Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Radical, dude

Chinese characters are made up of distinct parts called "radicals," or sometimes called "section headers" (bu4 shou3 部首). (So called because of the way you look up characters in a Chinese dictionary.) The current 214-radical system is based on the Kang Xi Dictionary, which was formalized in the 18th century by Qing Dynasty Emperor Kang Xi (kang1 xi1 康熙 ). Most radicals are also characters on their own.

Each radical means something, and often the combination of radicals is a clue to what the whole character means, or sometimes it is a clue to the pronunciation.

For example: The radical represents "three drops of water (san1 dian'r3 shui3)." It even looks like it!

Then this radical, 目, represents "eye (mu4)." Unlike the 'three drops,' this is an actual character, as well as a radical. Put them together and you have "tears (lei4)"!

The characters I wanted to talk about today are characters that are made up of the same radical repeated 2 or 3 times within the same character. These are called "totally radical" characters. (Not really). With these you really get a sense of how cool and interesting the language is. Here are some good examples.

1) Forest and the trees: The character/radical mu4, 木, means "wood, or tree." Put two "mu's" together and you have 林 (lin2), which means forest (it's also a surname). Then put three of them together (森, sen1) and the meaning changes to "luxuriant vegetation!" Therefore a common word for forest is sen1 lin2, 森林. So the word for forest in Chinese is essentially "tree tree tree, tree tree."

2) Sound of Thunder: Thunder in Chinese (雷, lei2) is made up of two radicals, rain (雨, yu3) and field (田, tian2). But if you want to convey a really massive, intense, nerve-shattering thunderclap, throw three thunders together to get this insane ideogram:
This pen-destroying character takes a whopping 39 strokes to write, so if you use it you'd better mean it, buster.

3) Ancient chauvanists? The character for woman (女 , nv3) is a representation of a figure kneeling down. If you think that is sexist, check out this one: , jian1, which is three 'woman' radicals all together. This means "villainous, treacherous or debaucherous." (It really makes you wonder what happened to the guy who invented that character.) The 3-woman version is the traditional form of the character. In simplified characters it is , which is less blatant but still has one 'woman' radical in it.
In the same vein, the character 嬲, niao3, is two 'man' radicals on either side of a 'woman.' It means "to flirt or tease."

4) Five elements x 3: In Daoist philosophy, there are five main elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. (金 jin1, 木 mu4, 水 shui3, 火 huo3, 土 tu3.) Each of these is a radical as well as a word, and each element has a character that is made up of itself repeated three times:
3 Metals: 鑫 xin1, used in names to symbolize prosperity.
3 Woods: 森 sen1, lush vegetation (as described above)
3 Waters: 淼 miao3, vast expanse of water, infinity
3 Fires: 焱 yan4, flames (also has a 2- and 4-radical version: 炎 yan2, inflamed; 燚 yi4, lots of flames)
3 Earths: 垚 yao2, embankment (also has 2-radical version, 圭 gui1, a type of jade tablet.)

There are many more of this type of character. If I find some really weird ones, perhaps I will revisit the topic in the future. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sarah Palin in Chinese

In the interest of getting everyone super-excited to get out and vote, I have revisited this important topic: Wacky translations of U.S. candidates' Chinese names.

Previously I revealed the translations of the Chinese names of U.S. presidential candidates/hopefuls. But now that we have the VPs settled as well, it is about time to disclose how these two people - Joe Biden and Sarah Palin - are named in the Chinese press. Their names are two more classics in the 'messed-up-out-of-context-literal-translation' category.

Let's start with everyone's favorite right-wing mooseslayer Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. (莎拉佩林, sha1 la1 pei4 lin2). Her first name, Sarah, is composed of two characters: 莎 sha1; 拉 and la1.

The first character actually has two pronunciations: sha1 and suo1. Read "suo," it is a type of sedge grass apparently used to make ancient raincoats. The "sha" pronunciation is generally used as a phonetic element in foreign names like Shakespeare and Mona Lisa. But it also has a third meaning: a type of insect. The "sha"-bug is a katydid or long-horned grasshopper, otherwise known in Chinese as the (纺织娘 fang3 zhi1 niang2), which literally means "weaving girl." (I don't get it either.)

The second part of Sarah is "la1." Also a favorite with phoneticizers, this character actually means "to pull." OK onto the last name: 佩林 pei4 lin2, which in Chinese sounds pretty close to the English pronunciation.

Pei4 has multiple meanings including "to carry or hang off of," "admire," and "girdle ornament." The last refers to the practice in ancient China where women used to wear jade ornaments that hung off of their belts. And...

Lin2 is composed of two "wood" radicals, and therefore means "woods," or "forest."

Let's recap: Sarah Palin's name in Chinese means: "Katydid pulls the girdle-ornament forest."

OK, on to Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden (乔拜登 qiao2 bai4 deng1). Biden's name is usually written as just a 2-character transliterated surname: 拜登, bai4 deng1. The "qiao" part is supposed to sound like "Joe." Here's how it breaks down:

Qiao2 means tall or lofty. It is also a real Chinese surname, so it gives his name a slight air of authenticity, though here is it supposed to sound like his first name, Joe.

Bai4 means to bow, or kowtow, or to worship.

Deng1 means to scale, climb, or to mount.
Not terribly exciting, but in a nutshell Biden's name means: Tall kowtows and mounts. But, if we take the qiao2 to be "Joe" and combine it with Obama's Chinese name we have a more interesting-sounding final Democratic ticket:

Joe kowtows and mounts Mysterious sticky horse.

Who wouldn't vote for that?

Note: I admit that the title of this post is a shameless attempt to have Google find my blog, just in case someone searches for how to say Palin's name in Chinese.