Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Sun Always Sets

Language is more than a sequence of identification symbols. When employed by an entire population over generations, words form a collective cultural mind that transcends dictionary definitions.  This is one reason why direct grammatical translation from one language to another often results in garbled nonsense.

I experienced this loss in translation firsthand during my year in China. Naturally, most information was in Mandarin. At times, however, I happened upon Chinese products with bits of “English” added for commercial appeal. My favorite was the packaging on a box of sweet buns in a Shanghai convenience store. I gathered the intended message was, “Hey, customer! Don’t miss this great product!” but what it literally said was, “Hi! Person don’t avoid!”

I get to relive such moments when I go for Chinese food in the states, as some of the most entertaining ambiguity comes on little paper ribbons housed in flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil. The fortune cookie, carrier of incomprehensible wisdom: May your eggs hatch with honor. Last to eat is first in retreat.  An iron rooster clucks in silence.  Lucky numbers: 9, 10, 77, 1,000,001½.

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