Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Tale of Two Languages

One of the things you often notice here in China is the funny and often very inaccurate translations from Chinese into English. I know the reason for this is the diametrical difference in the way our two languages "think." Mandarin truly is a language of pictures and this becomes more and more impressed upon me the more I learn of it.

My language tutor, Eileen (her "English" name) was talking with me this week and asking me how I was doing. I was explaining to her that the beginning of the year is always hard. She said, "I know. You have three kids- you must be very tired." (This by the way is probably by far the most common phrase I hear coming from a Chinese person when they talk to me!) I replied that the kid thing isn't really that big of a deal (ha!) but more it is because I've just ended a summer full of rest and time with my husband, and now the busyness of school has begun again and there is too little time for us- which inevitably creates issues! A wave of recognition and understanding swept over her whole demeanor and she started explaining how she experiences the same dynamic when life is busy with she and her husband as well. "Gou tong" is what we need, she said.

The meaning of "Gou tong" is a beautiful picture of two rivers flowing and as they meet together they interconnect, or latch on to one another. Like if you take your arms and have them clasp each other in a lock. It's hard to fully describe because the character for "gou" and for "tong" both have their own separate descriptive meaning. But the best translation maybe is just simply "conversation." After seeing her describe these different words though, I felt like "conversation" did not do the beauty of the Mandarin meaning justice.

Now it was my turn. My ayi has been watching me for the past few weeks as I have attempted to plant some of the herb and vegetable seeds I brought back from the States this summer. It probably seems like a hilarious charade of events to her as I attempt to buy the correct soil and pots, place them in the correct place, instruct her what not to water, etc. It's a delicate if not difficult task to grow something here since I can't read any directions or descriptions of product, and there is no Lowe's or friendly neighborhood greenhouse to help me out. I've managed to keep a few alive but there have been several casualties. She must wonder if I'm cut out for this.

So in an attempt to let my ayi know that I know I may not be able to cut it as a horticulturist, the other day I attempted to explain to her some of our favorite idioms. Specifically, the old phrase, "Green Thumb." I thought it would be cute to let her in on our little nickname for a Gardening Goddess (and the fact that Josh had told me I might not be one)... but instead it came out more like...

"At America, if person good at grow (here used hand motion for grow) flower, we say they have a thumb (here I ask how to say thumb), the thumb is green. They have a green thumb. You understand? My husband say maybe I not have one."

She laughed politely. You might be doing the same. I somehow doubt she had the same awestruck feelings of wonder at the beauty of our language that I had experienced for hers the day before.

No comments:

Post a Comment