Friday, March 31, 2006

Sci-fi Reflections

Though I have read the occasional Philip K. Dick novel, I never really got into sci-fi (or manga or anime). However, I did find this essay by a Japanese sci-fi writer named Takashi Ogawa interesting. He starts by saying how Americans always tell him how "cool" Japan is:
Of course it feels good to have people praise your own country, but I would always stop and wonder what exactly they liked. Sometimes they would get more specific, praising our anime, technological gadgetry, or Haruki Murakami. On the one hand I'd agree, but then again their rock/punk/rap music, PCs, or William Gibson/Raymond Carver/Tom Robbins all seemed even cooler to me.
He says he originally held a dismissive attitude toward some of the same Japanese things his American friends praised. The artists they liked, he thought, were just "neophiles" ungrounded in tradition.

Now he says that neophilia is Japanese tradition, and what's more, gives a defense of it.

The very first Japanese novel—The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter—was a fairly tale, ending with a pun. We have always favored childish things like wordplay and spectacle over the subtler arts of the aristocratic "high culture" of the ruling class. We like to laugh away the gravity and smugness of the metaphysical musings of the elite. But it never amounts to real criticism, or to a genuine counterculture. People simply invent funny words or gestures and enjoy their silliness, just like kids. And by going back to their childhood this way, they can start their lives anew. Words and actions lose their serious, heavy meanings and become plastic and flexible. The childish element in our culture allows us to see things from a new, irreverent perspective. So it was all right to regard manga, anime, and all those silly things that otaku neophiles appreciate as quintessential arts of our pop culture.
Plastic, flexible, irreverent--sounds pretty good to me.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Otaku Incentives

I'm not a big fan of manga or anime (the closest I get is Miyazaki Hayao), but more and more non-Japanese people are, and some of them have been inspired to learn the Japanese language. It was nice to read in this Japan Times article that a lot of students who might not be interested in school otherwise are getting into learning Japanese because of the pop stuff:
There are several factors behind the popularity of Japanese at Hendon. One is the sheer excitement at studying a language so different in sound and appearance to English. As the subject head, Helen Langsam, explains: "Japanese seems to appeal to students who maybe lose their concentration and focus in school. These sorts of children tend to persevere with Japanese and continue to learn and do well in it and I think this is because it's seen as a cool language to learn."
It's great to see that some students start to do better in school when offered something they are interested in.

I didn't get the chance to learn a foreign language until I was in junior high. Japanese wasn't offered, though I would have loved to take it. I took Spanish, and all the pop culture we got was Spanish versions of songs by Sting and Abba. When I started Chinese in college, no pop culture was employed at all in the classroom, but my abilities took off when I discovered Faye Wong and Cui Jian on my own. I don't know if it qualifies as manga or even pop culture, but Tsai Chih-chung's comic-book versions of the Chinese classics were also a big help in learning Chinese for me.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Keep an eye on Wenbudao, a new blog I will be a part of.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

What's "Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck" in Mandarin?

A remarkable bit of web serendipity led me to a great post on dubbing in China on Danwei from quite a while back. The author knows the man who does the voice of Curly of the Three Stooges for Chinese TV.
His name is Cui Song, a teacher in the foreign languages department of the Central University of Radio and Television. A soft-spoken academic, he seems to inhabit a completely different dimension from the slapstick world of Moe, Larry, and Curly.

“Can you do the laugh?” I ask him. “You know, that laugh?” He nods. He knows what I’m talking about.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk!” he suddenly erupts, in an imitation of Curly so compelling that I’m suddenly transported from Beijing to my family’s living room floor in Eureka, Kansas, circa 1959, a bowl of popcorn at my side and the black-and-white TV tuned to the Saturday afternoon Three Stooges broadcast. I nearly spill my tea in the shock of recognition. Cui Song is proud of his craft.

“I’m the only one who could do that laugh,” he says, happy to be in the presence of an American who can verify the accuracy of his rendition. Cui Song studied Curly’s vocal mannerisms carefully in order to dub the role.

The article also includes some funny mis-translations from pirate DVDs:
Understandably, the listening comprehension of the translators tends to falter when the topic turns to sex, as can be seen from these examples from a bootleg DVD boxset of Queer as Folk:
Original English: “Linda Luttsky? She became a lap dancer in Scranton.” Chinese subtitles: “Luttsky? She became a laboratory dancer in Scranton.”

Original English: “To the neighbors we’re just the fags next door.”
Chinese subtitles: “The neighbors think there is a fax machine next door.”

Original English: “It might just be easier to be with someone who’s [HIV] positive.”
Chinese subtitles: “I think it’s easier to be someone with a positive attitude.”

And this nice example from a bootleg of Sex and the City:

Original English: “She gives hand jobs for a living.” Chinese subtitles: “She is a manual laborer.”

No wonder Chinese people always ask me, after watching an American DVD, “What in the world are you foreigners thinking?”

The author also notes that some of the finer points of Three Stooges dialogue gets lost in translation. After all, how do you translate that finely subtle irony in the line "Gimme the brush, Ein-steen!"?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Late Night Textual Criticism

I have been way too busy these days to get a chance to read this, but I was excited to see Jon Stewart interview Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus (and a Princeton PhD), on the Daily Show the other night. From NPR:
Ehrman says the modern Bible was shaped by mistakes and intentional alterations that were made by early scribes who copied the texts. In the introduction to Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman writes that when he came to understand this process 30 years ago, it shifted his way of thinking about the Bible. He had been raised as an Evangelical Christian.
All that stuff about "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"? According to Ehrman, that was not originally in the text. It was written in the margins and eventually made its way into the main body of the text.

We see that all the time with Chinese texts--people arguing over whether such-and-such character was really something else before a scribe got it wrong, or if such-and-such a passage was really originally part of a later commentary. It was fun to see someone speak engagingly about this stuff, and... did I mention that it was on the Daily Show?!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"Gold Frappe"?

Looking for the band "Gold Frappe"? Hard to find--because the name is actually "Goldfrapp." Goldfrapp's latest CD is called "Supernature."

The band takes its name from the singer's surname, but it seems whoever translated it for the Taiwanese pressing didn't realize that. In Chinese, they're called 冰金樂團--"Ice Gold Music Group." They must have thought the band name referred to some kind of metalic coffee drink.

I found some more bad Chinese translations of band names:

The Buzzcocks= 吵鬧公雞樂團 "The Noisy Rooster Music Group"
Badly Drawn Boy= 塗鴉男孩 "Graffiti-Writer Boy"
Basement Jaxx= 地下室混音小子 "Basement Sound-Mixer Little Guys"
Deftones= 盲音合唱團 "Blind Sound Choir"
The Cure= 怪人合唱團 "Weird People Choir"
Dirty Vegas= 賭城老千 "Gambling City Cheater"
N.E.R.D.= 永生樂團 "Eternal Life Music Group"
We Are Scientists= 自然科學家樂團 "Natural Scientists Music Group"

I remember that Radiohead was 電台司令 "Radio Station Commanding Officer," but according to the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry, it's also (better) translated literally as 收音機頭.

The most famous Chinese names for Western artists have to be 貓王 "Cat King" for Elvis and 瘦皮猴 "thin monkey" for Frank Sinatra. I have heard those used but ones like those above seem to be used only on the CD packaging. I guess anybody who'd listen to that kind of music in Taiwan would be at least familiar enough with English to be comfortable using the English names.

Taiwanese Salad-Building Technology

How to get the most salad-bar salad for your buck, demonstrated by some Taiwanese students.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Chinese: God's Language?

Tian reminded me that while the missionaries might say that Japanese was the work of the devil, they have no problem with Chinese--in its written form, at least. Check out his post on HanziSmatter about the World Bible School's crackpot theory that evidence of Christian theology is to be found in the composition of Chinese characters (which ignores the fact that characters contain semantically irrelevant phonetic elements and the existence of loan characters, etc.). Tian also writes that according to SmartFilter, the World Bible School (World BS for short?) site is classified as "phishing" "criminal skills." Too bad it's not classified as "Bad Sinology."

More on the World BS theory at

Japanese: Language of Satan?!?

This article tells of a former missionary's problems with the Japanese language (I'm assuming she's talking about the volitional form):
Gulick said that Francis Xavier, the famous 16th-century Catholic missionary, "said that the Japanese language was a particular invention of the devil to prevent the understanding of the gospel, and that is true." In Japanese, "there is no definite future, so you say, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you might be saved (instead of shall be saved.) It's a problem."
I have a feeling Japanese can fathom the concept of a definite future event and knew what she was getting at, but she's given it up and is now learning Runyoro, a language spoken in Uganda.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

More Chinese Podcasting

I just stumbled across a blog called Wan An Taipei which features Chinese-lesson podcasts. I haven't had time to listen to it but I think some of my readers might be interested. If you listen, please let me know how it is.

From the blog, it looks pretty nice, and apparently the host speaks Japanese as well.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Something Great About 24

The terrorists' time bombs have those little red countdown LEDs just like every show, but the terrorists activate the bombs, slide the timers off and leave!

Monday, March 06, 2006


Ang Lee took home the Oscar for Best Director in last night's Academy Awards. The Taiwanese government seems to have realized the potential for "soft power" its local film industry carries, and I am sure Lee's victory will be a big deal there. Lee has been living in the States for years, but he is still something of a local hero in Taiwan. He's now sure to be even more of an inspiration for Taiwanese filmmakers.

The terms "soft power" and "gross national cool" got thrown around a lot a couple years ago referring to Japan read the Foreign Policy article on the latter here), and according to this AFP article, the Korean drama "Winter Sonata" and its star Bae Yong-joon boosted tourism revenues by $1.1 billion. Capitalizing on soft power seems a good way to go--especially when you are struggling for the attention of the international community like Taiwan is.

Matt of No-sword fame wondered how Brokeback Mountain's famous line "I wish I knew how to quit you" would be rendered into Japanese. Funny, I had been wondering the same thing about that line in Chinese. I saw a reference somewhere to 我希望我知道如何能離開你, so I checked to see if that's really what it is in the movie's Taiwanese theatrical release and according to this Chinese-language blog, it is.

The author of that post says the same line in the book was rendered as 要是我知道如何戒得掉你就好了, and like her I prefer that translation.

我希望我知道如何能離開你 is literally "I hope I know how to leave you." Chinese doesn't have a subjunctive like English ("I wish I knew....") so you could take that line either way. I used to blather on and on about how great the subjunctive is to my students, and the original English line is a great example. After the "I wish I knew...." is a parenthetical: "(but I don't.)" I don't get that resonance from this version of the Chinese.

I am not a native Chinese speaker, but I do get that resonance from 要是我知道如何戒得掉你就好了 because of the structure 要是...就好了 (very literally, "If... that would be good."). I also like the way this translation uses 戒--that's the word you use to say you are "quitting" drinking or cigarettes. The 離開 "leave" of the other version just doesn't have the same impact.

I realize, though, that subtitle-writing is a tricky task. You have to be concise so as to fit on the screen and keep up with the pace . The line has to be understandable at a glance or else it will run the risk of intruding on the film.