“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Happy Niu Year

By Lucas Klein, published

I’ve received plenty of emails from people wishing me a “happy niu year.” The phrasing represents a kind of translation that I can’t imagine having happened much twelve years ago: since 1997 Chinese and pīnyīn have become much more pervasive and available in the English-speaking world, while knowledge of and the importance of English has grown in China.

But translation, or something like it, also happens within languages. I guess I mean the misfiring, the falling offs, and the avoidance of them that make some people say translation is impossible. In Chinese, homophones and puns take on a sometimes cosmic significance: fish and bats are auspicious because [fish] sounds like [plenty] and biānfú 蝙蝠 [bat] contains the sound of the word [fortune] (I’ve been translating a poem recently in which a certain transition hinges on the notion of bats as good omens). But it cuts both ways: sometimes you don’t want to say something because something sounds like something else. These days, a kind of prohibition has arisen, given the bosses’ propensity for layoffs amidst the current global economic slowdown, against saying gōngxǐ fācái 恭喜發財 [“happy new year,” but literally “congratulations on how much money you’re getting”], because cái [“wealth”] sounds like cái [“to get fired”]? And especially against saying cáiyuán gǔngǔn 財源滾滾 [“may your wealth and resources come rolling”], since it sounds like cáiyuán gǔngǔn 裁員滾滾 [“may you get laid off and may your head roll”]. These phrases, and their homophonic evil twins, are hard to translate, but they exist as their own kind of translation—belles infidèles, or beautiful infidelities—already.

Comments

# 1.   

Another fairly amusing lunar new year missive, this time from an American whose Chinese begins, and stops, with "ni hao":

May your ox plow prosperous furrows in the year to come. And may we all avoid being gored by the economy.

Bruce Humes, January 26, 2009, 8:23a.m.

# 2.   

great post for us foreigners I love the constant symbolism and double meanings. But this double meaning of Gongxifacai I haven't heard. But of course, why would your boss who just laid you off because of the economic downturn, say "I hope you get rich quick!" the ultimate insult!

magnus, January 26, 2009, 3:38p.m.

# 3.   

牛B年快乐

rsp, January 27, 2009, 4:07p.m.

# 4.   

That last one is great. Sounds like a premise for a zombie movie.

Chinamatt, January 29, 2009, 3:27a.m.

# 5.   

During World War I the Chinese Labor Corps was sent to France with British officers who did not know Chinese. One of these officers set off an incident when he shouted "let's go!" which was heard as calling them gou, or dog.

CW Hayford, February 3, 2009, 10:02p.m.

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