Today was a lesson in how memorizing words or just looking them up in the dictionary does not always lead to clear communication.
I went on a bit of a “field trip” with some friends, a family with teenage kids. We went to the National Art Museum of China, where the current exhibition was some sort of national contest or exhibition with a variety of new art. We saw lots of art in various styles—Chinese painting (ink on paper) and oil painting, along with sculpture, mixed media, and a few other forms mixed in. Each piece of art had the identifying information translated into English. Throughout the exhibit I felt like often the titles were a bit lost in translation. They just seemed flat, like there was probably more meaning in the Chinese titles that I didn’t understand (in either language).
Then, towards the end of our time, we found this sculpture of people appearing to sing happily. The English title is “Eulogizing Our Great Motherland.” We were a bit confused, because we don’t think the Motherland is dead. I was curious, so I put some of the characters from the Chinese title into the dictionary on my phone. I discovered that the Chinese word means “sing the praises of; extol; eulogize.” As I thought about it, eulogize does mean to praise someone, but they have to be dead first. We’re pretty sure the English on this one did get lost in translation and they actually meant praising or extolling. So knowing what words are used in what contexts is important or you might say something that is really the opposite of what you are attempting to say.
After the museum, we went to a little restaurant across the street with great historical significance. It was the first privately owned restaurant in Beijing in 1980 after the opening and reform policy started. Before that everyone had to eat at home or in state-owned cafeterias. This little restaurant opened (and it is still little—they only had one table big enough for the six of us, so we had to wait outside for about 10 minutes for the previous party to finish their meal) and on the first day they could only get 4 ducks. It wasn’t nearly enough to feed the hundreds of people that stood in line wanting to eat there. They still serve that duck dish. We tried it and it was quite good duck. The other food we had was all very good, too.
As we were finishing our meal, a man who had just been seated at a table near us came over to talk to us. He had seen us at the museum and asked what we thought (in English). He was one of the boldest Chinese people I’ve met when it comes to conversations with foreigners. He didn’t seem at all nervous and in fact sat down at an empty seat at our table, to talk to us. We learned he is also an artist and has been to the U.S. at least once. He asked where we were from and what we were doing here. His food came and he took the plates over to eat at our table (I’m pretty sure this has never happened to me before). He told us that he knows 10,000 English words.
And then, in a rather off-handed way, he described me: “she is very buxom.” Chinese people are very blunt about things that are clearly obvious, so physical appearance is fair game for observation. This falls in that category of normal in Chinese and rather shocking in English. Honestly, people might say this about me all the time in Chinese, but I don’t understand it. I think they usually just stick to she is “strong” or “fat.” It was quite shocking to hear this comment in English. And how does one respond (I have no idea in either language)? It was a good thing I wasn’t alone, the others just carried the conversation along.
It reminded me that just knowing words isn’t enough. To actually communicate what you intend to communicate (and not embarrass people in the process), you need to know the shades of meaning various words carry and how to use them in culturally appropriate ways. Just translating doesn’t lead you to clear communication, as today made abundantly clear. Without learning the cultural piece you end up eulogizing things that aren’t dead and embarrassing people you don’t mean to embarrass. Today was motivating in continuing to ask questions about what the differences of meaning are in similar words and continuing to learn the appropriate ways to communicate in Chinese!