Lost in Mistranslation

Lost in Mistranslation

I’ll start by coming clean – after nine years in China, my Chinese still isn’t very good. The main reason, I think, is the lack of incentive. I speak to my wife and sons in English and it’s the main language at my work as well. Now, my workmates speak the language quite well but they’re comfortable with basic, functional English. They’re not so familiar with some of the more advanced features like puns, sarcasm, word plays and meanings in contexts and that’s when mistakes can creep in.

Every now and again at work we have open classes where the parents are invited to come in and watch. – Except for whatever reason, my company calls them open doors. Now, my wife wanted me to take an entire Saturday off last year for a family trip. I explained to her that I could only take the afternoon off because I had an open door in the morning. She wrote back confused, asking why I needed to stay there and open doors, which someone else could very easily do.

On that note, the local staff and the senior teaching team usually meet once a week to give feedback on all the ODs and PTMs (Parent Teacher Meetings) from the previous week. It was all routine stuff until one the local staff, Susie, boasted that ‘the students were all very high’ during a recent OD. There was a nervous silence before a couple of the foreign teachers burst into laughter and explained to poor Susie that she implied that they had all been smoking great quantities of pot before the lesson. What she had actually MEANT to say was that they had very high energy and enthusiasm, without having to rely on bongs or reefers.

The funniest mistakes can sometimes come from simple typos, such as one that I saw when I was preparing for an OD back in 2009 or thereabouts. I was reading the master lesson plan that seemed to have been written by a local in a hurry using Bing translator. It was routine stuff except for the part where we were supposed to ‘encourage the students to crap their hands’ I remember reading that thinking ‘gee, we’d need a lot of toilet paper and soap for that one. Also, I might get fired’ after a bit of thought, it finally clicked – I should encourage them to CLAP their hands, fortunately avoiding a lifetime of emotional scarring and an early flight home.

Speaking of crap, one of the local staff asked me not long ago where I was from and I replied ‘I’m from Australia. I’m an Aussie… hey, why are you all laughing?’ They were laughing because if I put the emphasis on the first syllable of Aussie and drag out the last part, AUssieee, I’m actually saying ‘shit’ in Cantonese. Now come on, Aussie = shit? That’s just not funny or true.

It can work the other way as well. Not long after arriving in China and meeting my girlfriend, she invited me to her anniversary lunch with her old university workmates. Being the only foreigner there and clearly not an ex-student, I was apparently 1000 times more interesting than the menu and décor. Someone came in, introduced herself to me and, deciding I hadn’t quite embarrassed myself enough yet, I tried to impress everyone by saying ‘hen gaoxing renshe ni’ (pleased to meet you) in return. The room erupted in laughter and I shrank down in my seat, praying the floor would open up and swallow me. During dinner people kept looking at me, repeating what I had tried to say earlier and giggling.

I told my Chinese teacher about the incident a few months later. Her mouth dropped open in shock and she laughed as well. ‘You idiot, you’re only supposed to say that to important people during formal occasions’ she said. Oh well, if I do happen to meet Xi Jingping at a state dinner, I’ll at least know exactly what to say to him!  

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Keywords: learning Chinese Expat Living in China


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Funny stuff...reminds me of that time that, during my first night in Beijing I bought two beers at the convenient store and the lady kept showing me the hand sign for 'ba' eight and I thought she either meant 2 or 7 rmb..

May 10, 2017 17:03 Report Abuse



The numbers that always got me were 4 and 10 because the pronunciation for both sounded very similar. They had to use hand signals to help me understand.

May 10, 2017 22:21 Report Abuse