Sir Robert Hart, (based on a real person) the main character in “My Splendid Concubine”, knew the importance of translating English into Chinese or Chinese into English. Translation errors can become insults that end in bad feelings that may cause a war. For that reason, when Hart worked for the Emperor of China as the Inspector-General of China’s Maritime Customs Service from 1863 to 1911, anyone he hired had to learn Chinese in classes that Hart had created. He wanted to make sure they learned how to speak and translate Chinese properly.
For instance, recently a middle school English teacher in China asked her students to translate Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Chinese advertisement “We do chicken right (中學老師把 KFC 肯德基店裏的廣告)”, and the teacher received twenty-eight different translated answers.
Please keep in mind that the word “chicken” also means “prostitute” in modern Chinese slang depending on context.
[We do chicken right!]（烹雞專家） 發給學生練習翻譯，結果有以下答案：
Here is what the students wrote:
- 我們做雞是對的！It’s correct that we be prostitutes,
- 我們就是做雞的！ We are cut out to be prostitutes.
- 我們有做雞的權利！ We have the right to be prostitutes.
- 我們只做雞的右半邊！ We want only be the right side of a chicken.
- 我們只作右邊的雞！ We want to be chickens on the right side
- 我們可以做雞，對吧？ We can choose to be prostitutes, right?
- 我們行使了雞的權利！ We perform a chicken’s right.
- 我們主張雞權！ We call for chicken’s rights.
- 我們還是做雞好！ It’s better that we be prostitutes.
- 做雞有理！ It makes sense to be prostitutes.
- 我們讓雞向右看齊！ Let’s ask the chickens to look right.
- 我們只做正確的雞！ We only want to be the correct chickens.
- 我們肯定是雞！ We are prostitutes–no doubt.
- 只有我們可以做雞！ We are the only one who could be prostitutes.
- 向右看！有雞！ Look at your right, there are chickens.
- 我們要對雞好！ We must be kind to chickens.
- 我們願意雞好！ We wish chickens all our best.
- 我們的材料是正宗的雞肉！ We use real chickens.
- 我們公正的做雞！ We must feel justified to be prostitutes.
- 我們做雞正點耶∼∼ Time is right to prostitute.
- 我們只做正版的雞！ We only want to be original prostitutes.
- 我們做雞做的很正確！ To be prostitutes is to be correct.
- 我們正在做雞好不好？ We’re making chickens – will that be okay?
- 我們一定要把雞打成右派！We must turn the chickens into rightists.
- 我們做的是右派的雞！ We are right-winged prostitutes.
- 我們只做右撇子雞！ We are right-handed prostitutes.
- 我們做雞最專業！We are professional prostitutes.
- 我們叫雞有理！The chickens and prostitutes are always correct.
China is a tonal language. There are four tones for each written Chinese symbol. Each tone has a different meaning. Say a word in the wrong tone, and you might end up insulting someone.
Words that are similar are called homophones – two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins or spellings. The Chinese author Cao Xuegin who wrote Dream of the Red Chamber in the 18th century chose many of the names of his characters to be homophones with other words which hint at their qualities. For example, the name of the main family, “賈” (Jiǎ) puns with “假” meaning “fake” or “false” while the name of the other main family in the story, “甄” (Zhēn) puns with “眞” meaning “real” or “true”.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.
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