"Fooling Around"

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

The following is a translation of this blog post, which came down the feed reader a day or so ago.

Soon after President Hu, at a very formal meeting, said the words "do not waver, do not slacken, do not mess around" (不动摇不懈怠不折腾), this phrase started to get popular. It was a bit of a shocker to hear something so slangy as "mess around" (折腾, zhéteng) come out of the mouth of a solemn, venerable personage like the General Secretary, and soon everyone was saying it.

But then some official media with nothing better to do started writing reports ("Translating 'Zheteng' from Hu Jintao's Report Stumps International Media") about how the proper English translation of 'zheteng' was "stumping language mavens in both the domestic and foreign media".

They underestimate us! A little phrase like this doesn't need a language maven to figure out, it's a piece of cake. According to the rule of 'crude for crude, elegant for elegant', I can think of a few translations: "no fooling around", "no messing around" or, if you want to get crude, "no fxxcking around" (these are all verb phrases). The translators aren't translating it, and everyone's talking around it, simply to keep from embarrassing President Hu. They're keeping it as "bu zheteng" because they have no other choice.

What's hilarious is that some retards in the Chinese media have written puff pieces saying that the Chinese 'bu zheteng' might even become a catchphrase in English. They shouldn't get their hopes up; the answer would be "No thanks. We've got plenty of words of our own, quit messing with our language." The way I see it, compared to 'bu zhengteng', some other suggestions from netizens' like 'not to huqiunong' (the Shaanxi version) or 'don't xiaqiunao' (Shandong version) have a better chance of making it into English.

Anyway, I suspect Hu Jintao was straying from the script when he said this, it doesn't sound like the sort of a thing a scriptwriter would come up with. Now everyone's elated that a Party boss could talk this way, they though they were off the hook as well. But in olden times they used to say you have to both listen to a man's words and observe his actions – I for one remain deeply skeptical. If a political party that makes a rule of "messing around" were to suddenly straighten up and fly right, they'd have no clue where to even start. Besides, before long they're going to roll out another movement, either "compulsory" or "optional"; they may say they're not "messing around", but it sure looks like it to me.


# 1.   

The translation I settled on for "不动摇, 不懈怠, 不折腾" was "do not waver; do not slacken; do not screw around." I like about two-thirds of that, but 折腾 is still tricky: it seems awfully vague in this context, which is why I went with the similarly vague "screw around," but the meaning that almost all of my Chinese friends read into it was the sense of repeated pointless efforts - 徒劳 and 反反復復 - which "screw around" doesn't quite cover, at least in my idiolect.

As for "不折腾” becoming a catchphrase in English: if I believed, uncritically, all of the reports about "汉语热" that the Chinese media has put out, then I guess I might think the expression had a snowball's chance.

Brendan, January 7, 2009, 11:03p.m.

# 2.   

Before I read this, I got an email from Lin Wusun, a veteran of the Translators Assocation of China, asking me what I thought would be a good translation. He says: 'Hu Jingtao used a colloquial term 不折腾 when he stressed the need for sticking to the policy of reform and opening up. 折腾means toss and turn when one cannot sleep. It also means twist and turn...' I suggested: Don't get side-tracked* Bit less colourful than the above, though!

Nicky Harman, January 9, 2009, 5:19p.m.

# 3.   

Come to think of it, the Irish English term "footer around" (deriving, I think, from the French 'foutre') probably matches 折腾 better than "screw around."

Brendan, January 9, 2009, 8:31p.m.

# 4.   

Hey, I always thought that was "footle around", not "footer". If it isn't, it should be.

I think the most important meaning of zheteng, the one the author was emphasizing, is "wasting large amounts of time and effort on something pointless." Particularly, as the last paragraphs would indicate, intentionally insisting that everyone waste large amounts of time and effort on something that everyone knows is pointless, but no one has the guts to stand up and resist. Whatever Hu originally meant, and however the term is typically used, I think that's the implication in this case.

Eric Abrahamsen, January 9, 2009, 9:17p.m.

# 5.   

If Chairman Mao could include farting in his Ci poem, then I guess 折腾 is just another example to show that speaking or writing elegantly is not always a high priority.

I'd vote of "footle." This is what I found in the dictionary:

footle |ˈfoōtl] verb [ intrans. ] chiefly Brit. engage in fruitless activity; mess about : where's that pesky creature that was footling about outside? ORIGIN late 19th cent.: perhaps from dialect footer [idle, putter about,]from 16th-cent. foutre [worthless thing,] from Old French, literally ‘have sexual intercourse with.’

By the way, here's a bilingual version of Mao's Ci Poem. The English translation was produced by Xu Yuanchong (许渊冲).





Dialog Between Two Birds

Tune: "Charm of a Maiden Singer"

Autumn 1965

The roc spreads his wings and flies

Ninety thousand miles, rousing hard

Blowing cyclones, The blue skies

On his back , he looks down

And sees on earth city and town.

With gunfire the sky is loud

And by shells the earth is scarred;

The sparrow in his bush is cowed.

"What can be done? Alas the day!

I want to flit and fly away."

"May I ask where you want to go?"

And the sparrow replies,

"To a fairyland with ivory towers.

But don't you know two years ago

When the moon lit the autumn skies,

A pact was signed by three big powers?

Besides, they have for food

Potatoes cooked and beef well stewed..."

"Shut up! You bet

Heaven and earth will be upset."

Jane Weizhen Pan, January 11, 2009, 11:17a.m.

# 6.   

It's definitely 'footer,' though 'footle' is the same thing and definitely scores higher on Google. As evidence in favor of 'footer,' though, I'll adduce a little rhyme my dad wrote for me years ago when I demanded that he and my mom hide chocolate eggs for an Easter egg hunt around our house in South Philly:

"Go to the computer
Type 'edit,' 'ca[ll] Easter'
And if you don't footer,
You'll get there faster."

This was in the days of Xywrite, when word processors didn't offer 3D text capabilities. "Easter.txt," incidentally, contained the following:

"Here we are now where everything's virtually real,
And the eggs are all virtual chocolate.
But that, I'm afraid, isn't much of a meal,
So go to your bookbag and unbocolate."

Brendan, January 12, 2009, 9:24p.m.

# 7.   

I read an absolutely bizarre article in this week’s Beijing Today.

It’s not available online yet so I’ll copy out the first few paragraphs.

“It is worth considering to establish a Mao Zedong city within the boundaries of Changsha, Zhuzhou and Xiangtan city,” said a proposition submitted by Mao Xiaoqing, Mao’s niece, at this week’s meeting of the 10th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee of Hunan Province.

Through her seven propositions that relate to livelihood, Mao Xiaoqing, a member of the Provincial Political Conference, expressed her ideas on “Bu Zheteng.” The phrase, which was uttered by President Hu Jintao on a recent meeting, means “no fooling around” or “not making trouble.”

Mao Xiaoqing’s suggestions focus on the issues of polarization and battling corruption. “My aim is to lessen messing about in our society,” she told local media.

She conceived of the Mao Zedong City as a model urban area in China. Apart from comfortable living, the city should emphasise the spirit of selfless service. Hunan, Chairman Mao’s home province should take responsibility for demonstrating the meaning of communism, she said.

To build a Mao Zedong City in her point of view is to “provide the elderly with a sense of security.” Mao Xiaoqing confessed that she herself has experience harassment from law enforcement officials, which she described as “zheteng” or causing trouble.

I guess I'll copy one more par that you might get a kick out of:

In the 1950s while Chairman Mao was still alive, someone suggested building a Mao Zedong City. But Mao did not give a reply, apparently because he objected to encouraging a personality cult, thus the proposition was shelved.

David D, January 17, 2009, 8:52a.m.


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