From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Primary Sources 1A.07—Little Bird 小小鳥兒

One year ago on Round and Square (18 May 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: The Doorman
Click here to access Round and Square's "Primary Sources" Resource Center  
[a] Birdbranch
Over the course of the next year or so, Round and Square will take readers step-by-step through a very particular kind of primary source—the elementary school readers used in the mid-1980s in the Republic of China educational system. Every schoolchild on the island of Taiwan read these texts back then, and they are the foundation for understanding matters of education, acculturation, language acquisition, and translation. They were also the source of a very large chunk of my early anthropological and historical education.

I encourage readers of Round and Square to follow these posts whether or not they read Chinese. It is clear enough where I begin speaking to language learners (the section called "Language Notes" at the end). Everything else, with the exception of the actual Chinese text, can be understood by anyone who takes the time to think about what an entire education from the ground up might be like. The introduction to this series explains these matters thoroughly, and will be posted soon. In the meantime, take a look at how first-graders (for that is where we begin) started to read their world in Taiwan a generation ago. This is "textbooks from history," and there is much to learn.
We are well into the first semester of our first grade studies (c. 1985), and the vocabulary is starting to pick up, with the grammatical reinforcements marching close behind. The pendulum of gendered focus swings back to the little girl we met in the first three chapters, and now she is outside of house and even home (presumably), locked in soliloquy, with a perched little bird serving as audience and potential duet partner. You will notice that the text has been richly marked by a real first-grader. She read the text at some point in the early 1990s.

For those of you who are following this series without reading Chinese (I encourage you to do so, and it will be worth your effort), suffice it to say that the "story" is not especially riveting here. The introduction of language themes that first-graders know in speech but have not yet confronted in writing is what drives the text. It is worth taking at least a glance at even the language notes, below, just to see some of the elements that make this text a little trickier than it looks. As always, the "historical and cultural notes" are for everyone, and the translation notes are meant to be relevant to the reader of English.
[b] Little bird RF

7—Little Bird
Little bird—you love to sing.
Your song is truly beautiful.
What is the song you sing?
Please tell me.

Little bird—you love to sing.
Your song is truly beautiful.
Let's sing together.
What do you say to that?
你    我    你    小            請    你    你    小    
說    們    的    鳥            你    唱    的    鳥
好    來    哥    兒            告    的    哥    兒    
不    一    兒                    訴    什    兒           
好    起    真    愛            我    麼    真    愛    
       唱     好    唱                    歌    好    唱    
                聽      歌                            聽     歌 
說     麼     什     真    歌     唱     兒     鳥     七
                              們     訴     告     請     聽     愛
Text in Simplified Chinese (简体字)*
七   小小鸟儿
小小鸟儿     爱唱歌
小小鸟儿     爱唱歌
*A simplified text is unthinkable in an ROC worldview. I don't "work" for them, though, and am including it for two reasons. First, an almost disturbingly large number of my students these days can't read traditional characters. This is problematic, but I acknowledge (grudgingly) the reality. Second, it should be an eye-opener for students on either side of the "simplified/traditional" divide. Just look. Finally, if you want to read anything written before 1950, you need to learn traditional forms. Get over it. It's not political. It's literature...and politics and history. If you can only read simplified forms, you can read what (Mao) wrote, but not what he read (unless it has been edited and adapted). Think about it.
[c] Slight RF
History and Culture Notes
The first thing that must be mentioned about this text (as well as the one that follows it tomorrow) is that little boys and girls talk to little creatures of nature. If you have ever had a pet, you probably realize that this isn't a particularly surprising pattern of behavior. If you have ever read a children's book, you'll be doubly certain that this isn't a rhetorical theme specific to Chinese culture. Far from it. The animal theme is complex in these readers, though, and we will see all sorts of permutations as we proceed through first grade and then onto the rest of our primary educations.

Even if you don't read Chinese, you will notice that there is no punctuation in the text. The native speaker of English who owned the illustrated text above felt the need, even in first grade, to punctuate it. For now, let's just be clear that punctuation works in ways that vary between slightly and profoundly different between English and Chinese. It is significant that there has been no punctuation so far, and that spaces and line endings provide the pauses for the student reader. 

[d] Reduplicative RF
Translation Notes 
The translation issues are fairly straightforward here. That doesn't mean that there are few, however. It starts with the title. 小小鳥兒 already has two. How should we translate 小小? Anyone who has been around the block with a Chinese textbook knows this as "reduplication." In all but a tiny handful of particular cases, it should just be translated as "little" (or possibly "small," which doesn't work very well here, I think). The reduplication should not be read along the lines of "small+small=tiny." If you have studied classical Chinese poetry (I am thinking of the first line of the Book of Songs), you will recognize the reduplication theme. It plays a powerful rhetorical role in Chinese literature, and dismissing reduplication as merely "childlike" is a serious mistake. Having said is everywhere in children's literature, and often sounds quite childlike. Let's leave it there for now. You'll be hearing about this again.
[e] Full RF
In the second line, I stay with "love" for 愛. It's a first-grade text, and it conveys something natural and resonant. It is possible to quibble, but it fits here. I have also translated 真好聽 as "truly beautiful." Of course, there are other possibilities for 好聽, but a beautiful vocal emanation from the trees seems to connect here.

Note the phrase 我們來一起唱. The 來 isn't really rendered directly in English, but it matters a great deal in Chinese. This is one of the things I had a very hard time learning in college, and it wasn't until I was immersed in the language that it began to make sense. Finally, the last sentence has the kind of ending that we have seen in many of our texts. It conveys closure in a question. Although "what do you say to that?" feels a little more colloquial than I want, I didn't feel that any of the more formal phrasings worked. It could have been "what do you think of that?," but I was intent on conveying the theme I see in the text—it is soliloquy tinged with dialogic beckoning. Sort of. 

Language Notes
O.k., where do we start? How about with 鳥兒? Ah, the Beijing 兒—what would we do without ye? I started Chinese at the University of British Columbia (two separate summers), and my instructor was fiercely northern in pronunciation, bearing, and cuisine. I learned to roll the 兒s right off my tongue whenever I thought to say "dog" (狗兒), "bird" (鳥兒), "little precious"—aka "baby" (寶寶兒). The first time the 兒 ever left my lips in the midst of social intercourse, the various listeners fell silent. No one spoke. Then one struggled to suppress a smile. Another started to cover her face in a cultural prophylactic against open-mouthed laughter. I sensed where this was going when someone snorted. One more pause...and the whole room burst out laughing.

You see, southerners aren't much for affections of the 兒. Many find it hilariously funny. The only people who aren't laughing are parents whose children have to work their way through the Ministry of Education textbooks. They know it will be on the test, and little junior needs to study. Even after sixty years of centralized education on the island, though, almost no one employs this linguistic additive from another region far away. Except in school.

Finally, take a close look at the way 的 is used here. Just do it. It's a discussion for another day, but just take a look now. Yes, I am trying to build a little suspense—a kind of 的tective story that will say much about primary education in Taiwan. Later.
[f] Dexterity RF


  1. Speaking to the use of 兒, when we went through this lesson in first grade, we didn't learn that it was supposed to be rolled into the previous syllable. 鳥兒 was “niao er" to us, which seemed totally alien since none of us talked that way. Took me until college, I think, to learn that it was supposed to be slurred.

  2. Yes, I pronounced it for a long time, thinking that somehow I was being more accurate. I should have thought more about language and culture, but was caught up in my perception of language "rules" at the time!