Friday, October 21

Shades of Amy Tan's lame Chinese

I didn't much like Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing. There is a little too much girly gossip and hand-wringing for me, but there are also a lot of niggling errors.

In discussing Chinese racism, she claims that there is a 黑哥 hēigē ("black brother") toothpaste. The only one I could find was an illegal knock-off. But she says nothing about 黑妹 hēimèi ("black sister") toothpaste.

Then there are many language errors. At one point she says she embarrassed herself by saying 閹割 yāngē ("castrate") instead of 嚴格 yángé ("strict"). She says someone explained to her that people understood her to say that her teachers castrated their students instead of saying that the teachers were strict. Yes, it's funny. But such a misunderstanding on the part of the Chinese doesn't sound likely to me. I believe her companion was just teasing her. In any case, she goes on to claim that "strict" is pronounced with two third tones, which would be yǎngě (and tone sandhi would change that to yángě), but that is simply wrong: 嚴格 is yángé.

At one point she refers to a club called "Jazz Ya", which she glosses as "Jazz Place" in Japanese but "Jazz Duck" in Chinese. But the syllable "ya" can mean many different things in Chinese, depending on how it is written. In the first tone alone, it could be 鴉 "crow" as well as 鴨 "duck", or just 呀 an exclamation, among other things. And there are several other choices:
yā: 押, 椏, 壓
yá: 枒, 芽, 蚜, 牙, 涯, 衙
yǎ: 啞, 雅
yà: 揠, 掗, 軋, 亞, 砑, 迓, 訝, 氬, 婭

The first time she notices the written Chinese title of Foreign Babes in Beijing, the soap opera she is to act in, she sees "a few extra, sexy strokes" in one of the Chinese characters.

First, as to those "sexy" strokes. The phonetic for 妞 is 丑, which was most commonly seen as number two of the duodecimal cycle, but was also used in words like 丑旦 chǒudàn, a woman clown on stage, and now under the simplified character regime, 丑 chǒu is used to mean "ugly". How is that sexy?

As to pronunciation, she can't hear the sound rendered as ü in Chinese. She initially thought the title of the series was 洋女在北京 yáng nǚ zài Běijīng instead of 洋妞在北京 yáng niū zài Běijīng. In other words, she cannot hear the difference between 女 nǚ and 妞 niū.

Similarly, at one point she also says of the title, "I heard 'foreign' and 'niu' and 'in Beijing'. 'Niu' sounded both like 'cattle' and 'girl'". Here she is similarly confusing 牛 niú and 女 nǚ.

She also misspells the pinyin for the second character in the phrase 當局者迷,旁觀者清 spelling it jiu instead of ju (it should be dāngjúzhěmí,pángguānzhěqīng "those closely involved cannot see as clearly as those outside").

And finally, she claims the young woman who "thong-flashed" people was afterwards known as "guang pigu nu", which should be guāng pìgu nǚ; it's that same 女 nǚ that she has so much trouble with.

And even if she had trouble with this, why didn't someone proofread the Chinese? Would W. W. Norton publish a book with Latin misspellings? I guess her father (the retired sinologist Kenneth J. DeWoskin) was too busy.

Shades of Amy Tan's yi ta fa duo!

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