Friday, 24 January 2014

Three in the morning, four in the evening (Singapore)

A famous ancient Chinese story features a monkey-keeper.  He gives the monkeys three bananas in the morning and four in the evening.  The monkey don't like this.  So the monkey-keeper changes it to four bananas in the morning and three in the evening.  The monkeys are happy.

This story gives rise to the saying 朝三暮四 zhāo sān mù sì / “morning three evening four”.


莊子 Chuang-tzu/ 庄子 Zhuangzi (circa 369–286 B.C.), the philosopher of the Butterfly Dream fame.

I’m reminded of what had happened at the grocery store my grandmother used to run on her coconut plantation near the now-Changi International Airport.  At the front of the store were sacks of things like rice, dried beans, dried shrimps, dried whitebait, which stood open at the mouth to make it easy for the shop assistants to scoop up and weigh.  Some of the customers from the kampung* nearby would snatch an extra handful of these things on their way out.  

The shop assistants came up with a solution:  weigh up the purchase item just short of one handful, so that when these cheating customers grabbed an extra handful, they would think they’d got the better of the store but the store would not lose out.

*Malay / Indonesian word for “village”.

(Singapore 1960s)

Friday, 17 January 2014

Translating blind (London)

The rushes from the first shoot on the Heart of the Dragon were being edited.  They were for Episode 2, Caring, which was about caring on different levels.  

On the family level, the director wanted to show caring up and down the generations (between parents and children, and between grandparents and grandchildren), and along the same generation (between husband and wife).  (The grandmother in this episode is featured in blog entry The verb.)

On the state level, the director chose a mental hospital and a prison to find out what happens in the Chinese system when one “goes mad or bad”.

I was given the recordings on audio tapes to translate into English.  At one point, I got to an inspection tour of the prison dormitory.  One could hear the inspecting officer and the entourage going around—shuffle, shuffle, shuffle—with the inspector making comments here and there: “Very clean.”  Shuffle, shuffle: “Good ventilation.”  Shuffle, shuffle: “Well lit.”

Then, shuffle, shuffle: “No shit smell.”

Huh??  I played the tape again.  Yes, definitely those three sounds: “No shit smell.”  (没便味儿 méi biàn wèi’r)  

What was shit smell doing in the dormitory?  I played the tape again, and again, and again.  Each time it sounded the same.

Worried I might end up melting the audio tape playing it so many times, I went to the cutting rooms and asked for the rushes to be played.  Ah — they’d moved on to the lavatories.

(London, 1982)

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The role of the shrink in the lives of Americans (New York / London)

A Canadian colleague on the Heart of the Dragon project, Douglas, told me in 1984 about two American friends of his, a married couple, trying to cut down on their expenses.  The husband went through the bills and said to the wife, “You’ll have to drop the number of visits to the shrink from three times a month to twice a month.”

A few years later, an American student doing an MA at SOAS came to my evening classes.  One day, she told me that the librarians had not been particularly polite to her, which she put down to their not liking Americans much.  After yet another dosage of such treatment, she flipped and said, “You know what the trouble with you Brits is?!  You don’t go to the shrink often enough!”

I had to exercise great self-control and not laugh over the “[not] often enough” — the Brits don't go to the shrink at all.

(New York / London, 1980s)

Creative interpreting (London)

I was sent this in an email (I’ve left the English unedited):

An immigrant from China is applying for citizenship in Canada.  He is to be interviewed by a Canadian immigration officer.  He does not speak English well and knows nothing about Canada.  Therefore, he invited a special translator to help him in his interview.

Officer:  Do you know who was the first Prime Minister of Canada?

Translator:  ( in Cantonese)  The officer asked you, Where do you usually go if you want to eat hamburger?

Man:  (answered to the officer)  Oh..... McDonald  (the first prime minister of Canada is Sir John MacDonald.)

The officer nodded his head and then asked the second question.

Officer:  Could you tell me which province you're living in now?

Translator:  (in Cantonese)  The officer just asked you, What is the dirtiest thing in your nose?

Man:  (replied to the officer in Cantonese)  Ah..... Bay See (which means nose scum in Chinese. The man lives in the province of British Columbia, commonly known as B.C.)

The officer added a current affair question,  “Who is the prime minister of Canada now?”

The translator speaks in Chinese,  “What's that part of the face below your lips and above your neck?”

Man replied “Har Per”. (which means chin in Chinese) (The current prime minister of Canada is Prime Minister Stephen Harper)

The officer nodded his head again and asked the final question.

Officer:  Do you know what your privilege is when you become Canadian?

Translator:  (in Cantonese)  The officer asked you, How does a dog sounds like when it barks?

Man:  (demonstrated the sound to the officer)... Woe, Woe.  (Vote, Vote.  One of the privileges of a Canadian is the right to vote.)

The officer told the man that all the questions were answered correctly, shook hands with him and congratulated him that he had passed the interview to be a Canadian citizen.

When I was working at the Sino-British Trade Council (SBTC) — now China Britain Business Council (CBBC) — in 1985 and 1989, I heard this account of how one of their staff members, Philip, had once handled interpreting for two gentlemen oddly paired up for a conversation.

For inward missions (delegations from China visiting British factories and companies), SBTC would throw a reception on the last day and invite British businessmen to come along and meet the Chinese delegates.  To network, as we’d say these days.

On the occasion in question, the Chinese delegation consisted of ministers and high-ranking officials.

Philip found himself with a most enthusiastic British businessman and a Chinese gentleman.  Let’s call the British gentleman Mr Smith and the Chinese gentleman Mr Li.

Smith:  Can you ask Mr Li what he thinks of this visit of theirs?

Philip had discovered, when the introductions were being made, that Mr Li was only the bodyguard of one of the high-ranking officials, so he wouldn’t be particularly interested in how well the visit had gone in terms of trade opportunities between Britain and China.

Philip (in Chinese):  Mr Li, do you like sport?

Li (face lighting up):  Oh yes!  I do like sport.

Philip (to Smith):  Mr Li thinks this visit had gone very well.

Smith (getting excited):  Oh good!  Can you ask Mr Li what he thinks of future trading prospects between Britain and China?

Philip (in Chinese):  Mr Li, you said you like sport.  What kind of sport?

Li (beaming):  Oh, lots!  I like basketball, volleyball, table tennis, athletics, ice-skating.

Philip (to Smith):  Mr Li thinks future trading prospects between China and Britain are very good.

Smith:  Excellent!  Can you ask Mr Li which particular sectors he thinks will do well.

Philip (in Chinese):  Mr Li, do you actually participate in those sports you mentioned, or are you just a keen spectator?

Li (enthusiastically):  Oh, I actively participate in all of them.  Being a bodyguard, I have to keep fit, you see.  And I feel good after doing all those activities.

Philip (to Smith):  Mr Li thinks that the textiles industry will do very well, as Britain has a long history in textile production.  The light industries will do well too, he thinks.  

Mr Smith and Mr Li both went away from the reception feeling they’d had a very interesting conversation with each other.

(London, early1980s) 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Night market shopping (Hong Kong)

I’d asked a high school classmate, James, who was originally from Hong Kong, which places I should visit on my brief stopover en route to Taipei to start my new job.  Tong Choi Street was one of his recommendations.  It housed an interesting night market, he said.

In those days, people in the East didn’t tend to go to a foreign place equipped with a map.  They tended to go travelling with a package tour, where a guide was provided to take them from place to place — the Chinese nickname for travelling with a package tour is “赶鸭子 gǎn yāzi / herding ducks”.  Or they might have a friend at the destination who’d look after them.

So, mapless and clueless, I hailed a taxi on Nathan Road, Hong Kong's equivalent of London's Oxford Street.  One left turn, then one right turn later, we arrived at Tong Choi Street.  The taxi driver managed to remain poker-faced during the two-minute drive.

Tong Choi Street was a gaggle of hand carts groaning with wares, mostly piled on higgledy-piggledy.  One had to rummage around, jumble-sale-fashion, which is part of the fun of going around such markets.  

The carts each had a couple of naked light bulbs strung over the goods, all connected to one long overhead cable that ran the length of the street, presumably attached to some generator somewhere at one end of the street, or supplied through the back of the row of shops.

I bought five sweaters, all of which have survived to this day, 39 years later.  At the audio tapes stall, I was trying to decide which tapes to buy and asking the stall-holder for the price of each one I held out in turn, as and when I found one to my liking, when a shout rang out in the night air.  

Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity as all the stall-holders up and down Tong Choi Street switched off their light bulbs and disconnected them from the long overhead cable, lifted up the side flaps of their stalls to cover their goods, and beetled off with their carts down the side alleyways.  My audio tapes stall-holder snatched the tape out of my hand and threw it onto the pile of tapes just before the shut-down and get-out routine.  

Within something like 30 seconds, I was left standing in a dark and deserted street, wondering if I mightn’t have dreamt it all.

There was nothing left to do but go back to my hotel.  

Just as I was about to leave the spot where I’d stood rooted for another 30 seconds, wondering what to do, there was another flurry of activity as the carts all came trundling back, out of the back alleyways, each one to its exact previous spot.  The flaps were lifted and the naked light bulbs were switched on.  

The audio tapes stall-holder put the tape back into my hand, and said, “That one’s 10 dollars.”

(Hong Kong, December 1974)

Instant giveaways (Hong Kong / Taiwan)

En route to Taipei to start my two-year stint with Conoco Taiwan, I stopped over in Hong Kong for two half days and one night.

I was walking around, window-shopping.  Outside one of the shops I stopped at, to look at their window displays, the sales assistant said to me, in Cantonese, “You’re not from Hong Kong, are you?”  I hadn’t said a word, so how did he know??  He said, “Because you’re carrying an umbrella.  No Hong-Kongese would carry an umbrella.  They’ll just dive into one of the shop verandahs and wait for the rain to pass.”

In Taipei, I went to a shop in one of the back alleyways behind our office block to get my photos developed.  I handed over my film, they gave me a receipt and told me when to go back to collect.  

On collection day, I went back.  My prints were in one envelope.  The negatives were cut into strips of six, encased in a plastic sheet with a slot for each strip.  If you wanted re-prints, they gave you a waxy pencil with which to write the number of prints you wanted on the plastic sheet, over the relevant negative.  This could then be wiped off with a cloth once the order was met.  

I was writing out the numbers, without saying a word, when the shop assistant said to me, in Mandarin, “You’re not from here, are you?”  How did he know?  I hadn’t said a word!  He pointed at the hand holding the waxy pencil and said, “Because you’re writing with your left hand.  No Taiwanese would be writing with their left hand.”

(Hong Kong 1974 / Taipei 1975)

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Student’s logic (London)

Adam is determined to be featured in my blogspot yet again and has this new contribution.

We were doing a translation.  The source text sentence says, “There was a lot more traffic in Taipei than in Singapore, but people didn’t drive as fast.”  Adam’s rendition was: “台北的车比新加坡多,因为他们开车没有新加坡的快。” which is: “Taipei has more traffic than Singapore, because they don’t drive as fast as [in] Singapore.”  

This is (a) wrong, as it’s not what the source text says, and (b) very strange logic.  

My perverse sense of humour had me collapsing in laughter as I imagined the logic of Adam’s version to be:  “There are more cars in Taipei than in Singapore, because they don’t drive as fast — therefore one sees more of them around on the road.  If they drive as fast as in Singapore, they’d be out of sight in an instant and one wouldn’t see any cars on the roads.”  Sort of makes sense too...

(See also blog entry Students’ version of Chinese, with further examples of such things.)

 (London 2013)

Chòu dòufǔ (Hong Kong / Taiwan)

Bean curd, or tofu as it is more commonly known in the West (after the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese version dòufǔ / “bean rot”), comes in many forms:  soft—almost jelly-like; firm—slightly softer than soft cheese; quite firm—the texture of firm cheese; spongy—deep-fried.  The list runs and runs.  They are usually very bland, to the point of boring, on their own, but very versatile in the range of flavours and textures when cooked with different ingredients and different sauces.  I was familiar with bean curd in their different guises, as they were readily available in the markets in Singapore and in cooked dishes at roadside stalls and in restaurants.  Chòu dòufǔ, however, I’d never heard of until I went to work in Taiwan.

On my way to Taipei in December 1974 to start my two-year contract with Conoco Taiwan, I stopped over in Hong Kong for one night, arriving at mid-day on Saturday and leaving at mid-day on Sunday.  Wandering around the streets and back alleys after sundown, I came across a roadside stall, parked at the junction of a back street and an alleyway.  It looked like he was selling some kind of cooked food.  I caught a strong whiff of something like bad drains, and thought, “What a stupid man, positioning his food stall by this smelly drain.”

A week after I started working in Taipei, my flatmate took me into the cinema area of central Taipei, to show me around.  At one point, just as my nostrils detected a bad pong in the air, my flatmate said, “Oh, can you just wait for me.  I must go and buy something to take home,” and rushed off.  A few minutes later, she walked back to me, bringing this nasty pong with her.  I recognised it as the same smell I’d detected by the roadside stall in that Hong Kong alleyway.  It was the popular chòu dòufǔ dish, which is bean curd allowed to ferment a bit with as much water pressed out as possible, then deep fried.  The end product is crispy on the outside but pongy and spongy on the inside.  Rather like smelly cheese, chòu dòufǔ is loved and hated in equal measures, depending on whom you approach.

Chòu dòufǔ means “smelly bean curd”, and boy, does it live up to its name.  

What’s interesting is that the Chinese don’t even try to disguise it by using a deceptive name.  What’s even more interesting is that Chinese consumers are not put off by the name.

Simplification of Chinese characters: 1 (China)

I heard this story about how the simplification of one particular character went wrong and they had to abandon the chosen replacement and go back to the original one.  

The char is a 16-stroke char, 雕 diāo / to sculpt (radical: short-tailed bird 隹 zhuī).  The Language Reform Committee went for 刁 diāo, which is a 2-stroke char, sounds exactly like 雕, and looks like 刀 dāo / knife (thus retaining the sculpting element of 雕) -- a seemingly perfect replacement.  The next day, someone published a picture of a bust of Mao Zedong on the front page of the newspaper, with the caption: 毛主席的刁像 Máo zhǔxí de diāoxiàng.  The original would've been 毛主席的雕像 (Chairman Mao's sculpted image).  For some reason, the Committee had overlooked the meaning of 刁 and the role it could play in terms of the potential damage it could bring.  刁 means sly / cunning, so the clever opportunist was quick to use this one-off chance of punning on it without getting arrested.  They withdrew the replacement and have retained the 16-stroke 雕 to this day.