Friday, 12 January 2018

Trump: A Gift to Linguists (warning: contains swearwords)

Crude/inappropriately happy post alert, but I could not help but think when I heard of this, and I hope that in addition to the serious side to all this, you will think about this from a linguistic point of view, or at least from the point of view of learning English and Chinese as second languages. If you are averse to swearwords, or to non-judgmental blog posts, look away now.

This is your last chance to look away. Don't say I didn't warn you. 

Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States of America, has been reported to have talked about 'shithole countries' in a meeting he held, and as a result of this, reports, replies, comments and statements have been forthcoming. I am not from the US, so I will, out of politeness and also because there are enough commentaries out there, not say any more about this, apart to point out that thanks to Trump, the British press now uses at least one vulgar word everyday, but admittedly, it's not a swearword. Did you know that in parts of England, especially in Manchester, 'trump' means 'to fart'? This has been going on for a long time, even before Trump was elected or we had heard of the US version of 'The Apprentice'. Somehow, the British press has been very polite about this, but every time I read of 'President Trump', I think of the world's loudest, most echoey fart ever, and I have to snigger; I can't help it if farts make me giggle, and if the word 'trump' means 'fart' to some of my friends. 
A report which intrigued me was on the phrase 'shithole countries' causing translation difficulties, and here're my ideas on why it is proving to be such a problem for Chinese translators. The word 'shithole' is a tricky one to translate into Chinese, because there is no indication as to what a 'shithole' literally is. Is the hole man-made or not? Where is the hole in relation to the faeces that are referred to? What is the hole made of? Does the hole open, or close, or if it does not do either, what does it do instead? Everything's so vague, and thus, in Chinese, the closest you can get to 'shithole' are the literal but polite 肛门 'anus' or 马桶 'toilet' or 'toilet bowl', which are everyday terms that are neither offensive nor vulgar. 
To avoid causing a political issue from an incorrect or incomplete translation, Chinese translators have used two phrases to convey what 'shithole' might mean, especially if Trump, and Trump alone, used it in the context of 'countries'. The first is the short 烂国家, where 国家 means 'countries' and 烂 is a colloquialism (and it is vulgar only because it used to be a word which would not have been used by the elite) which means that something is so decayed, rotten to the core, and far gone that it cannot be saved. The second is the colourful 鸟不生蛋国家 'countries where birds do not lay eggs'  (the full phrase is actually 鸟不生蛋狗不拉屎 'where birds do not lay eggs and dogs do not shit', but this is abbreviated to the bit about birds and eggs because that is the polite bit), which specifically refers to birds and not chickens because birds can fly far, but not chickens, and before birds can lay eggs, they need to settle and build nests first. A place where even birds will not stop to lay eggs (and build nests) is one that is desolate, cold, abandoned, and godforsaken, and this is the meaning that has been adopted. 

Thanks for reading this; if you are offended, don't say I didn't warn you. If only every single word I know could inspire long blog posts like this!