Chinese is a dangerous language. It’s the tone which matters. There are four of them with the power to change meaning – get the tone wrong and you could be in trouble. China and England are so culturally different their translations can be problematic too. Before Mao’s policy of controlling the natural world, traditional Chinese philosophy had been to live in harmony with nature. This often shows in the language. For examples, after their wedding young couples retire to the bedroom. Where the English say love or sex, in China it’s ‘two ducks playing in the water enjoying the spring time.‘ Ducks have a special significance in China. They are considered a symbol of freedom with Mandarin ducks representing love and life long devotion. (Peking ducks are a variety specially bred to be eaten!)
The chinese greeting Ni Hao (Nee How) translates literally as You Good which seems to ask and answer at the same time. Thank you is Xie Xie (Shay Shay) and needs a smile to catch the correct tone. This gives a lovely nuance to the phrase. Chinese calligraphy, the transfer of spoken to written language, is an art as well as an industry. Street calligraphers use water to write poems in public places or sell messages of good luck and blessings with brushes ranging from miniscule to enormous. The script seems a mystery until you realise the images are pictures not letters and then you can begin to recognise individual symbols like person and country.
Another cultural difference was around nature calling. Toilets were a challenge on every level with the chinese euphemism of happy hour being a source of much amusement with local guides who knew too well how our toilet trips were more often than not unhappy occasions. Also known as ‘singing a song’, the experience was a great leveller. It separated the stoic from those who hadn’t done their homework. Cubicle choice was the first challenge and here the visual was often more useful than attempts at English. Once inside there were no hooks for bags or coats, no andrex (labrador puppies dancing in the water?) and no helpful (for westerners) instructions like ‘face this way’. Door or wall became a debating point as not all squatties were equally spaced and positioned although a good sense of balance was always essential.
Finding the public toilets was never a problem. You just breathed and followed your nose. It was particularly easy on the road. People don’t travel from place to place unless their work involves transportation and motorway services were basic to say the least. Directions to the public conveniences were unnecessary and privacy wasn’t highly rated either. In the cities, there was sometimes a western toilet which was identified by the queue. First off the coach developed a new significance. Occasionally the sit-on loos had an additional arm to one side. Toilet bidet combo’s with multiple options. These included spray, massage and oscillation, with a choice of hot or cold shower-pressure and air temperature. Ideal Standard have a lot to learn. Maybe this is where ‘happy hour’ comes from?
Conversion from Chinese to English was less a case of ‘lost in translation’ and more about enhancement. Praise for arriving on time at an agreed place was greeted with ‘thank you for your excellent cooperations’, to stop talking was ‘keeping your silence’ and any sadness caused ‘my tears to come out’. Our only point of linguistic disagreement was environmental. We called it smog. The Chinese called it mist. Explanations for the haze included being in a valley, being between two rivers and ‘at night the lights shine right through so you know it’s clean.’ Whatever the cause, a smoky cloud covered the cities and countryside. It was like wearing dirty glasses and having the onset of a chest infection. West and east, the landscape was permanently blurred which in itself was a language of a different kind.
Favourite translations included the elevation of railings to cultural relics, signs on escalators which warned against frolicking and instructions for not potting tap water. More seriously, an explanation for the flooding of the three gorges valleys, in spite of its errors, was a chilling reminder of the loss of life and lifestyles.
In places there were suggestions something more was going on for example the single word Quiet required four main characters and twenty subsequent ones! Overall, I liked best the translations with a more philosophical message. As well as my photographs and a renewed appreciation for western sanitation systems, these pieces of public advice were well worth bringing home.