Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Presidential nonsense-clature

Last time we learned how Sen. Barack Obama is a mysterious sticky horse. If you thought that was weird, just wait until you hear the other candidates' names in Chinese.
As I mentioned last post, Chinese transliterations of Western public figures' names are often reduced to three characters. This is to maintain some sense of normalcy for the average Chinese reader. Usually the transliteration is of the Western person's last name only. BUT, in Chinese, a person's surname (last name) is the first character in the name. So, like last time's example: Mao Zedong. Mao is the surname.
Here is where it gets convoluted. In the transliteration of a Western last name (like Romney), sometimes the first character of the transliteration is an actual Chinese surname. Clever, no? So the transliteration is 罗姆尼 (luo2 mu3 ni2), not only sounds like Romney, but his name has a real Chinese surname! Bonus! We'll get to the meaning of his name later. He would think it was weird.
OK, on with the names of the other candidates!

1) John McCain
Everybody knows McCain was a POW in Vietnam, and he is into campaign finance reform, right? Most Americans don't know, though, that his Chinese name, 麦凯恩 (mai4 kai3 en1) (which also sports an authentic Chinese surname) means Wheat Triumphant Kindness. Technically, the first character, 麦, can be viewed as merely as surname. But it is also used in transliterations in place of the prefix "Mac" or "Mc," as in McDonald's: 麦当劳 (mai4 dang1 lao2), which means roughly "wheat becomes labor."
So McCain's Chinese name is actually pretty good. It could also be translated as "McTriumphant Kindness."
The character breakdown:
麦: Mai, which means wheat, barley, oats or just a surname. Also represents the "Mc" in his name.
凯: Kai, translated as "triumphant," but a more poetic meaning is "victory song," such as an army would sing upon gaining a victory and returning home.
恩: En, which is basically "kindness," or favor, or benevolence.
Not bad!

2) Hillary Clinton
Sen. Clinton's Chinese name is interesting because it is a transliteration of her first name, Hillary, instead of the usual last name transliteration. This is most likely because the "Clinton" Chinese version was already taken by President Bill Clinton's name in Chinese:
克林顿 (ke1 lin2 dun4). Which means, incidentally, Overcome Forest Pause. So, since that was taken, they use 希拉里 (xi1 la1 li3), Hope Pull Inside.
希: Xi, means hope, also means "infrequent."
拉: La, to pull.
里: Li means "inside" somewhere. It is also a measure of distance, approx. 1/2 mile, and also is another word for village.

3) Also running

Mike Huckabee
赫卡比 (He4 ka2 bi3): Burning red Obstruct Compare

Mitt Romney
罗姆尼 (Luo2 Mu3 Ni2): Bird net Governess Buddhist nun
Romney's name is also very close to the Chinese word for "rum," 罗姆酒 (luo2 mu3 jiu3). Being a Mormon he probably wouldn't like that much more than having "Buddhist nun" as part of his name!

How's that for astute political commentary?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's in a (presidential candidate's) name?

Unlike Western names, Chinese names have meanings that are (in general) obvious and out in front. Take my name, Benjamin. It means "son of my right hand," but most people don't know that.
Then take a Chinese name, like 毛泽东 (mao2 ze2 dong1). So the surname comes first, and while these all have meaning (in Mao's case 'hair'), I suppose they are just considered a name, like Smith. Nobody thinks of a Smith as a smith. But the given name in this case, 泽东, means "beneficence to the East."
Now, of course, (if he were just a normal guy) people wouldn't go around thinking of him as Hairy Beneficence to the East. They would just think of him as "Old Mao," or "Zedong." But still, the name is made of words that are used in the language as it exists today. In other words, the names are not based on Latin or Aramaic or whatever, so that the meaning is lost on most people. The meaning is right there in your face.
Having said that, (now there's a weird expression. Of course I said that.), anyway, that being said, (ibid), ahem. In the case of foreign names, things get tricky. In the next few posts, I will deconstruct for you, dear reader, the names of the U.S. presidential candidates (technically 'hopefuls') as they appear in the Chinese media.

1) Mysterious Sticky Horse
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is referred to in Chinese as 奥巴马 (Ao1 Ba1 Ma3), which is a 3-character transliteration of just his last name "Obama." That is a theme (with some exceptions) in the transliteration of Western names. It's handy to do that, because then his name has three words in it (like a Chinese name, usually), and it is easily readable for people. Otherwise the name would be long and cumbersome to read.
Here is Obama's name, broken down into its separate characters:
: "Ao" means "obscure or mysterious." It is also a phonetic word that is used in foreign sounding words, like "Olympics" or "Austria."
: "Ba" is another word that is usually used as a syllable in transliterations. But the top meaning in the online Xinhua Chinese dictionary is "something sticky, like mud or 'guo ba' (that rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot)"
: "Ma" simply means "horse." Pretty straightforward. Also used commonly in transliterations.
So, in sum, Obama is referred to in the Chinese media as the "Mysterious Sticky Horse." Interpret that as you will.
Tune in tomorrow (or whenever I get to it) for more presidential pun-ishment!
NEXT: John McCain and Hillary Clinton...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The quest for "King" Abs

The year 2008 plods mercilessly on, almost to month number three. As a way to distract myself, I am hereby embarking on a quest. The quest for "King" abs.
Who is King Abs, you ask? Well, in Chinese 王字腹肌 (wang2 zi1 fu4 ji1) means "王-shaped abdominal muscles." 王 means "king" (it is also the surname Wang), but it is also a shape, and if you use your imagination, you can see that "6-pack abs" pattern in the shape of the character. Here is an ASCII dude with King abs:
 / \
 \ |

See? OK. So here is the plan: In six weeks, I will give myself two gifts:
1) a full-time job
2) a brand new set of King abs

I will go about this quest by doing copious amounts of cardiovascular activity, eating mainly chicken, leafy greens and peppers, and eggs. And string cheese.
I will also be applying to at least two jobs a week, no matter what they are.

I'll track my progress on this blog over the next six weeks. Don't worry, I won't put up any before pictures.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ludicrous linguistics I

Today's word of the day is 标, (biao1).
Like tons of other Chinese characters, the meaning (and appearance) of
has changed considerably since it was first invented and carved into a turtle shell some 6,000 years ago.
The left side of the character is the "wood" radical 木 (mu4), which gives a hint that the word is related to wood or trees.
Indeed, the original meaning was "tip of a tree," or basically the opposite of the roots of a tree.
The right side of the character is (well, was, before simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s) 票 (piao4). This character usually means "ticket" or "slip of paper." But an alternate meaning (with the pronunciation piao1) was the same as 飘 (also piao1), which means to wave around in the wind.
So you've got "wood" 木, combined with "waving around in the breeze" 票, and together they mean the tippy top of a tree, that would likely be thin and high up, and therefore blowing around. Pretty cool.
Well, since then, the word has evolved to mean many different things. Common meanings are "mark, symbol, or label." It was also used as a name for the army of the late Qing Dynasty, and later evolved to mean "regiment."
But a strange definition, which I discovered while doing a recent translation job, is that it means "bid," as in "a bid on eBay."
How did a poetic word meaning "tree top waving in the wind" come to be such a mundane word as "eBay bid?"

The answer is that I have no clue. Probably a professional linguist might be able to figure it out, but I can only guess. Here is my version. The phrase 投标 (tou2 biao1), means "to put in a bid." The first part of the phrase 投, means "to throw."
OK, I'll set it up:
It's 3,000 years ago in northern China. A merchant rolls into town carrying spices from the south. Everybody wants some, but there is only enough for 3 families. So the 6 family elders come out to the village square in the morning to face off for the spices.
"Ready, GO!" shouts the merchant.
The elders slap the hands of their youngest, most agile kids and the kids run off into the forest.
An hour later the kids come running back with tree branches from the top of the tallest tree they could find in their hands. They all throw them into the middle of the square, with their family name attached to their branch.
Then the merchant goes with each of them into the woods to see which tree they cut the top branch from. The three families with the branches from the tallest trees get to buy the spices!
It. Could. Have. Happened.
And then, a few millennia later, someone invents the Internet and the concept lives on. Except the branches are made of 1s and 0s and don't really exist.
OK, that's today's lesson!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


For a job interview, I was asked to write a feature story about myself. I thought that was a great assignment. Who doesn't like to talk about themselves, and what better way than to write a fake interview with yourself?
In the news biz, a "valentine" is an article that is super flattering about someone, and doesn't really say anything bad or controversial. Well, in honor of this year's Valentine's Day, here are some excerpts from my very own valentine to myself. (I took out the name of the company.) Here it is:

By Ben Moger-Williams
XXX staff hopeful

Ben Moger-Williams sat quietly at his kitchen table in Golden on a recent morning, surrounded by cats. His fingers moved over the laptop keyboard like a World War II wireless operator, tapping out an important piece of intelligence: I would love to work for XXX Newspapers.
Moger-Williams, 35, came to be in this feline-infested kitchen via a strange and roundabout route.
A native of Brookhaven, N.Y., located in the middle of Long Island, he is the son of a writer and a social worker. His years at Bellport High School on the loosely affiliated Bellport Puffins Ultimate Frisbee team secured an enduring love for that sport that he says will never fade. A crush on his high school English teacher also secured in him a love of writing.

“My mom says I looked like a Chinese baby,” Moger-Williams said in a recent interview. “I was also born the year that Ling-ling and Xing-xing came to the United States. So, you know, there were signs.”
He soon discovered a love for Mandarin, and excelled in the subject, eventually majoring in Chinese Literature. After a semester abroad in 1992, he decided that China was where he wanted to be after graduating. He was accepted into the prestigious Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese-American Studies, a part of the School of Advanced International Studies, in 1994. After spending a year with that program, Moger-Williams moved to Beijing to live with his good friend Xiaofeng “Peter” Pan.

Moger-Williams also cites several television appearances while in China. He was one of three foreigners chosen to be the hosts of a show commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Long March. He, along with Peruvian artist Martin Salazar Santos and Ukrainian student Yulia [Something] retraced the route of Mao Zedong’s Communist forces as they retreated over 10,000 km in a huge circle around China.
“I got to see some amazing places on that trip,” Moger-Williams recalled. “I learned a whole lot about censorship, too. Most of the good interviews were cut and the show was converted into a propaganda-soaked Communist farce. But it was still awesome.”

Asked if he wants to stay in the field of journalism, he offers a solid “yes.”
“Ultra-local coverage and community news – what I was doing before – are the future of newspapers,” he said. “We used to scoop the larger daily all the time, and what a great feeling that was. I hope to be able to continue to work in a small, flexible environment, where I can be part of a quality news team. That is what it is all about.”
As he types the final words in the application for a job with XXX, he pauses to look out the window. A large cat thunders past his feet.
“OK,” he says. “I have a good feeling about this one. Let’s see what happens.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Stereotypes live

I do freelance translation on the side to make a few extra bucks. And I mean few in the sense of "not very much." Often the assignments are diplomas and transcripts and stuff, but sometimes there are pretty interesting ones. Sometimes, though, they are really hard.

I suppose it is a stereotype that doctors have messy handwriting. But it's true! Especially Chinese doctors. Tonight I am working on a translation of a medical record, and trying to read the doctor's writing is pretty impossible. I have deciphered a few of the entries, including some of the prescriptions, but mostly I have to put [illegible] down. I did learn one useful word: 硝酸甘油 (nitroglycerin, xiao1 suan1 gan1 you2).

I feel bad because I turned down this assignment once, but I guess they couldn't find anyone else to do it. But I don't want the guy who's record it is to suffer because I couldn't read his doctor's handwriting.

Well, I'll keep at it. Hopefully we can go back to diplomas and such with the next round.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Badminton can save America

In the upcoming Olympics in August of this year, one of the least watched events (by Americans) will probably be badminton. That's as may be, but badminton in the United States is a great metaphor for diversity, international relations and global understanding.
Badminton evolved from a ancient Greek game known as Battledore and Shuttlecock, where two players would simply smack a shuttlecock (feathered ball) back and forth.
Today it is played all over the world and is the second most popular sport in the world, after soccer (according to some, anyway). The hardest smash was clocked at over 200 mph, coming off the racket. (The record was set by Chinese player Fu Haifeng, at the 2005 Sudirman Cup. Speed 332 km/h or 207 mph.)
One of the first things I did after moving to Colorado was find a place to play badminton. Personally I developed a love of the game while living in Beijing for 5 years. There, a friend's company rented out 5 courts every week at the Asian Games Village in the northern part of the city. The gym there had at least 40 courts set up, and it was hard to get court space even then.
But after returning to the US, I found that a great way to interact with the international crowd is to find a badminton club and start playing.
Take the Boulder Badminton Club, for example. This is where I play every Thursday night.

The club has several Chinese or Taiwanese members, and I usually seek them out quickly so I can practice my rusty Mandarin skills. During a doubles game last week, one Chinese player was paired up with a Romanian dude, and I was playing against them, with another Romanian dude. So right there you have representation from 3 countries.
Anyway, it turned out that the Romanian guy on the other team said a few words in Chinese to his partner. After the game, the Chinese partner asked him if he could speak Mandarin. The guy answered yes and so I chimed in that I could speak it, too. Liviu, for that was his name, was very excited and we started chatting away. He had taught himself Mandarin while in Romania. In Colorado he works at a hospital. He also said the guy I was playing with was his cousin, Zico, who used to be the coach of the national Romanian team.

Liviu told me that he has trouble speaking with Chinese people in America, since they are more aloof than those in Romania and don't want to practice with him. Sort of strange, but I suppose once you have been in the US for a while, you learn to be more suspicious than you were in other parts of the world.
Liviu also said he used to live in New Hampshire, and there he was met with other forms of suspicion. He said that there were lots of "hong bo zi" (rednecks) there and they would sometimes approach him and ask if he was an Arab, because if he was, they didn't like Arabs.
Interestingly enough, he said he preferred that type of up-front prejudice to the behind-your-back kind.

Anyway, back to my original premise. Americans can learn a lot playing badminton. In Boulder there are players from China, Taiwan, Romania, Canada, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Germany, England, Vietnam, and Russia. Probably some others too, but still, that's a lot. Games last about 15-20 minutes, and for that brief time, all the players on the court are united in their love of the game.
Insert clever conclusion here.