I had a guy who came to my first (ever) English corner in China who was obsessed with little idioms and sayings. I called him “Jingle” because everything he said sounded like it had come out of a TV commercial.
Me: So now let’s hear from one of the students on that same question: What’s your idea of a good friend?
Jingle: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Me: Umm…ok, thanks for that. Would you care to explain or give an example of what you mean?
Jingle: I just mean that two heads are better than one.
Me: Well…umm…that’s not exactly…
Someone else: (interrupting) Have you seen Titanic?
Jingle: Professionals built the Titanic, but amateurs built the ark.
Me: Ok…well…sadly, we’re out of time now.
Jingle: Time flies like an arrow.
Me: I don’t know what that means.
I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. That’s how it happened. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a “conversation.”
And I’ve met other Jingles from time to time in my years in China. What’s happened is: they’ve gotten a book of English proverbs and idioms and just slurped them up without any real understanding of the nuances of their meanings or situations in which they’d be appropriate to use.
Well, we’ve got to be careful of the same sort of thing. There are times when we think we know what an idiom means, but the connotations in Chinese are totally different (or different enough) to cause some real problems. Even if the words translate the same, we may be dealing with a “false friend.”
Exhibit A: “Actions Speak Louder than Words”
My second (ever) week in China, I was invited to a fancy dinner with the other two foreign teachers and the bigwigs of the college. It was a small gathering of about a dozen, and needless to say, my Chinese was pretty basic at that point. A few days earlier, I had just learned:
shuō bùrú zuò 说不如作
The literal Chinese translation is “Speaking is not better than doing.” From the context I had learned it in, I was sure it meant “Actions speak louder than words.”
To cut a long (and painful) story short, the president of the college asked me something at one point during the dinner and one of the English department leaders translated it into English for me. I replied with “shuō bùrú zuò” to mean that I would prove my loyalty to the school not by what I said but by my actions. If it had actually meant “Actions speak louder than words,” I would have been fine.
In fact, a much better translation of that phrase would be “Talk is cheap.” Because of the context, the president could have taken that as my insulting him. He could have thought I was saying “All this talk at a fancy dinner is worthless” (a lot of talking, an toasting, goes on at those events).
At the time I said it, I got the feeling something was wrong but it was only later that I learned what a blunder that had been. It made me want to steer clear of all idioms (overreacting, I know). Even though I knew what all the words meant, I didn’t have a good grasp of the connotations. It turned out to be a false friend.
Exhibit B: “We’re in the Same Boat”
When the Sìchuān dà dìzhèn 四川大地震 stuck, my classes of English majors wanted to talk about it. People were talking about the tragedy and all the hardships the people of Sichuan were enduring. After the earthquake, because of landslides blocking rivers, the threat of flooding was reaching critical. At one point, when asked for her opinion, a girl simply said, “I think we’re all in the same boat, don’t you think so?”
I said, “We’ll, I don’t think we’re exactly in the same boat but we’re trying to understand them.”
Well, let me tell you, that became a HUGE issue. I was lucky I found out about it the next week. The students were furious (and had been talking about it) and said I was “discriminating” against Chinese people (whatever that meant!) and couldn’t believe I’d said that. I was shocked that my little comment about figurative boats had caused such an uproar, so I asked a thousand questions and finally figured out the problem.
If you’ll look at the first two entries here (a resource not available to me in class), you’ll see that “in the same boat” in Chinese includes feelings of solidarity and helping each other.
I explained to the class that in English, “In the same boat” just means we’ve found ourselves in the same situation. But, since our buildings hadn’t fallen down, our friends and family members hadn’t been killed, and we are not worried about flooding, I said we aren’t in the same boat as the Sichuan people. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about them or want to help them. I myself donated money to the earthquake victims at that little table in front of cafeteria number 1!” I explained.
That cleared it all up for them and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“In the same boat” is a false friend in Chinese because the words are the same, but the meaning isn’t exactly. It’s more about “hùxiāng bāngzhù” 互相帮助 (helping each other) in Chinese, and the English idiom doesn’t necessarily have that meaning.
Oh, and about Traveling…
In class last week, I asked my students why we had to make up our Monday and Tuesday classes on Saturday and Sunday (as we always do for these “week-long” holidays). The answer is: so we can have 7 days off in a row even though there are officially only 3 days of vacation (3 real + 2 made up + 2 next weekend = 7).
I posited that the idea behind 7 days in a row was to allow people to travel farther. But the class shook their heads. I was dead wrong.
I said, “Ok, if it’s not for traveling, what is the reason?”
My student answered, “For example, if a worker has gone out of town to work, and his home is very far away, he can go back home because there are 7 days in a row.”
“That’s what I said! It’s so people can travel farther.”
And then the nickel dropped.
I continued, “Oh! When I said ‘travel’ you were thinking ‘lǚyóu’ 旅游, right?”
“And lǚyóu is always for fun, right?”
“But a worker going home is not lǚyóu-ing, right?”
“Ok, ok, ok. In English ‘travel’ simply means going from one place to another, which is usually for fun, but a business trip is also traveling, so is going home.”
Not exactly a false-friend idiom. More like a divergent concept, but I still had to throw it in.
Anyone else know any false-friend idioms or divergent concepts like these? Do tell.