What do these Chinese characters mean?
February 5, 2012 6:42 AM   Subscribe

What do these Chinese characters in American Born Chinese mean?

At http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnjack/6822973525/ I've posted a picture of, I think, all the Chinese characters in the comic American Born Chinese. I was wondering if someone could translate them.

I have some guesses about what some of them mean (the character used in the panel with "giant form" appears on the pillars when the Monkey King was writing his name; he was calling himself "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven" at the time, so maybe it means "giant" or "great" [like "grande" in Spanish]. And if that's the case, maybe the single characters in dialogue are a speech act like "I thee wed" or "I heard a rumor that" in Umbrella Academy--say it and it happens) but I wanted some actual knowledge rather than guesses and assumptions.

Aside from wondering what each character or group of characters means, I was also wondering what the top of the first three characters mean--it's the same on each.

And: aside from AskMe, is there any way for someone who doesn't speak any given non-Romance language to find a translation? e.g. if I had a picture of, say, writings in Arabic and wanted a translation but didn't know how to key them into a search engine. I'm suspecting the answer to this is "no" but would be happy for guidance or confirmation.
posted by johnofjack to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know Chinese, traditional esp., but this is what I came up with:

1. 電 (电) - dian4 - electricity
2. 雷 - lei2 - thunder
3. 雲 (云) - yun2 - cloud
4. 大 - da4 - big
5. 小 - xiao3 - small
6. 多 - duo1 - many
7. ?
8. 火 - huo3 - fire
9. ?
10. 自有者 - zi4you3zhe3 - owner?

11, 12, and 13 are seals, but no idea how to read them. Do you have a higher-res image?
posted by attente at 7:43 AM on February 5, 2012

There are a handful of sites that will let you look up a character in a dictionary via handwriting recognition: e.g., http://www.nciku.com/

This is also a standard feature on all hardware and software-based (PC, Mac, iPhone, Android) electronic dictionaries: e.g., Pleco, Hanping

Here are the characters from the comic.

自有 者

You can look up the single character words in Yahoo! Dictionary, nciku or Zhongwen.com or Iciba, &c.

The only special one is the phrase second from last, which is a famous phrase associated with the Monkey King: Wikipedia, translation of the story

The characters in red are a chop.

posted by Sangermaine at 7:57 AM on February 5, 2012

Aside from wondering what each character or group of characters means, I was also wondering what the top of the first three characters mean--it's the same on each.

As a standalone character, that's 雨, which means rain (in both Chinese and Japanese). And as luck would have it, it's actually the example chosen to explain the features of Kiki's Kanji Dictionary, which is a partial answer to your other question.

Briefly, for kanji (the Chinese characters used for written Japanese), if you can break a character down into separate parts, as you did with those first three, then you can choose a part and look for it in a radical index like this one. Then you can see if you can find the character in the associated list. The radicals are listed in order of the number of strokes it takes to write them; it takes 8 strokes to write the rain radical, so it's a long way down the list, at 173. But sure enough, if you look at the list of characters next to it, you'll see all three of the ones from the comic. (It's easier to make out if you click through to the page for the rain radical.)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:36 AM on February 5, 2012

Try asking the author, Gene Luen Yang. He's on Twitter @geneluenyang and is quite nice.

(ABC is a GREAT book, by the way!)
posted by nicebookrack at 10:02 AM on February 5, 2012

Thanks for the answers, everyone, and sorry for the delay in responding. I posted this then had to get ready for work.

齊天大聖,到此一遊 is, left to right, word for word, "neat / joint / reach / ready / level," "sky / day / season / fall / weather," "big / great," "holy / sage / emperor," "arrive," "this," "one," "swim / tour / reach." So from that, the painfully literal translation "level sky [heaven] big sage arrive this one," or the slightly less clumsy "Great sage, the one who arrived at the level of heaven," or the much better translation in the book: "The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven." Definitely not "Monkey King."

自有 者 literally translates to something like "oneself have/occur elder/journalist/author/editor," so I'm guessing that's either an idiomatic expression or a metaphorical prohibition that I don't understand.

The seals leave me puzzled, but maybe I can work through them with the site that searches based on handwriting recognition.

And nicebookrack, yes, you're right. I've met Gene Yang and he is very nice, really a wonderful person, but I didn't want to bother him with this. Some time back I tweeted @steven_moffat asking about a plot point in "The Impossible Astronaut" and he didn't respond. That's perfectly fine because he is very busy and he probably has hundreds of people tweeting at him every day, and maybe he just didn't want to talk about it even if he did see it. But the reason I mention it is that afterwards it occurred to me that it might be off-putting, uncomfortable, and/or annoying for authors to have someone ask them in public to explain part of their work.
posted by johnofjack at 3:32 PM on February 5, 2012

johnofjack, "the Great Sage Equal to Heaven" is synonymous with "Monkey King," because it's the title Sun Wukong the Monkey King names himself in the original Journey to the West. Like "Lamb of God"=Jesus or "Commander in Chief"=President, Great Sage Blah Blah=everybody knows you mean Monkey.

If you haven't read Journey to the West, it's an AWESOME story that gets referenced/adapted in East Asian media likely more than Shakespeare. ABC riffs on it heavily.

Point taken about Yang. In my experience authors like discussing their work but they're not interested in doing your high school English homework for you.
posted by nicebookrack at 8:23 PM on February 5, 2012

You're discovering the problems of word-for-word translation from Chinese. :)

齊天大聖 is the part that means "Great Sage Equal to Heaven": equal tiān heaven large shèng sage.

到此一遊 is the rest of a sentence: "paid a visit here". (Word by word, dào reach this one yóu travel, but don't worry too much about that.)

So the whole sentence is basically "Monkey King was here", the phrase he wrote on the pillars.

The next bit absolutely can't be understood by translating the characters! I'm almost certain Yang is quoting 我是自有者 (wǒ shì zì yǒu zhě I be self have person) which you'll see on this page as the translation of "I AM THAT I AM", the name God gives himself speaking to Moses. Obviously the original Monkey King story didn't use a Hebrew citation; but in context it's perfect irony-- in effect the mountain is labelled "GOD", which Monkey King had claimed to be.
posted by zompist at 12:24 AM on February 6, 2012

nicebookrack, I know the Monkey King was calling himself "the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven." It's in the question. :-) I was talking about what it says, not what it means (i.e. if a child asked what "H2O" says I'd read what it says but say that it means "water"). But I am properly chastened thinking this question sounds like something for high school English homework.

zompist, thanks for the correction. Word-for-word translation is a kludge at best. I should have remembered that from when I was taking Spanish classes. And thanks for translating the sign on the rocks; I knew I wouldn't get that one.
posted by johnofjack at 4:42 AM on February 6, 2012

Hm, yeah, also about the word-for-word translation I was attempting, I should maybe tattoo "A little learning is a dangerous thing" on the back of my wrist. ^__^
posted by johnofjack at 5:24 AM on February 6, 2012

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