In the new Ang Lee movie Lust, Caution there’s a romantic scene between a sympathizer with the Japanese invaders and a Chinese agent sent to betray him. She arrives, apologizing that she hasn’t brought any gifts or token of her affection. The man replies, “Ren lai, jiu hao le.” Translated into English on the bottom of the screen, the phrase read, “Im glad that you’re here.”
But any bilingual viewers would have noticed that the translation into English was markedly different from the original Chinese. Yet I think this discrepancy was not a result of hasty or sloppy translating, but rather it was a brilliant result of differences in Chinese and English expression and a peak into the difference between how Americans and Chinese express emotions differently.
The Chinese language has an economy about that makes it difficult to translate the phrase into English, but the 5-syllable phrase could be translated as, “As long as people come, everything’s good.” The important difference is that the original Chinese is expressed in the 3rd person and has no direct relation to the girl standing across from him.
The English, on the other hand, has pared down the indirect meaning to the man’s basic emotion, which is “I’m glad you’re here.” The original has neither ‘I’ nor ‘you’; yet the English has done away with the indirectness and expressed it directly, using “I” and “you.”
Though movies arent always direct portrayals of real life, the same has been true in interactions in China. Inspired by the tropical flowers of during our trip to tropical Hainan province, the southernmost in China, a friend of mine recently sent his girlfriend a rather poetic text message asking her what time of year she blossoms.
After he received a rather terse reply, I informed my friend that his girlfriend might have misinterpreted his use of the word ‘blossom,’ and I encouraged him to send a clarifying text message. Her reply was another example of the nearly philosophical reference to other people or general rules instead of her personal emotion: “Language can really make people misunderstand.”
There’s a poetic beauty in the terse, philosphically indirect expressions of emotions in China that certainly contrasts with the directness of American emotions. The indirectness can sometimes comes off to me as cold, but I suspect that my emotional directness often comes across as somewhat brutish or unrefined.
One Chinese friend once told me that she thought that saying, “I love you,” is rather cheap; instead, one should show this through thoughtfulness and caring.There’s a beauty in that philosophy as well.
In the end, though, there are also times when I find the emotional directness I’m accustomed to as an American raw and touching, and it’s hard to conceive of this directness in American culture being replaced with Chinese indirectness. Imagine Titanic (a favorite with most of my students) ending with Rose floating on debris and Jack near death, his last words,”Farewell, Rose. Men sometimes strongly love women.”