Saturday, 26 March 2016

Simplification of Chinese characters: 2

The simplification of the Chinese script does indeed make it quicker to write out the characters, with a lot of them being reduced from double-digit stroke count to single-digit.

However, there are occasions when this can have serious consequences.

In the early 80s, I was sent a translation done by someone else to proof-read.  One of the verbs made odd sense in the context, so I asked for the original.

It turned out that the sentence, hand-written by the translator, was mis-read by the typist.  The end result was the complete opposite in meaning.

The sentence was: Our company has established a branch in Singapore 我们公司在新加坡设有分行 wǒmen gōngsī zài Xīnjiāpō shèyǒu fēnháng / “we company in Singapore establish have branch office”.

Now, 设有 shèyǒu / “establish have” in its traditional form is 設有, which looks quite different in the first character.  

Unfortunately, the simplification of the speech radical on the left of 設 (from 言 yán to 讠) makes 设有 look very similar to 没有 méiyǒu / “not have”, which has water radical on the left (氵shuǐ), especially when hand-written and read in a hurry (讠 vs氵; 设 vs 没).

The second unfortunate thing about this verb in this context is that it makes equal sense for a company to have set up a branch in Singapore and for it not to have a branch in Singapore, but the two are completely opposite different in meaning.

The exception would be if the company in question is Barings Bank.  Post-Nick Leeson (who’d crashed the bank in 1995), it wouldn’t make any difference whether Barings had set up a branch in Singapore or did not have a branch in Singapore.

我们银行在新加坡设有分行 wǒmen yínháng zài Xīnjiāpō shèyǒu fēnháng / “we bank in Singapore establish have branch office”.

我们银行在新加坡没有分行 wǒmen yínháng zài Xīnjiāpō méiyǒu fēnháng / “we bank in Singapore not have branch office”.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Oops 1 (London)

I’d completely forgotten it was Remembrance Day.

As I was finishing my Skype lesson at 11am, using the wifi at the pub where I do one shift a week, one of my bar colleagues rang the wall bell behind the bar.  

For those for whom the significance might not be clear, pubs in Britain ring the bell twice towards closing time, with the second bell signalling the end of orders and the punters then have about ten minutes to finish their drinks and leave the premises.  On a Saturday night, when closing time is a bit later than the rest of the week, the first bell is at 11.15pm, and the second and last at 11.30pm.

I laughed out loud and said to my student in Australia, “Haha!  It’s 11am and they’re ringing the bell!”  There were about 30 customers scattered around the tables, and some of them turned round and looked at me.  I thought perhaps I was speaking too loudly because of my headphones, and being perched at the high table in the corner, my voice was bouncing off the walls more than it would’ve at the floor level and amongst all the tables.

It wasn’t until a day later that it suddenly dawned on me the bell was rung to call for the minute’s silence that we observe at 11am on 11 November…

(London 2014)

Monday, 14 March 2016

Sanity-challenging conversations: 1 (Singapore)

On this latest trip to Singapore, I experienced two strange conversations that made me think I was beginning to lose my ability to process linguistic information.

Susan:  I won’t be here next week.  I’ll be going to Bandung.
Me:       Ah, Bandung!  I was there in December 1973.  Ate avocado pear for the first time there.
Susan:  I love avocado pears.  Every time I go, I’ll be sure to eat some.
Me:       How many times have you been to Bandung?
Susan:  This is my first.
Me:       But you said “every time I go”.
Susan:  Oh, I meant Indonesia.

At a Chinese New Year lunch for the restaurant staff.  Lady Boss’s friend (LBF) (in her early 70s, I think) sat to my right, with Zhang Ming, one of the cooks, opposite me.

Me:  Zhang Ming, you can get on to the internet on your hand phone, right?  Can you google a famous Brazilian footballer for me?  I want all of you to take a look at him.  I think Heidi [the manager] looks like him.

Before Zhang Ming could even start keying in “google”:
LBF:    No, she doesn’t.
Me:     But you haven’t seen what he looks like yet!
LBF:    She doesn’t look like him.
Me:     How do you know that, when you haven’t even seen what he looks like?
LBF:   He’s a footballer.

It would've made more sense if she'd said, "How can a woman look like a man?" but on the basis that he's a footballer?!?

(Singapore, 2016)

Thursday, 10 March 2016

A vodka-fuelled journey (USSR)

Ben Williams and Ralph Kiggell (, two years below me at SOAS, had just spent their Year Abroad in Beijing and were returning to the UK on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow — a six-day-five-night journey covering 4,735 miles.

On the USSR stretch, they were joined by a Russian soldier who spoke no English.  He did, however, have a rather generous supply of vodka, which he shared with the boys.  The rest of the journey went by in a haze, and they arrived in Moscow a few days later around 7am.

As they were shaking hands in farewell, the boys felt that they should at least express their gratitude by offering the soldier a drink in return, miming the act, quite certain that he would say no, after five days of solid drinking.  He readily accepted.  

A couple of hours later, Ben and Ralph staggered off to the platform to catch their train to Germany.  As they stood there, waiting for their train to arrive, they saw a train already sitting on the tracks on the other side.  They then saw some familiar-looking suitcases among the luggage strapped to the roof, and suddenly realised that they were their suitcases!

The shock jolted them out of their inebriation and they legged it up the bridge across to the other platform and caught their train just in time.  The next train would’ve been something like a few days later.

(USSR, 1981)