When in French…

41Z3HwLG7BL._SX294_BO1,204,203,200_I was excited to dive into New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins’s new memoir When in French: Love in a Second Languagebecause I love French and I love love. Though, as existing Amazon reviews have accurately assessed, the book isn’t so much about a neatly tied together love story in France than about a love for French and language learning, facilitated by and amid a serious, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual relationship.

With that expectation in mind, the book will be a fun read for French/second-language learners and language enthusiasts. What it lacks in continuous, focused, satisfying story, the 250-page book makes up for in language-learning #realtalk and wonky delights. Here’s a taste:

…I was intrigued by the blend of rudeness and refinement [in French], the tension between the everyday and the exalted, that characterized the little I knew of the language. “Having your cake and eating it too” was Vouloir le beurre, l’argent, et le cul de la crémière [“To want the butter, the money, and the ass of the dairywoman.”]

Simultaneous interpretation requires almost superhuman neurological coordination. The task is so demanding that, at the United Nations, an interpreter typically works a shift of no more than twenty minutes.

In English, I strained to avoid such [familiar] formulations. But in French, conformity was my goal…I was trying to join in, not to distinguish myself. It was such a happy thing to strive for cliché.

In Russian, you can’t call the sky ‘blue.’ The language obliges its speakers to make a distinction between siniy (dark blue) and goluboy (light blue), so that what is in English one color becomes in Russian two.

I had once interpreted Olivier’s reticence as pessimism, but I now saw the deep romanticism, the hopefulness, of not wanting to overstate or to overpromise. Vous and tu concentrated intimacy by dividing it into distinct shades—the emotional equivalent of two shades of blue. I understood, finally, why it made Olivier happy when I wore makeup; why he didn’t call me his best friend; why I had never hard him burp. Love was not fusion. Je t’aime was enough.




Idiom: 三下五除二

I was speaking to my mom on the phone today when I heard and then dwelled on a phrase I know but, as it turns out, don’t really understand.

I’m talking about…

三下五除二 | sān xià wǔ chú èr

I’ve always heard this while I was growing up, and based on context clues, have gathered that it means to do something quickly, decisively, effectively…and that’s essentially what it means. But more interesting is its literal origins, which I only found out after doing some googling today.

As you might be able to tell, there are a lot of numbers in there: 三 (three) 五 (five)  二 (two), so it shouldn’t be too surprising that this idiom comes from a calculation formula for the abacus, which I totally don’t remember how to use…And I’m not sure how that formula works either (3 = 5-2?), but I guess the main point is that doing calculations on an abacus is much faster than using fingers or physical objects…Fun!

Silly Me

Tranquil afternoon at Beihai Park in Beijing (August 2015)
Tranquil afternoon at Beihai Park in Beijing (August 2015)

I’ve been away from this blog for about half a year, during which summer came and went…as did my much-anticipated vacation to China — those simultaneously long and short two weeks were a huge boon to my teenage brother’s Chinese language skills and only a moderate one to mine…

But today I pop back in here to say that recently I keep finding myself defaulting to the narrative that modern Chinese culture contains a chock full of nonsense English and similar gaffes — that in the process of plucking desirable Western traits, something always gets lost or otherwise garbled in translation.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was musing (for the umpteenth time) why my mom’s alma mater, 北京师范大学 (Běijīng Shīfàn Dàxué), is called Beijing Normal University…are there abnormal universities? What could “normal” possibly mean in this case? Was it an erroneous translation that just came to be widely accepted? All I knew was that the school was historically a teachers’college…and other teachers’ colleges were also called “normal” universities in English…

This time, I finally asked my mom and she said something about how the name was based on an early teachers’ college in France. What do you know, Wikipedia confirms:

A normal school is a school created to train high school graduates to be teachers. Its purpose is to establish teaching standards or norms, hence its name. Most such schools are now called teachers’ colleges.

In 1685, Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded what is generally considered the first normal school, the École Normale, in Reims[source]

And this tidbit from the article on the university:

A normal school referred to an institution that aimed to train school teachers in the early twentieth century, and this terminology is preserved in the official names of such institutions in China. [source]

Laugh out loud.

So all this time I thought China was translating English weirdly…it wasn’t even about English…it’s French! I was just way limited in my knowledge.

Now, English blunders can be found all over China, but I think this is nonetheless a case for avoiding presumptuousness and the general viewpoint that the culture you’re most familiar with is the most correct and at the center of everything.

5 Intriguing Words

Don't know how long this lil' guy's 양다리 game will last, but adorable moment! (Photo: Furman S. Baldwin's "The Kiss")
Don’t know how long this lil’ guy’s 양다리 game will last, but adorable moment! (Photo: Furman S. Baldwin’s “The Kiss“)

…from the last several weeks. (So these vocabulary installments may contain more and more English words, since my real job involves writing…in English…which really means thesaurus.com all day and new tab > “define: xx” — youknowwhatimean?) Anyway:

  • frowzy | EN | scruffy and neglected in appearance; unkempt, messy, disheveled, etc. — Forgot where I saw this, but I love it because it’s one of those words that sound/feel exactly like what they mean. 
  • funambulism | EN | the art of tightrope walking (walking along a thin wire or rope, usually at a great height); see Nik Wallenda’s recent record-setting stunts in Chicago—who knew there was a dedicated word for this!? 
  • pied-à-terre | EN via FR | a temporary or second home; literally foot to the ground in French—got familiarized with this term after reading a bunch of articles on rich people scooping up (a lot of) (prime) NYC real estate. 
  • 山寨, shān zhài | CN | a term (Wikipedia entry here) that essentially means imitation, and particularly refers to the pervasive knock-off industry in China, i.e. “that’s a 山寨/shānzhài cell phone”; literally “mountain fortress” (something to do with the sense that fake goods are getting built/stockpiled in factories in villages far away from official control)—my dad mentioned this word in a conversation recently…he defined it as “Made in China”, which sounds pretty sad. But I’ve also read  quite a few arguments for how shān zhài is highly efficient and also innovative (!). 
  • 양다리, yang dari | KR | literally “both legs”, typically used to mean two-timing/dating two people at the same time; 양다리를 걸치다 means “to try to have it both ways”.

5 Intriguing Words


…from the last several weeks.

  • réalisateur | FR | film director—I just love it. Conveys so much more than “director”. The réalisateur turns a vision into reality! 
  • milquetoast | EN | a timid, meek, or unassertive person—Do not remember where I saw this. Just knew I didn’t know it. Apparently origin is “Caspar Milquetoast, a diffident character in H. T. Webster’s comic strip The Timid Soul.”
  • sacrebleu | FR | an ancient, stereotypical French curse used to express anger or surprise—apparently no one in France uses this anymore; more common are Oh la vache! (holy cow!), merde! (sh*t!), and putain! (f*ck!)…not to be confused with Putin 😉 Much more on this here.
  • bête noire | EN via FR | a person or thing that someone really dislikes; pet peeve—it literally means “black beast.” 
  • 麻辣鸡, málà jī | CN | NICKI. FREAKIN’. MINAJ.—ok, what I think is happening is…the Chinese media dubbed Nicki Minaj 麻辣鸡 (málà jī) which literally means numb/spicy chicken…Maybe they couldn’t help it because Minaj is kiiiiiinda like málà jī and Nicki is just a “spicy hot badass chick”!? I don’t know…but I am very fascinated…Google search results for 辣鸡

Match That Idiom 02 – All About Horses

Journeying onwards in IdiomLand, here’s a neat Chinese phrase I recently learned from my parents.

CN | 死马当活马医 | sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī

It's me and a very-much-alive horse.
It’s me and a very-much-alive horse. | aug. 2014

Literal translation: to treat (cure) a dead horse like it’s a live one

Actual meaning: to try your best at something even though it’s basically impossible/hopeless — real life example: “Yeah, you should just send that follow-up email to the hiring manager, 死马当活马医”  (i.e. even if it’s looking unlikely you’ll get the job, just followup with the employer anyway.)

As soon as I started thinking about what this Chinese idiom could be in other languages, I thought of a very familiar phrase in English: beating a dead horse, which means something like “to keep attempting something even though the outcome has been decided.”

I think it’s so interesting that the essence of these two phrases are the same, but their specific angle and how they’re commonly used in conversation are quite different.

The Chinese version, 死马当活马医, seems encouraging — you should treat a dead horse as if it’s alive, just give it a try. The English one, beating a dead horse, feels merely discouraging. Whenever I hear it, it’s always used to communicate something like “hey, stop it, you’re beating a dead horse, it’s a lost cause, there’s no point.”

When I said the same “essence” earlier, I’m talking about the notion of using the horse to describe our attitude and effort towards accomplishing something. I also wondered, why the horse? But recognizing the vital role horses played in so many facets of society…transportation, warfare, leisure/entertainment…the choice seems rather obvious. Pigs, dogs, oxen are just less universal, less significant in terms of their contact with humanity.

I haven’t been able to find anything relevant in Korean or French, so drop a note if you know of any!

[BONUS: Oh hey, Oxford Dictionaries did a whole blog entry on horses and language! “Horseplay: horses in idioms and proverbs”]