Polishing the worm dishes

After working in China for several years, Justin Mitchell considers himself fluent in the nuances of Chinglish.


One of the joys of turning Chinglish into English as a “foreign native English-speaking polisher expert” are the times when the material’s garble mystically morphs into prose that comes close to genius.
Often it’s just a sound-alike vocabulary or grammar slip, as in a story about a ferryboat “col-lusion” rather than collision, or “from a distance the village looks like a piece of silver as many stoned houses makes the village look shining far away.” The writer meant “stone houses,” of course, but perhaps he was also inhaling.
“Cold and worm dishes offer various specialties.” Although, if it was a southern Chinese banquet, maybe worm dishes were not so far off the mark, given the local habit of eating everything bar the table at meals.
Or “the colorful cultures of ethnic groups also add lust to the city.” I think the writer meant “luster.” Or maybe not. Some of those Yunnanese girls certainly look hot in their native dress.
Overwriting is common as in this description of a charity fundraiser – or possibly an orgy. “The evening was characterized by vibrant atmosphere ventilating godlike excitement as guests enjoy the coming together of friends.”
Some may be awkwardly phrased but you get the point and it’s almost better than when it’s “polished.” “Some netizens hold a similar understanding that ‘Happiness is the feeling a cat gets when it is eating a fish; it is the feeling a dog has when it is enjoying meat, and it is the thing Ultraman feels when beating monsters!'”
And this, which is from a description of an ethnic minority dance that could pass as American square dance calling with a little tweaking. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven – crash your neighbor’s crotch and then going on to the music: one two three four five six seven!”
“The more hard a guest of Primi minority was crashed on his crotch, the more warm welcome he received in our village. Three Primi young people dancing with their five Yi ethnic counterparts in the last program Dance of Crotch Crashing for the special performances of Guarding the Forest.”
And there are the times when the writer reaches for her or his trusty Chinese-English dictionary, which might have been last updated in the 1970s by Russian editors. Terms pop up that are either outdated or so obscure that I have no idea if they’re real or not, as in: “Venezuela has been declared territory free of analphabetism.”
I looked up the last word and found it has nothing to do with unusual sexual practices but is a real word that means illiteracy. How analphabetic did I feel then?
A colleague of mine, James Palmer, and I were discussing this recently and he came up with the “Is it James Joyce or Chinglish?” test. Here’s a sample. Pick Joyce or Chinglish for each selection. No Googling allowed.
A: The creating cabin called as time tunnel.
B: He lifted his feet up from the suck and turned back by the mole of boulders.
C: He is easily taken apart from his hometown fellows when he makes some utterance.
D: Wonder what kind is swanmeat.

A and C are Chinglish. B and D are Joyce.

In that spirit I also offer the “Bob Dylan or Chinglish?” quiz as Dylan is due to bestow his Bobness upon Beijing soon.
A: With 100 eyes of 100 Hamlets, the mountain crawls under the paintbrush of 100 artists.
B: His hindbrain hit by electricity as he orders four treasures.
C: The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.
D: With his businesslike anger and his bloodhounds that kneel, if he needs a third eye he just grows it.

A and B are Chinglish. C and D are Dylan.

Sometimes Chinglish becomes near-poetry, or perhaps inspiration for a children’s book: “Now the Changsha Zoo is selling tiger’s whispers which raises citizens’ curiosity. Some Chinese characters written with chalk on a blackboard in the zoo says, ‘There are some tiger’s whispers for sale, and ‘specially for drivers and children.'”
The writer meant “tiger whiskers” but I think tiger whispers is infinitely better, even sublime – especially for drivers and children. I’ll take two boxes, please.

Leave a Reply