Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy (Christmas and New Year)!

Last weekend, a Facebook friend of mine posted "Merry Christmas" on his status in several different languages. When someone inquired, "Where's the Mandarin?" he responded that he'd hit the character limit before getting to the Mandarin and Cantonese.

Mandarin and Cantonese have the same written language, so when the commenter expressed her confusion, he replied that he'd found two different phrases for the two languages: 聖誕快樂 in Mandarin and 聖誕節同 in Cantonese. The first is easy to understand: 聖誕 (shèngdàn) means "Christmas" (literally, "holy birth"), and 快樂 (kuàilè) is the word for "merry" or "happy." Happy holy birth = Merry Christmas.

However, no one seemed able to decipher the second phrase. Its third character, 節 (jié), means "holiday" and can be added to the first two without any substantial change in meaning (perhaps "Christmastime"). But the final character in the Cantonese phrase, 同 (tóng), usually means "same" or "equal." How did a phrase literally translated as "holy birth festival together" become "Merry Christmas"? Was it some sort of Cantonese idiom?

As a Mandarin student and linguaphile, this puzzle was driving me nuts. I did hours of web research, asked my Mandarin tutor, my mother, and a Hong Kong born friend, all of whom confirmed that
聖誕節同 made no sense.

Finally, late into the evening, I figured it out. My friend, who does not speak or read Chinese, had taken the translations from the Omniglot site, which reads:

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in many languages

聖誕節同新年快樂 (singdaanjit tùhng sànnìhn faailohk)
恭喜發財 (gùng héi faat chōi) - used at Chinese New Year

聖誕快樂 新年快樂 [圣诞快乐 新年快乐]
(shèngdàn kuàilè xīnnián kuàilè)

In the "Mandarin" translation, the first four characters form the phrase "holy birth happy" while the last four form the phrase "new year happy" (新年 xīnnián = new year). In the "Cantonese" translation, my friend inferred that the first four characters again 聖誕節同 represented "Merry Christmas."

In fact,
聖誕節同新年快樂 is not two phrases but one. The character 同, in this case, means "and" and connects 聖誕節 ("Christmas") and 新年 ("new year"), so that 快樂 ("happy") actually modifies both nouns. Literally, it is "holy birth time and new year happy."

It's a good reminder that even the shortest of translations are subject to interpretation.

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