Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Too many words, not enough syllables

Much as I like the elegance and compactness of Chinese, and even though ambiguity is great for poetry, puns, and cryptic crosswords, it's a hassle to deal with in real life. It's usually played for laughs in movies/TV shows, but when you can have a plotline where someone introduces themselves as "Fake Name", and claims that actually their surname is another (genuine) surname that just happens to sound identical to "Fake", and that their personal name is another (genuine) word that coincidentally sounds identical to "Name", and this can be believed (albeit by a naive character), there's something wrong with your language!!! (Yes, real example from a real TV show I've been watching.)

And this ambiguity leads to a whole system of superstitions based on puns. Pun-based superstitions! Bah! Many of the buildings don't have floors numbered "4" or "14" because "4" sounds like "death". Pictures of bats are lucky. And a bunch of complicated ones that I can't even remember anymore. Plus all the pun-based insults!

When I was traveling in China, there were many times when I wished I could see the subtitles when people spoke to me. It's a good thing TV in China is (nearly) always subtitled. Even though I can't read much Chinese, I find it helps a LOT to see the words printed out. (Hell, I watch English language shows with subtitles on, too.) (And then there was the time in the hotel when we were watching a movie in French with Chinese subs, ha ha ha.) (Although I prefer traditional characters for reading. The simplified Chinese writing used in the PRC makes too many words all look the same. And then there were the common characters that it took me awhile to go "AHA! So THAT's what that word is. D'oh!")

Subtitles or not, somewhere along the way, my two younger kids decided they liked this Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf animated children's show. Ha ha ha ha. It is strangely addictive. I nearly bought the 200 (approx) episode DVD box set, but then sanity descended on me again. Which hasn't stopped us watching it on youtube and so on after we got home.

It's a pity this terseness and ambiguity is nearly impossible to translate into English. It makes the English language versions of Chinese-culture-based fantasy sound clumsy. If you translate the names to convey the meaning, they end up seeming stilted or silly. If you don't translate the names, you just get strings of gibberish. Plus there are many specific terms (especially pronouns and forms of addressing people and greeting people) that denote various relationships between the speaker and the listener that are hard to express in English. When people try to write it out in English, it's usually way too wordy or weird-sounding. It may sound archaic in Chinese dramas when people speak that way (presumably the voice actors are specially trained to make it sound natural), but viewers understand that that's the way people talk in that kind of genre (ancient costume shows, whether comedy or drama). I've wanted to write Chinese-style fantasy stories in English, but I haven't found a good solution yet. Maybe I'll try again this year for NaNoWrimo!