How Kaohsiung Got Its Name

I went on a family holiday to Taiwan recently, and we visited Taiwan’s two largest metro areas, Taipei and Kaohsiung. Many of Taiwan’s major cities have names with relatively transparent etymologies. Taipei 臺北 táiběi, for example, means simply “Northern Taiwan”, and if I tell you that zhōng/chung 中 means “centre", nán 南 means “south” and dōng/tung 東 means “east”, then you can easily figure out that Taichung 臺中 táizhōng is in Central Taiwan, Tainan 臺南 táinán is in Southern Taiwan and Taitung 臺東 táidōng is on the eastern coast of Taiwan. The municipality surrounding Taipei proper is called Xinbei 新北 xīnběi, and if I tell you that xīn 新 means “new”, you will not be surprised to discover that its name in English is “New Taipei City”. Taoyuan 桃園 táoyuán, part of the Taipei metro area and the city that hosts northern Taiwan’s main airport, means “peach garden”. It’s pretty obvious how all of these cities got their names.

And then there’s Kaohsiung 高雄 gāoxióng, a name that means “tall and mighty”.

Naturally, I had to find out how the city of Kaohsiung got its name — and it turns out that the history of Kaohsiung’s name is a linguistic playground. Let’s go.

Beating the dog

The city known today as Kaohsiung enters the historical record sometime in the 16th century, when Hoklo immigrants from Fujian in southern China settled in the area. These immigrants referred to the area as “Takao”, a name of uncertain origin. One hypothesis is that the name comes from Siraya, the language spoken by the aboriginal Siraya people who inhabited the greater region around modern-day Kaohsiung. In this hypothesis, the name “Takao” means “bamboo forest”.

An alternate theory is that the name “Takao” comes from the name of the Makatao tribe, who were concentrated around the area of Takao itself (as opposed to the Siraya, who mostly inhabited the neighbouring regions to the east). Under this hypothesis, the name “Takao” comes from a metathesis of the word “Makatao”.

Metathe-what?

In linguistics, metathesis refers to the switching of two sounds within a word. As a kid, I pronounced “cavalry” as “calvary” a lot. In Singapore, one also often hears “film” and “phelgm” pronounced as /flɪm/ and /flɛm/ (correction: it's "phlegm", of course, and /flɛm/ is indeed how it's pronounced!). The often-mocked pronunciation “nucular” /nukjulɚ/ is a metathetic form of “nuclear” /nukliɚ/.

Although metathesis is often considered a speech error, it is a linguistic phenomenon that sometimes become a canonical part of languages. Spanish, for example, displays long-distance metathesis in many words involving /l/ and /ɾ/:

  • Latin parabola, Spanish palabra, “word”
  • Latin miraculum, Spanish milagro, “miracle”
  • Arabic al-Jazā’ir, Spanish Argelia, “Algeria”

Whatever the origin of the name “Takao”, what we know for sure is that the Hoklo immigrants wrote it in the Chinese writing system as 打狗, pronounced /tɑ̃gaʊ/ in Hokkien (tone indications not given — I’m at the limit of my personal expertise here. If you know, though, drop me a comment below!)

In Hokkien and Mandarin, 打狗 happens to mean “beating the dog”.

The Chinese Writing System

Think about the Latin alphabet for a second. The individual letters generally suggest a pronunciation. In English, we expect <k> to be pronounced /k/, <n> to be pronounced /n/ or /ŋ/, and <a> to be pronounced /a/, /æ/, or /e/. The letters by themselves, however, do not necessarily mean anything. The letters “c”, “o” and “w” do not mean anything in isolation. Only when we put them into the word “cow” do we get something meaningful, and not because the letters "cow" are inherently meaningful, but because they signify a set of sounds that in turn signifies the idea of the animal. Individual characters in the Latin writing system may carry a phonetic or phonological value, but not a semantic value.

The Chinese writing system works differently. Each written character carries both a pronunciation or a phonetic value (sometimes more than one), as well as a meaning or a semantic value. It just so happens that the two characters used to convey the pronunciation of /tɑ̃gaʊ/ also convey the meaning of “beating the dog”.

寶貝, 你在哪里?
Baby, where are you?

打狗。
Beating the dog.

The Japanese Arrive

In 1895, the Chinese were forced to cede the island of Taiwan to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War, and so began 50 years of Japanese rule in Taiwan.

The Japanese have three main writing systems: kanji, katakana and hiragana. We don’t have to go into the details of katakana and hiragana here; the system we’re interested in here is kanji. Kanji, 漢字, literally means “Han words”, which reflects its origin: the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system to write the Japanese in.

Remember that I mentioned that Chinese characters carry both a phonetic and a semantic value? When Japanese speakers use kanji to write Japanese, they can use kanji for its phonetic value or for its semantic value.

For example, the character 高 gāo is pronounced /kaʊ/ in modern Mandarin, meaning “high” or “tall”. In Japanese, it can be pronounced /ko/, which is a borrowing based on sound, or it can be pronounced /taka/, which is a borrowing based on meaning. If it helps, imagine the Japanese thinking, “We have this word ‘taka’, which means ‘tall’ or ‘high’, but we don’t have any way to write it down. I know, let’s write it 高, like the Chinese do!”

Because of the way kanji works, many (most?) kanji in Japanese have multiple pronunciations, only one of which might resemble the corresponding Mandarin (or, in this case, Hokkien) pronunciation. In this case, the Japanese took the Hokkien pronunciation of the name 打狗 /tɑ̃gaʊ/, and noted its resemblance to a scenic area near Kyoto, which is also called “Takao” and pronounced /takao̞/. As a result, the Japanese kept the name Takao, but wrote it the Japanese way: 高雄.

Taiwan is returned to Chinese sovereignty

After World War II, Japan was made to give up its imperial possessions, and the island of Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China. This time, the Chinese kept the written form of the city’s name, 高雄, but instead pronounced it the Mandarin way /kauɕjʊŋ/, gāoxióng in Pinyin romanisation or Kaohsiung in Wade-Giles romanisation.

Today, the city’s official name is Kaohsiung 高雄, but signs and company names with Takao and 打狗 can still be seen around the city — sometimes simply as historical remnants (see: The British Consulate at Takow, Takao Railway Museum), and sometimes as markers of civic pride.

Photo credit: polanyi on flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: polanyi on flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: billy1125 on flickr, CC-BY 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

Photo credit: billy1125 on flickr, CC-BY 2.0 (click through for original picture on flickr)

One of the most amazing things that language and writing let us do is connect to the past, and the history of Kaohsiung’s name is a particularly salient example of this.

Linguistics — it’s amazing, yo. That's the message we're trying to spread at Language Rush. Hope you enjoyed this read. Leave me any comments or questions you have!

tl;dr, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing.

tl;dr, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing.

ZH > EN: Taiwanese Mandarin Let It Go

If you haven't read the note at the beginning of the other Mandarin translation, hop over there and read it before we begin, so I don't have to repeat myself.

I have a confession to make: I can't really read Traditional Chinese. I worked through this translation by sticking the lyrics into Google Translate and asking it to translate from Traditional to Simplified Chinese.

This is the version of Let It Go that was recorded for Taiwan:

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

白雪紛飛一片銀色世界 White snow swirls, a world blanketed in silver The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
báixuě fēnfēi yīpiàn yínsè shìjiè (white-snow swirls one-field silver world)
放眼望去是沉寂 Stillness as far as the eye can see Not a footprint to be seen
fàngyǎn wàngqù shì chénjì (let eye see out is stillness)
遙遠國度放逐自我 I've banished myself to a distant kingdom A kingdom of isolation
yáoyuǎn guódù fàngzhú zìwǒ (distant kingdom exile myself)
孤單寂寞每一天 Alone and lonely every day And it looks like I'm the queen
gūdān jìmò měi yītiān (alone lonely every day)
思緒像狂風呼嘯巨浪般澎湃 My train of thought is screaming like a gale, surging like giant waves The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside
sīxù xiàng kuángfēng hūxiào jùlàng bān péngpài (thought-thread like mad-wind screaming giant-wave type surging)
無法再壓抑最後的忍耐 No way to hold back, my restraint is at an end Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried
wúfǎ zài yāyì zuìhòu de rěnnài (no-way again hold back most-last ATTR restraint)

The Taiwanese Mandarin translation feels a bit more literary to my ears, a little less conversational. It's a little denser, a bit harder to understand, but also jam-packed with some incredible imagery. Look at that second-last line, and then look at the gloss! There is no deadweight there, every word counts. It's beautiful.

English really doesn't have an equivalent to 忍. Spanish has aguantar, Malay has tahan, but the closest English comes to is "endure". "My endurance is at an end" sounds like somebody running out of energy at the end of a marathon.

You'll notice the line isn't actually divided into two. I actually read it as "no way to hold back my last bit of restraint" but that sounds a little bit contradictory to me. If you hold back your last bit of restraint, you... still have restraint, don't you? And if you don't hold back your last bit of restraint, you didn't really have any restraint left, did you?

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

不要靠近 Don't get close Don't let them in
bùyào kàojìn (don't get close)
不要相信 Don't believe Don't let them see
bùyào xiāngxìn (don't believe)
乖乖聽話 Be good and listen Be the good girl
guāiguāi tīnghuà (obedient-obedient listen)
安分一如往昔 Know your place just as in the past You always had to be
ānfèn yīrú wǎngxī (content-place like in the past)
隱藏,堅強,拒絕表露 Hide, don't yield, refuse to reveal Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
yǐncáng, jiānqiáng, jùjué biǎolù (hide, strong, refuse reveal)
拋下所有 Abandon it all Well, now they know
pāoxià suǒyǒu (throw down everything)

Reduplication appears here in the form of 乖乖, glossed here as obedient-obedient. It's a gloss, so it's okay; you would have to be a bit deaf to try to fit that into a meter.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

放開手,放開手 Let it go, let it go Let it go, let it go
fàngkāi shǒu, fàngkāi shǒu (let-open hand, let-open hand)
不需要任何理由 There's no need for a reason Can't hold it back any more
bù xūyào rènhé lǐyóu (don't need any reason)
放開手,放開手 Let it go, let it go Let it go, let go
fàngkāi shǒu, fàngkāi shǒu (let-open hand, let-open hand)
不理會心中枷鎖 Ignore the shackles in your heart Turn away and slam the door
bù lǐhuì xīnzhōng jiāsuǒ (don't pay attention heart inside shackle)
還以為曾經在乎過誰 To think I once cared about them I don't care what they're going to say
hái yǐwéi céngjīng zàihūguò shuí (still think once cared who)
讓暴雨翻騰 Let the rainstorm rage Let the storm rage on
ràng bàoyǔ fānténg (let rainstorm churn)
從不畏懼征服冰霜風雪 Never again fear conquering the ice, frost, wind and snow The cold never bothered me anyway
cóng bù wèijù zhēngfú bīngshuāng fēngxuě (ever no fear conquer ice-frost-wind-snow)

放開手 is to let go of something that you're holding on to ("let-go hand", after all). Later on we'll see another translation which I've also rendered as "let it go", but which has a slightly different nuance.

The first meaning of 翻騰 churn, rage in my dictionary is "tuck dive", as in diving.

I think in the sticklebrick compound expression stakes, 冰天雪地 ice-sky snow-earth beats out 冰霜風雪 ice-frost-wind-snow by a bit -- just a bit. Ice-frost-wind-snow is a bit too much air and not enough gravity.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

你我之間有距離 There's a distance between you and me It's funny how some distance
nǐ wǒ zhījiān yǒu jùlí (you me between have distance)
一切變得渺小 Everything becomes insignificant Makes everything seem small
yīqiè biàn dé miǎoxiǎo (everything becomes insignificant-small)
那縈繞心頭的恐懼 Those fears hovering over my head and heart And the fears that fears once controlled me
nà yíngrào xīntóu de kǒngjù (that hover heart-head ATTR fear)
已經不再重要 Are no longer important Can't get to me at all
yǐjīng bù zài zhòngyào (already not again important)
看看我要如何去做 Let's see how I do things It's time to see what I can do
kànkàn wǒ yào rúhé qù zuò (see-see I want how go do)
測試極限能否突破 Testing limits to see if I can break them To test the limits and break through
cèshì jíxiàn néngfǒu túpò (test limits can-not break through)
沒有對錯,沒有束縛 No right, no wrong, there are no limits No right, no wrong, no rules for me
méiyǒu duìcuò, méiyǒu shùfù (don't-have right-wrong, don't-have restriction)
起飛 Take flight! I'm free
qǐfēi (up-fly)

Okay 心頭 is literally "heart-head" but in usage it typically refers to the mind or to thoughts. I split them out in the translation because the song is so much about following your heart yadda yadda.

起飛 actually refers to an airplane lifting off. It was a bit hard to put that context in the gloss and still have it make sense, so "up-fly" it was.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

放開手,放開手 Let it go, let it go Let it go, let it go
fàngkāi shǒu, fàngkāi shǒu (let-open hand, let-open hand)
從今往後由我主宰 From today, I will decide I'm one with the wind and sky
cóng jīn wǎnghòu yóu wǒ zhǔzǎi (from today in future due to me decide)
讓它走,讓它走 Let it go, let it go Let it go, let go
ràng tā zǒu, ràng tā zǒu (let it go, let it go)
絕不再受傷害 Never again will I be hurt You'll never see me cry
jué bù zài shòu shānghài (absolutely not ever suffer hurt)
新世界在我眼前 A new world lies in front of my eyes Here I stand and here I'm staying
xīn shìjiè zài wǒ yǎnqián (new world is my eyes front)
讓暴雨翻騰 Let the rainstorm rage Let the storm rage on
ràng bàoyǔ fānténg (let rainstorm churn)

The other rendition of "let it go" makes its appearance: 讓它走. Unlike 放開手, which is about letting go of something in your grasp, 讓它走 is about letting something walk away or letting something go free.

I've been glossing 在 as "is" and it's making me unhappy because it's so vague. In this context, 在 indicates position; it's not a copula). It tells you that something is somewhere. 前 "front" is a postposition, so mentally swing it around before the noun phrase 我眼 "my eyes", and you get "in front of my eyes".

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

力量強大從地底直竄上雲霄 My power strengthens from underground and bursts up towards the skies My power flurries through the air into the ground
lìliàng qiángdà cóng dìdǐ zhí cuàn shàng yúnxiāo (power strong-big from ground-under straight expel up clouds)
我的心層層冰封,銳利碎片很難消 My heart freezes over layer by layer, sharp shards that are very hard to extinguish My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around
wǒ de xīn céngcéng bīngfēng, ruìlì suìpiàn hěn nán xiāo (my heart layer-layer ice-seal, sharp break-piece very difficult eliminate)
心念動,冰晶立起,天地將改變 A thought moves my heart, ice crystals freeze, the sky and earth will soon transform And one thought crystallises like an icy blast
xīnniàn dòng, bīngjīng lì qǐ, tiāndì jiāng gǎibiàn (heart-thought move, ice crystals freeze, sky-earth soon transform)
前方的路等待 The road ahead awaits I'm never going back
qiánfāng de lù děngdài (ahead ATTR road awaits)
過去不要留戀 Don't dwell on the past The past is in the past
guòqù bùyào liúliàn (past don't be nostalgic)

I spent a long time with 竄上. I originally used "flies up towards the skies", but "fly" doesn't have the force of "expel", and so I settled on "bursts up". 強大 strong actually parses like an adjective here to me, although I don't see why it shouldn't be 強大力量 instead of 力量強大, so I hedged a bit and avoided the question altogether.

層層 layer-layer is a fascinating use of reduplication. Actually, both cases of reduplication in this version have been adverbial, which cough Wikipedia cough doesn't mention in its section about reduplication in Mandarin. Nominal, verbal, adjectival reduplication yes, but not adverbial.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

讓它走,讓它走 Let it go, let it go Let it go, let it go
ràng tā zǒu, ràng tā zǒu (let it go, let it go)
烏雲後面就是曙光 Behind the dark clouds is the dawn And I'll rise like the break of dawn
wūyún hòumiàn jiùshì shǔguāng (dark-clouds behind-side just is dawn-light)
讓它走,讓它走 Let it go, let it go Let it go, let go
ràng tā zǒu, ràng tā zǒu (let it go, let it go)
只剩記憶迴盪 Only memories left echoing That perfect girl is gone
zhǐ shèng jìyì huídàng (only left memories reverberating)
新世界,希望在眼前 A new world, hope before my eyes Here I stand in the light of day
xīn shìjiè, xīwàng zài yǎnqián (ne world, hope is eyes-front)
讓暴雨翻騰 Let the rainstorm rage Let the storm rage on
ràng bàoyǔ fānténg (let rainstorm churn)
從不畏懼征服冰霜風雪 Never again fear conquering the ice, frost, wind and snow The cold never bothered me anyway
cóng bù wèijù zhēngfú bīngshuāng fēngxuě (ever no fear conquer ice-frost-wind-snow)

I know echo and reverb are not the same thing but reverberating has too many damn syllables.

At this point in this translation binge, all I can think is: how do you know the clouds are dark if the sun isn't up yet?


This post is part of the Parallel Translation series, where I translate things that have been translated from English into other languages back into English. It's my idea of fun. Yes, I'm a riot at parties.

ZH > EN: Mandarin Let It Go

The two Mandarin translations of Let It Go are going to be a little bit different. They're going to be the first non-Indo-European translations here, and Mandarin syntax doesn't correspond to Indo-European syntax at all. It's a completely different beast. What I'm going to do, then, is give a translation and a gloss, so you can see what it reads like as a whole but also word for word. Because there's a gloss, the translation will be a bit more natural than it normally is. The mission of exposing a language's nuts and bolts will be spread across both the translation and the gloss.

Next problem: how grammatically detailed should the gloss be? I was tempted to make it very detailed, but ultimately this is not a blog for linguists, this is a blog for people with an amateur interest in languages. So, as much as my inner nerd wants to gloss something as "NEG EXIST foot print ATTR place", there's no point. The only thing I expect from you here is that you speak English.

Where it makes sense to gloss a specific English verbal construction, I've done that; I've also conjugated the verbs and declined the relevant pronouns because it is silly for you to sit there and read "let I see" because I insist that if Mandarin doesn't inflect then the gloss shouldn't either. I've generally left the nouns uninflected for number, though, unless I need to know the number to conjugate the verb properly, then I've chosen the number that makes most sense to me.

If you are a nerdy grammar purist and are offended that I opted to gloss a progressive aspect marker as "is [verb]ing", well, don't write to me. Write your own gloss instead.

Also, as much as I want to gloss compound nouns into their constituent parts, like "female-king", I won't if there is a word that obviously makes more sense (e.g. "queen"). I will do it, however, if the English word is inelegant and the constituent parts of the compound noun are evocative enough to justify it.

There are two complications. The first has to do with 的, which is a possessive marker if it follows a noun. However, if it follows an adjective and precedes a noun, then it attributes the adjective to the noun. (See this page for more details.) I've glossed the possessive marker as 's and the attributive as ATTR, because English has no equivalent attributive marker.

If any of that was confusing: just ignore ATTR wherever you see it below and you will be just fine.

The second complication has to do with 吧, which I've rendered here as SUGG, for "suggestion particle". 吧 is used, among other things, for marking a statement as a suggestion.

First up is the version recorded for China:

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

白雪发亮今夜铺满山上 White snow glowing bright carpets the mountain tonight The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
báixuě fāliàng jīnyè pùmǎn shānshàng (white-snow shines tonight covers mountains)
没有脚印的地方 Not a spot with footprints Not a footprint to be seen
méiyǒu jiǎoyìn de dìfāng (don't-have footprint ATTR place)
孤立的王国很荒凉 A lonely kingdom is very bleak A kingdom of isolation
gūlì de wángguó hěn huāngliáng (lonely ATTR kingdom very bleak)
我是这里的女皇 I am the queen of this place And it looks like I'm the queen
wǒ shì zhèlǐ de nǚhuáng (I am here's queen)
风在呼啸 像心里的风暴一样 The wind is screaming just like the windstorm in my heart The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside
fēng zài hūxiào xiàng xīn lǐ de fēngbào yīyàng (wind is screaming like heart inside's windstorm same)
只有天知道 我受过的伤 Only heaven knows the pain I've suffered Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried
zhǐyǒu tiān zhīdào wǒ shòuguò de shāng (only heaven know I suffered ATTR pain)

The Mandarin translation sticks pretty close to the English here, making sure to hit all the key words: white, glow, footprints, lonely kingdom, howling wind, heaven. It matches the information density of the English version pretty well. Something that's striking here is that while a language like Spanish is overwhelmingly verb-driven, this version is very imagery-driven.

I have to be careful here not to let my Singlish brain spill over. In Singlish, "don't have" is an existential expression meaning "there isn't/aren't any", akin to Spanish "no lo hay". In fact the Singlish expression is probably calqued directly from Mandarin or Hokkien. So "don't-have footprint" = "there are no footprints", or if you are a linguistics nerd, NEG EXIST footprint. Keep that in mind everywhere you see "don't-have" in the gloss.

Mandarin uses postpositions instead of prepositions, so those come after the noun they modify, not before. You see this in a gloss like "heart inside", meaning "in my heart".

A fun party trick: ask a Singaporean speaker of Mandarin to name a Mandarin preposition. I will take bets on the response being "but Mandarin has no grammar!"

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

别让他们 Don't let them Don't let them in
bié ràng tāmen (don't let them)
进来看见 Come in to see Don't let them see
jìnlái kànjiàn (come in see)
做好女孩 Be a good girl Be the good girl
zuò hǎo nǚhái (be good girl)
就像你的从前 Just like you were before You always had to be
jiù xiàng nǐ de cóngqián (just like your past)
躲藏, 不让他们看见 Hide, don't let them see Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
duǒcáng, bù ràng tāmen kànjiàn (hide, don't let them see)
已被发现 I've been discovered Well, now they know
yǐ beì fāxiàn (already been discovered)

Again, sticking very close to the English source.

We're coming to the good, meaty stuff.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

随它吧, 随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let it go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
回头已没有办法 There is no way back now Can't hold it back any more
huítóu yǐ méiyǒu bànfǎ (turn-back already don't-have way)
随它吧, 随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
一转身不再牵挂 Once I turn around, I won't worry any more Turn away and slam the door
yī zhuànshēn bù zài qiānguà (once turn-around (lit. turn-body) no again worry)
我不管他们想说的话 I don't care what they want to say I don't care what they're going to say
wǒ bù guǎn tāmen xiǎng shuō de huà (I don't care they want say ATTR speech)
任风吹雨打 Let the wind blow and the rain beat down Let the storm rage on
rèn fēngchuīyǔdǎ (let wind blow rain beat)
反正冰天雪地我也不怕 I am not afraid of ice-sky and snow-earth anyway The cold never bothered me anyway
fǎnzhèng bīngtiān xuědì wǒ yě bù pà (Anyway ice-sky snow-earth I also not scared)

I was mildly tempted to translate 随 as "follow". That'd be a pretty fun rendering -- follow it wherever it goes! I do think "let" is a better choice, though, because 随 carries an implication of not caring. "Follow" is quite a bit more active than "let".

I originally had the fourth line as "once you turn around, don't you ever worry again", but ditched it in favour of what you see above because of the mysteriously switching subject. (What, you don't talk to yourself sometimes?) Of course, there's no personal subject in any of the first four lines, but a completely impersonal rendering would have been an atrocity: "upon turning around, no more worries". No thanks.

The 一 + verb construction is pretty interesting -- mentally, in my head, I think of it as being like the Spanish al + verb construction, al girar, upon turning.

And now, my favourite pair of lines: "let wind blow rain beat". Okay, I took some licence here. If you look in the dictionary you will find this:

"Ice-sky" and "snow-earth" might raise a few eyebrows. As far as sticklebrick compound words go, they're pretty self-explanatory, and they're really the only way I can think of to express the expansive imagery of the Mandarin translation here.

The gloss "anyway... I also not scared" makes me laugh. It's classic Singlish.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

这一点点的距离 Just this little bit of distance It's funny how some distance
zhè yīdiǎndiǎn de jùlí (this little little bit of distance *)
让一切变精致 Makes everything seem delicate Makes everything seem small
ràng yīqiè biàn jīngzhì (let everything become delicate)
曾经困扰我的恐惧 The fears that once perplexed me And the fears that fears once controlled me
céngjīng kùnrǎo wǒ de kǒngjù (once perplexed me ATTR fear)
会远离我回忆 Will distance themselves from my memory Can't get to me at all
huì yuǎnlí wǒ huíyì (will far-leave my memory)
现在开始让我看见 Now let me start to see It's time to see what I can do
xiànzài kāishǐ ràng wǒ kànjiàn (now start let me see)
是我的突破和极限 It's my breakthroughs and my limits To test the limits and break through
shì wǒ de túpò hé jíxiàn (is my breakthrough and limit)
不分对错, 没有极限 No right, no wrong, there are no limits No right, no wrong, no rules for me
bù fēn duìcuò, méiyǒu jíxiàn (no split right-wrong, don't-have limit)
向前 Onward! I'm free
xiàngqián (onward)

Okay -- it's arguable whether 一点点 should be glossed as "a little little bit". I mean, word for word it's more like "a bit bit", but I opted for "a little little bit" because at least that form of pseudo-reduplication has some meaning in English.

I'll mention this here because I think this is the place where it's clearest:

曾经困扰我的恐惧

céngjīng kùnrǎo wǒ de kǒngjù

(once perplexed me ATTR fear)

The fears that once perplexed me

的, as I mentioned above, sometimes serves as an attributive marker particle. The noun that comes after the particle is attributed with the adjectival quality mentioned before the particle.

The only reasonable way to render "once perplexed me" in English as an adjective is as a relative clause, and so the gloss leads pretty clearly to the translation: "fear [that] once perplexed me". From there, it's a short leap to "the fears that once perplexed me".

I can't think of a better translation for 远离 than "to distance oneself", unfortunately. As you can see in the gloss, the compound word is actually made up of "far" and "leave".

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let it go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
跟风和天空对话 Talk with the wind and sky I'm one with the wind and sky
gēn fēng hé tiānkōng duìhuà (with wind and sky converse)
随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
眼泪不再掉下 Tears will never fall again You'll never see me cry
yǎnlèi bù zài diào xià (tears no again fall down)
这个家让我留下 Let me stay in this home Here I stand and here I'm staying
zhège jiā ràng wǒ liúxià (this home let me stay)
任风吹雨打 Let the wind blow and the rain beat down Let the storm rage on
rèn fēng chuī yǔ dǎ (let wind blow rain beat)

Topic prominence rears its head! Is 这个家让我留下 "let me stay in this home" or "this home is letting me stay"? You'd think that as a native speaker of a topic-prominent language it would be obvious to me, but it isn't. If someone can pick apart the Mandarin grammar here I'd be grateful for an answer to this question.

An aside: I think the word 让 has been overworked throughout this song.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

我力量从空气中扩散到地上 My power spreads from the air down upon the ground My power flurries through the air into the ground
wǒ lìliàng cóng kōngqì zhòng kuòsàn dào dìshàng (my power from air within spreads until ground)
我灵魂盘旋在冰块各种不同形状 My soul spirals in ice of every shape and size My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around
wǒ línghún pánxuán zài bīngkuài gèzhǒng bùtóng xíngzhuàng (my soul spirals in ice-block all-sorts different shapes)
我思想结晶变成锋利的闪光 My thoughts crystallise and become sharp flashes of light And one thought crystallises like an icy blast
wǒ sīxiǎng jiéjīng biànchéng fēnglì de shǎnguāng (my thoughts form-crystal become sharp ATTR flash-light)
我永不回头看 I'm never looking back I'm never going back
wǒ yǒngbù huítóu kàn (I never turn-back look)
以往会被埋藏 The past will be buried The past is in the past
yǐwǎng huì bèi máicáng (past will be buried)

Another postposition worth mentioning: 中 "within", as in "air within", as in "from within the air". In the next stanza I translate 中 differently, and I comment on it below.

I stared at this line for a very long time:

我灵魂盘旋在冰块各种不同形状

wǒ línghún pánxuán zài bīngkuài gèzhǒng bùtóng xíngzhuàng

(my soul spirals in ice-block all-sorts different shapes)

My soul spirals in ice of every shape and size

The first part was unambiguous: 我灵魂 is "my soul". 盘旋 is the verb "to spiral".

And then my brain went to pieces. Is the soul spiralling in a block of ice? Is the soul spiralling in a block of ice and producing ice of different shapes? Are we talking about ice in literal, physical space? How does a soul spiral in a literal, physical space, or even a metaphorical, figurative one?

... what does it even mean, "my soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around"???

In the end I just picked something that made a bit of sense and left it.

I couldn't help myself with "flash-light". It was a bad, bad, unfunny pun begging to be made. 闪光 means "flash of light", of course.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let it go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
让我在曙光中升华 Let me transcend myself at daybreak And I'll rise like the break of dawn
ràng wǒ zài shǔguāng zhōng shēnghuá (let me in dawn-light middle sublimate *)
随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
让完美被蒸发 Let perfection evaporate That perfect girl is gone
ràng wánměi bèi zhēngfā (let perfection be evaporated)
这个家在阳光之下 This home, under the sunlight Here I stand in the light of day
zhège jiā zài yángguāng zhīxià (this home is sunlight under)
任风吹雨打 Let the wind blow and the rain beat down Let the storm rage on
rèn fēng chuī yǔ dǎ (let wind blow rain beat)
反正冰天雪地我也不怕 I am not afraid of ice-sky and snow-earth anyway The cold never bothered me anyway
fǎnzhèng bīngtiān xuědì wǒ yě bù pà (anyway ice-sky snow-earth I also not scared)

I glossed 中 as "middle" instead of "within" here, just because "within daybreak" makes much less sense to me than "in the middle of the dawn".

No other translation I've seen does this, and it's kind of great: 升华 means to refine or to sublimate, and it's a fantastic play on words. I couldn't quite hammer "sublimate" into the translation and settled for "transcend", which I can live with. Two lines later, to take the chemistry lesson even further, the Mandarin version then attempts to evaporate an abstract noun. Well, I guess if money can evaporate, perfection can, too.

This was far more difficult than I expected. I don't have the vocabulary or deep grammatical knowledge of Mandarin to comment intelligently about the language, so I was making a lot of this up as I went along, and learning the nitty-gritty of Mandarin grammar that, as a heritage speaker, I never quite learnt to articulate. I have a lot more to learn.


This post is part of the Parallel Translation series, where I translate things that have been translated from English into other languages back into English. It's my idea of fun. Yes, I'm a riot at parties.