June 03, 2006

Further thoughts on the riddle of GAN

[Our story thus far... Back in March, in a post titled "Engrish Explained," I reproduced an item from a monstrously mistranslated Chinese menu posted by John Rahoi on Rahoi.com: "Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk." I quoted a commenter on Rahoi's blog identified as "an anonymous professor of China studies" who explained how fuck has been used as the translation-equivalent for GAN 'dry' (干 in simplified script) due to "the recent proliferation of Colloquial English dictionaries in China." More recently, Victor Mair wrote about the GAN confusion in two guest posts for Language Log: "A Less Grand Chinglish" and "GAN: Whodunnit, and how, and why?" Then Languagehat cross-posted Prof. Mair's query wondering "Who's telling the menu-makers and sign-painters to write 'fuck' for GAN1/4?" In the comments to the Languagehat post, the "anonymous professor of China studies" from Rahoi.com stepped forward in the pseudonymous guise of "xiaolongnu," elaborating on the earlier speculation about GAN and Chinese dictionaries of colloquial English. I received permission from xiaolongnu (who wishes to remain pseudonymous) to reprint the informative Languagehat commentary as a guest post here on Language Log.]

I'm not sure my comment on rahoi.com was clear enough on this point, but I do actually have a theory about how this happened. First, you have to know that the official English teaching materials the PRC has been using since 1949 were typically based on material produced in the early 20th century (I'm guessing inter-war) and reflecting a Commonwealth usage of English. So there are a lot of oddities of usage in PRC English that can be traced back to this fact. One of the most frequently encountered in my field of archaeology and art history is "the cream of" used to mean "the best of," as in "The cream of ancient Zhou bronzes from Houma" and other memorable titles. In American English this usage is generally limited to the set phrase "the cream of the crop" and I've explained this to a number of publishers who've all said, basically, "Really? We were told it was proper idiomatic usage."

So until the mid- to late-nineties in the PRC, students of English were being taught out-of-date British(ish) idioms as correct English, which was doing nothing for their communication with a business world that increasingly speaks an Americanized and quite colloquial version of English, and in which the formal language of early 20th-century Commonwealth English is not particularly respected or desired.

The upshot is that there's now considerable awareness of (a) the difference between American English and British English, distinguished as 美語 and 英語 respectively; and (b) the need to speak and understand not just correct, but idiomatic AND colloquial English. There's a tremendous emphasis in educational programs on speaking colloquial English -- think of the guy, I forget his name, who teaches people to overcome their inhibitions about speaking English by YELLING EVERYTHING THEY SAY. And there are scads of dictionaries and vocabulary books and phrasebooks out there that purport to offer the reader the "real idiomatic American English."

Say what you will about "fuck" as a translation for 干, you can't deny that it is deeply embedded in American idiom.

So I think that the compilers of such reference books, reviewing the possible translations of the word 干, must have settled on "fuck" as the most idiomatic of the possible usages. Any China-based readers able to go out to the bookstore and find an example? The same may be true for some machine translation software out there, I have no idea. The translators of the menu were probably concerned with rendering it in idiomatic American English, because if there's one thing they know about the history of English as it has been spoken in the PRC since 1949, it's that it has tended to be too British (sorry Brits, I mean this from the PRC point of view and not my own) and too formal. Too bad about the actual result, eh?

[guest post by xiaolongnu]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 3, 2006 01:08 AM