Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Chinese wordplay

I came across an interesting play on words earlier this week in Beijing.

不怕辣。(Bù pà là.)
辣不怕。(Là bù pà.)
怕不辣。(Pà bù là.)

Roughly translated, these mean:

They don't mind spicy food.
Spicy food? No problem!
They're worried that the food's
not spicy.

They're used to describe three groups of people, with each liking spicy food more than the last. Opinions differ as to who prefers spicy food more than the other, but the order is generally Guizhou, Sichuan, and Hunan in order from least to most spicy.

You'll notice that the Chinese uses only three characters, while an English translation that attempts to get the nuances uses a heckuva lot more words. Here's a stunted literal translation:

Not afraid of spiciness.
Spiciness, not afraid!
Afraid it's not spicy.

The three words used are: 不 bù, which means "not"; 怕 pà, a versatile word which literally means "to fear" but is more generally used with 不 bù to say that you don't mind something, often with a flavor of food; and 辣 là, which means "spicy" but in this context is referring to spicy food. The first sentence is just the standard, "They don't mind spicy food." The next sentence ups the ante by putting spicy first, which has the effect of emphasizing the sentence and making it stronger than the first. The third rearranges the words to produce the opposite effect; rather than just not minding spicy food, these people mind when their food isn't spicy.

Any one got any other good examples of things like this in any other languages?

Link: 不怕辣、辣不怕、怕不辣 (in Japanese)

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