The unique sounds of Mandarin

This week we bring you an unusual Chinese poem which is a great example of the importance and value of using mother-tongue translators for your translations.

The poem is ‘The Story of Mr Shi Eating Lions’ and is written in classical Chinese. What makes it unique is that each syllable in this poem is pronounced ‘shi’. The way a mother-tongue speaker pronounces each syllable turns the poem into a riddle about a poet who lives in a stone house and likes to eat lion flesh!

From looking at the characters written down in the English alphabet it’s hard to believe that the same word can make such a complex story just by pronouncing different sounds.

It is this which reminds us how important it is to work with qualified linguists, who work into their native language, as the tone and melody of some pronunciations can differ the meaning entirely. It would be very difficult for a non-native speaker to understand the subtleties in this poem. This is because although the sounds are monosyllabic (and all the same) the tone and pitch used distinguish the lexical or grammatical meaning change.

Of course, this is an extreme example as it was written in classical Chinese which is an old and formal language from the classical era in Chinese literature. Nevertheless, although different from modern Mandarin it is a great example of the nuances of different languages and the challenges they can create for those who aren’t qualified in the art of translation.

Have a listen to a native speaker reciting this poem in Mandarin and see if you can hear the difference.

Below is the English translation provided for the poem alongside the YouTube video:

In a stone den was a poet Mr Shi, who loved eating lions and determined to eat ten. He often went to the market to watch lions. One day at ten o’clock, ten lions just arrived at the market. At that time, Mr Shi just arrived at the market too. Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows. He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den. The stone den was damp. He had his servant wiping it. The stone den wiped, only then did he try to eat those ten lions. While eating, he just realised that those ten lions were in fact ten stone-lion corpses. Try to explain this.

Shi shi_Poem

Chinese translation at The Language Factory

At The Language Factory we only ever use qualified linguists, with at least five years’ experience in their chosen field, who work into their mother-tongue. You can read more on our professional services for Chinese or contact our Project Management team on +44 1727 862722. They can offer you a no-obligation quote for any upcoming projects and answer any questions you may have about translating into Chinese.


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