clear memory!

    • gkm2011 December 16, 2013 at 8:07 am #

      Funny how an innocent question can cause your head to tumble to another issue. Sometimes it is all in pronunciation too – or dialect. Slang is what makes a language real, but it can be very local which is dangerous!

      • Every Day Adventures in Asia December 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

        Yup! Especially when the language has singular, plural, feminine, masculine… repeat what you hear a bunch of guys say can get in you even more trouble that merely having a ‘potty mouth.’ 🙂

  2. expatlingo December 16, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

    I always want to figure out a time to use 杀鸡儆猴, but so far haven’t encountered the perfect conversation to use it. Once in a while (esp in Hong Kong) 天高皇帝远 seems to make sense, and I’ve used the English version, but have never had the chance to use the Chinese. Interesting to learn a new interesting one!

    • gkm2011 December 18, 2013 at 9:08 am #

      There are so many in mandarin that the hard part is remembering them! Hope you find the perfect opportunity.

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