Monday 28 January 2002

Chinese-English translations

Doc’s entry Raising the Red Flag reminded me of an experience I had in Beijing in 1980. Working with a Chinese photographer, Mr Hu, I was photographing Ming and Qing dynasty scrolls in the Imperial Museum (located in the Forbidden Palace where much of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor was filmed). This was at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution and everyone was still wearing Mao suits—although the high level Party functionaries whom I occasionally met must have bought their Mao suits at Versace or Ermenegildo Zegna.

I was only able to communicate with Mr Hu through a translator, Miss Feng, who was an expert in technical translation. She spoke flawless English and, to assist her with any specialized words, she had a Chinese-English/English-Chinese technical dictionary.

Since the electrical voltage used to fluctuate wildly during the course of the day— modifying the color temperature of our tungsten photo lights—we were forced to take regular breaks while waiting for it to stabilize. A large analog voltmeter mounted on the wall enabled us to monitor the voltage. (One morning, when I asked Mr Hu why the voltage had held rock-steady at 220V for two hours, he told me that the power authority had given priority to the museum because the Yugoslav President was visiting.)

But this morning the voltage was down to 212V and we were taking another enforced break. I saw Miss Feng’s dictionary on a table, picked it up, and began to idly flick through the pages. As I’d expected there were sections on such subjects as marine biology, aeronautical engineering, orthopedic surgery, and of course photography. I amused myself for a while by looking up the Chinese characters for “aperture,” “shutter-speed,” and “developer.”

Then, turning to the front of the dictionary, I found a section of Chinese political phrases and their English equivalents. “Capitalist running dog.” “US hegemony.” “Imperialist lackey.” I’d always assumed that these terms had been coined by Western journalists as a way of sending up Chinese political speech. But here they were, in print. This was how the Chinese actually thought and spoke. Or some of them at least.

Suddenly I felt a presence behind me and turned to find Ms Feng. I was embarrassed to be caught reading her dictionary without having asked permission.

“This dictionary is very interesting, Miss Feng,” was all I could think to say as I handed it back.

“Yes, Mr Delacour,” she replied. “And some parts of it are more interesting than others.”

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Comments

Hi I really love a chinese lady but she does not talk much english . I have tried to tell her how I feel but its been pretty hard . I want to respect her and yet tell her that I love her heaps and think that she is the most beautifull thing around . I would also like to ask her how she feels about me . I certainly dont want to push something that will never get started . Could you please advise me on how can I get some Chinese writting to let her know how I feel and if she feels the same way .
Thank you so much for helping
Philippe a frenchman having a hard time with cross culture love language .......

Posted by Philippe on 2 June 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour