Brain mush: Unintentional puns in translation

Kate and I drove past this poster on our way back from a late-night snack. The ad was at a bus stop, and it was pretty dimly lit, so my brain scanned the poster and went “intime” in French. (Click the word for pronunciation; I did not do well in the phonetics part of linguistics.*) I just got carried away with that footnote. Where was I?

Ah yes, I loved that my brain gave me a split-second reminder that I used to speak and see French on the regular. I hadn’t seen this poster before, and as it flashed by, my brain made a logical assumption that it’s an ad for a debonair cologne.

Another unintentional pun came up on Friday when I was having lunch with my aunt. We went to Cafe Surfas and she insisted that we order pretty much everything we thought was interesting from the menu (beet salad, lentil salad, a Lobster Sensations** panino and a lamb burger — and both entrées came with mixed greens). I was surprised that my aunt held her own, and she pleasantly reminded me that she’s not my mother (who has the stomach capacity of an average-sized toddler). I was all, “Oh yeah, you told me that she was never excited to eat when you had a 夜 餐 ( cān).”

I think my aunt responded first to my comment, then stopped and asked what phrase I’d just tried to use. I repeated it.

“You mean 宵夜 (xiāo , late-night snack)? There’s no such thing as 夜 餐 ( cān, which theoretically would translate as late-night meal, which, if we can say ‘second breakfast,’ should damn straight be a real phrase).”

My aunt, apparently, used to have my mom sit at the table to keep her company when she made midnight snacks.*** As she was telling me that, I asked her how to say “picnic.”

It’s “野餐 ( cān, ‘wild meal’ or ‘open-space meal’).” We both figured out where my mistake came from. Laughter ensued.****

I had a conversation a few years ago with a 外國人 (wài guó rén) about studying Chinese, and we started talking about visual and aural puns. He loved seeing and making visual puns — Chinese is built out of a series of pictographs, so radicals are placed together to create a type of accretive meaning (again, not good at this part of linguistics, ask an expert) — as he learned how to write. Since I’m functionally illiterate in Chinese, I tend to hear puns, and a lot of phrases in my mind have secondary layers of meaning created through associative relationships that someone who reads Chinese wouldn’t necessarily make, since Chinese is practically all homonyms. (Words are each one syllable, with one of four tones,***** so there are literally dozens of characters that represent the same sound, but have different meanings. Try typing in “you” in this dictionary.)

As another long-winded example, I’ve been trying to write a short story for years about how you’re not supposed to give Chinese people clocks as presents, because the phrase that means give the gift of a clock sounds like the name of a ceremony you go through when someone dies. Also for years, I thought that it was a symbolic thing, that giving someone a clock was a representation of how much time they have left to live. (This is, by the way, not an illogical conclusion — you’re not supposed to give Chinese people knives, either, since it might symbolically represent cutting off the relationship.) Spoiler alert! On the off chance I ever get around to writing that story, the twist is going to be that the main character got rid of everything that reminded him of the passage of time and completely disconnected from the conveniences of the modern world because of a misunderstanding.

These are the things that go through my brain. Multi-lingual friends, tell me I’m not alone!

* In case you couldn’t tell, I’m much more of a semiotics-type gal. I do, however, love the word “infixation” and what it means, although Wikipedia is now telling me that inserting a word instead of an affix into another word is technically “tmesis.” It’s, like, a whole ‘nother thing. Fan-bloody-tastic.

** I guess “Lobster Sensations” should have tipped us off that we weren’t getting real lobster. Oops. It was still a decent panino, but there was some mild chagrin on my aunt’s part.

*** She wasn’t interested in the food. I don’t know, maybe she’s not my real mother. Just kidding, Mom, I love you! I am also 97 percent certain that you will never read this footnote unless someone tells you about it.

**** This whole conversation was in Chinese, I just do not have the patience to look up each word on a Chinese-English dictionary. (That’s the nerdiest alt-text joke I’ve made yet, btw.) Also, I encode the bulk of my foreign-language conversations in English in my memory, so there’s this weird re-translation process that goes on, unless the phrasing of a sentence was particularly unique. Or I make a mistake and someone points out what I said.

**** There might be a fifth tone: I think it’s a kind of “and sometimes ‘y’ type thing.” This is why I’ve written poetry about feeling guilty for studying French.

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