So there’s a big international conference for Christian Chinese business owners coming up next weekend in Houston, with lots of break-out sessions and special speakers, all of whom will be speaking in Mandarin – or at least attempting to. It’s easy to understand why Mandarin is the dialect of choice for this conference, since it’s not only the most widely spoken Chinese dialect, but is also “dialect #2” for every non-Mandarin Chinese who has tried to learn another dialect besides his own. And this is particularly true of Chinese businesspersons, who need Mandarin for their international trade with the Chinese mainland.
Unfortunately, speaking in Mandarin is a serious challenge for a Hong Kong Chinese, whose native dialect of Cantonese is quite different from Mandarin, to the point that each dialect has sounds and tones that the other dialect doesn’t use at all. Local Chinese pastor Brian Lam is himself a Cantonese speaker who has had to learn to preach in Mandarin, and he has a rueful motto: “We do not fear heaven; we do not fear earth. We fear only Cantonese trying to speak Mandarin.” And my friend Jocelyn, who grew up in Houston Chinese Church and in a bilingual English/Mandarin household, has told me, “When one of our Cantonese church members gives a talk in Mandarin, the only people who understand him are the other Cantonese.” So now you know that Chinese is not difficult only for Americans – it’s even difficult for Chinese.
At any rate, as the conference was being organized, one of the local Houston volunteers was on the phone with one of the conference speakers, a native of Hong Kong (well, Guangzhou actually, but close enough). The volunteer asked the speaker for the title of her talk, and she told him (speaking in Mandarin), “Is Your Home a Love Nest, or a House of Sinners?” (I am assured by my wife that this title sounds fine in Mandarin even though it translates oddly into English.) Alas, the phrase she used for “house of sinners” was 罪人之屋 zuìrén zhī wū (literally sinner-of house), and both the z and the i in zhi are non-Cantonese sounds which the speaker couldn’t pronounce very accurately. So the volunteer heard 巨人鸡屋 jùrén jīwū, which doesn’t make a lot of grammatical sense but which means, if it means anything at all, “giant’s chicken coop.” And that’s what he wrote down and sent to the guy printing the programs for the convention.
But the printer was not stupid, and he looked at 巨人鸡屋 jùrén jīwū and said to himself, “That can’t be right.” So he thought for a bit, and then, very intelligently, said to himself, “Wait a minute – this is a Christian conference. I bet that’s not supposed to be 巨人jùrén, “giant;” I bet that’s 罪人 zuìrén, ‘sinner.’” And of course he was quite right. But 罪人鸡屋 zuìrén jīwū still doesn’t make sense, because there’s no “of” word. And instead of guessing that 鸡屋 jīwū was supposed to be 之屋 zhī wū, he guessed that the “of” word had been left out, and so he put one back in: 罪人的鸡屋 zuìrén de jīwū, “sinner’s chicken coop.”
And now the programs have been printed, and now the speaker gets her first look at the title of her talk as it has been printed in the official program. Alas, she is Cantonese, and “sinner’s chicken coop” happens to be an idiomatic expression in Hong Kong. Thus it comes to be that this nice Christian lady sees the title of her talk in the official program:
“Is Your Home a Love Nest, or a Whorehouse?”
A personal note: my own wife has already signed up for this particular talk…