GAN: WHODUNNIT?

First off, an apology. I had meant to write about this Language Log post by Ben Zimmer a couple of months ago; it quotes a comment by “an anonymous professor of China studies” on this amazing and hilarious rahoi.com post explaining how the menu item “Hot and spicy garlic greens stir-fried with shredded dried tofu” got rendered as “Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk” in the English portion of a restaurant menu. (“Finally: gan si meaning shredded dried tofu, but literally translated as ‘dry silk.’ The problem here is that the word gan means both ‘to dry’ and ‘to do,’ and the latter meaning has come to mean ‘to fuck.’”) It slipped my mind at the time, but fortunately the Loggers have revisited the issue: Victor Mair discusses the ubiquitous translation of gan as “fuck” and says:

I am trying to make sense of how this phenomenon actually came about. It seems that the twenty or so different meanings of the three-stroke calendrical graph that is used to write GAN1/4 (a total of three distinct graphic forms in the traditional script — 乾, 幹, 干 — all reduced to one — 干 — in the simplified script) in Chinglish have all collapsed into the single meaning of “fuck”. Wherever that graph occurs, Chinglish speakers will translate it as “fuck”…
Who’s telling the menu-makers and sign-painters to write “fuck” for GAN1/4? They probably don’t even know English and probably don’t know much Chinglish either. How did this get started? (Perhaps somebody was being intentionally mischievous.) And how did it become such a common phenomenon? That’s the real mystery. How is this horrible mistranslation continuing to spread and not being caught by the tens of millions of Chinese who do speak good English? … You’d think that at least they’d write “do” everywhere, or that people who do know English would tell the proprietors to hurry up and change the offending word so as to avoid further embarrassment!

They don’t have comments at the Log, so share your theories here!

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    When I was in Taiwan in 1983-4 there were two young ladies (students) from Singapore who were always using the “gan” word in a jocular way. They’d say something like “Ni gan ma?” and giggle.
    As I remember, someone else explained to me that this word has its own slang graph: the graph for “ru” = “enter” over the graph for “rou” = “meat”.

  2. Jimmy Ho says:

    John, the person who told you this got it confused with cao 肏 (penetrate 入 + flesh 肉). It is usually written as 操 (hold, or exercise, act) in Mainland publications (which makes the word ‘ticao’ 體操 “gymnastics”, amusing to some). In Taiwan, ‘gan’ is usually written as 幹, the-character-that-can-get-you-banned-from-the-airwaves.
    And yes, young people never tire of those ‘ganma’ jokes.

  3. Jimmy Ho says:

    (I think we “covered” part of it in a thread about MySpace censorship.)

  4. John Emerson says:

    Thanks, Jimmy, I was the one who was confused. Two different bad words.
    Is that the Cao Cao cao?

  5. Jimmy Ho says:

    Yes, it is (曹操). You know what they say: you mention Cao Cao, and here he is (說到曹操, 曹操就到).

  6. Ah. So there I was, in Fujian province for those six weeks, eagerly lapping up every bit of Chinese I could, and hearing people ask each other on the phone, “Gan ma?” A nice, breezy way of asking someone what was up, thought I, and I used the phrase with some frequency.
    But now, in retrospect, I remember approaching people with “Gan ma?” and getting a couple of strange looks.
    Shades of knowing when (not) to use “coger” in Spanish.

  7. xiaolongnu says:

    OK, first I have to come clean. I’m the “anonymous professor of China studies.” I don’t know why I didn’t use my xiaolongnu persona, but there you are. I think I didn’t realize that Blogger (the software) offers an “Other” category besides Blogger users and anonymous commenters.
    I’m not sure my comment on rahoi.com was clear enough on this point, but I do actually have a theory about how this happened. First, you have to know that the official English teaching materials the PRC has been using since 1949 were typically based on material produced in the early 20th century (I’m guessing inter-war) and reflecting a Commonwealth usage of English. So there are a lot of oddities of usage in PRC English that can be traced back to this fact. One of the most frequently encountered in my field of archaeology and art history is “the cream of” used to mean “the best of,” as in “The cream of ancient Zhou bronzes from Houma” and other memorable titles. In American English this usage is generally limited to the set phrase “the cream of the crop” and I’ve explained this to a number of publishers who’ve all said, basically, “Really? We were told it was proper idiomatic usage.”
    So until the mid- to late-nineties in the PRC, students of English were being taught out-of-date British(ish) idioms as correct English, which was doing nothing for their communication with a business world that increasingly speaks an Americanized and quite colloquial version of English, and in which the formal language of early 20th-century Commonwealth English is not particularly respected or desired.
    The upshot is that there’s now considerable awareness of (a) the difference between American English and British English, distinguished as 美語 and 英語 respectively; and (b) the need to speak and understand not just correct, but idiomatic AND colloquial English. There’s a tremendous emphasis in educational programs on speaking colloquial English — think of the guy, I forget his name, who teaches people to overcome their inhibitions about speaking English by YELLING EVERYTHING THEY SAY. And there are scads of dictionaries and vocabulary books and phrasebooks out there that purport to offer the reader the “real idiomatic American English.”
    Say what you will about “fuck” as a translation for 干, you can’t deny that it is deeply embedded in American idiom.
    So I think that the compilers of such reference books, reviewing the possible translations of the word 干, must have settled on “fuck” as the most idiomatic of the possible usages. Any China-based readers able to go out to the bookstore and find an example? The same may be true for some machine translation software out there, I have no idea. The translators of the menu were probably concerned with rendering it in idiomatic American English, because if there’s one thing they know about the history of English as it has been spoken in the PRC since 1949, it’s that it has tended to be too British (sorry Brits, I mean this from the PRC point of view and not my own) and too formal. Too bad about the actual result, eh?

  8. John Emerson says:

    Perhaps we should help them them along by using their preferred translation whereever possible. (I for one welcome our new Han masters.)
    I’m pretty weak on the meanings of “gan”, but “this kind of situation is hard to fuck” and “After ten years fucking with this intractible problem, he finally quit” and perhaps even “At the end of ten years his marriage had become unfuckable” all sound approximately right.

  9. xiaolongnu: That explanation makes a lot of sense, though of course we await evidence of reference works with the appropriate translation. Also, from now on whenever I see an “anonymous professor of China studies” quoted I’m assuming it’s you.

  10. Noetica says:

    The “dry” reading of gan explains a curious account of the ingredients on a packet of dry noodles in my possession, imported from PRC. The noodles are either of potato or mung-bean flour, depending on whether you believe the text or the illustration. Anyway, the last item in the list is “fuck the material”. I suppose now that this means “dry matter”. Must consult a Chinese friend, some time.
    So many combinations with gan. It’s all quite confusing for novices like me. 干掉 (gan4 diao4) appears to mean “kill”, which I suppose could account for various potentially dangerous confusions that might theoretically have arisen in cross-cultural conversation.

  11. John Emerson says:

    Isn’t there Oriental profundity lurking somewhere in this confusion?

  12. I think the main point is how one simple (embarrassing) mistranslation can become widespread and ubiquitous even though no dictionary or textbook would ever say to translate it that way. If it happened once, it could have been a prank on an English speaker’s part, but why does it persist?
    You see the same thing in Japan with other words. Once upon a time, some Japanese fellow working from a dictionary made the incorrect deduction that because dustbin meant “garbage can”, dust must mean garbage. No Japanese person since then has ever looked up the word gomi (Japanese for trash) in an English dictionary; instead, they always put “dust” on garbage cans in tourist areas as their way of being helpful to foreigners. The exact label may vary — “dust box”, “burnable dust” (for non-recyclables) — but never, ever “garbage” or “trash” or “refuse”.

  13. there is probably no mystery in the ‘ubiquity’ of gan=fuck translation.
    there are probably a billion menus in china, of which a few millions have english version side by side. what you are talking about is the few interesting ones which got picked up in the internet.
    if one were to pick do/dry/fuck/etc at random based on its frequency in english/american usage. i say “fuck” is way under-represented in these menus.

  14. Jimmy Ho says:

    I suspect Dashan; just because (kidding, Mark, please don’t take it seriously).

  15. Jimmy Ho says:

    there are probably a billion menus in china, of which a few millions have english version side by side.
    Things have changed a lot, then, because none of the places I used to eat at had an English menu. Now I can see I missed all the fun.

  16. There’s no mystery as to why gan is translated this way, it is simply because most Chinese rely on electronic tranlating gizmos to do their Chinese-English work.

  17. And you think the electronic translating gizmos actually provide “fuck” as the primary translation for gan? Not saying it’s impossible, but it does seem unlikely.

  18. John Emerson says:

    Sounds like a Chinese geek doing some ratfucking.

  19. The electronic translators I’ve tried sure do give that translation as one option. The machines are only as good as the dictionaries they are loaded with, and like many Chinese products, they are very shonkily put together. Some of the translations they provide are ridiculous. I reckon the electronic translators explain about 90% of the Chinglish seen in signage.

  20. Jimmy Ho says:

    See? I can remember Dashan advertizing such a machine on television; that infotainment lasted at least fifteen minutes. Seriously, though, I find it highly doubtful that “fuck” would be the first or second choice for ‘gan’.

  21. Wow. OK, I guess I have to get over my primitive assumption that a sleek modern electronic device must have accurate, up-to-date information installed.

  22. LH, that is a pretty silly assumption (you don’t read Risks Digest much, I guess), but there remains the question of where the information loaded into the translator came from in the first place. Prank or incompetence?

  23. I’m almost certain this translation must be present in some sort of machine translation software, though which product it is, I have no idea.
    I present these bootleg DVD subtitles screen-captured by Middle Kingdom Stories, all oddly similar in the ineptness of their translation, as evidence that some software product might be responsible:
    The Backstroke of the West (a.k.a. Revenge of the Sith)
    Mr. and Mrs. Smith
    War of the Worlds
    The latter movie’s subtitles contain no ‘gan’ gaffes, but nonetheless share an eerie number of grammatical similarities with the other two…

  24. michael farris says:

    My favorite is “play baseball with me, otherwise I will kill you”.
    IIRC the original was something like “it won’t kill you to throw the ball”

  25. Michael: Heh, yeah. I think that was a case of the line being misheard by a human translator and then machine-translated back into English!

  26. If anyone wants to see more wondrous subtitles from War of the Worlds, they’re here. (The name Rachel becomes “the thunder slices the.”)

  27. It’s a machine-translation problem.

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