One of the tricky things about going between two languages is that even though words may literally translate, sometimes there are elements (deeper meanings, implications, or cultural expectations) that simply don’t come across. In the translation between English and Mandarin Chinese I have encountered two words that literally translate but seem to have completely different meanings: sanitation and respect.
Sanitation is, technically speaking, “the development and application of sanitary measures for the sake of cleanliness and protecting health” or so says Dictionary.com. In America I understood this word to apply to keeping things clean so you don’t get sick. For example washing dishes in hot water with soap or keeping meat refrigerated until use. Here in China there is this word, sanitation, but the minimal levels of cleanliness needed to reach it are significantly lower. For example, there is a restaurant upstairs from my work that is regarded as a good, clean restaurant. However, one day I came in early and had the unfortunate experience of seeing its morning food delivery. What I observed was a minivan backed up to our building idling with all its doors open. The back cargo area had been sectioned off into three areas: one for live chickens, one for dead butchered chickens, and one for fresh vegetables. There were no dividers between the three areas so the feathers and feces from the live chickens which had been disturbed during the apparently bumpy journey had come to rest on the vegetables and chicken meat creating a thin layer of foulness over everything. Then out of the back seat of the minivan I saw restaurant workers pulling out large buckets of beef that were uncovered, unrefrigerated, and unappetizing. When a Chinese colleague invited me to lunch at the restaurant a few days later I told them that after seeing the food delivery I didn’t think the restaurant was especially sanitary. They told me not to worry, that everything would be rinsed in clean water before cooking therefore sanitary, no problem.
The other word where I see a vast difference between the literal translation and its deeper meaning is with the word respect. Dictionary.com defines respect as, “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability.” In America I learned that you have to give respect to get respect, that it is a two way street. In China, respect goes in one and only one direction, toward the elderly. Here simply being older is reason enough to demand respect. If that is where the differences ended perhaps I could accept it. After all, there is something to be said for the wisdom that comes with age and experience. However, the way that respect is manifested is also quite different. If I didn’t know the word respect but was asked to describe how the young are expected to act toward the old I’d use the word obedient. Here you must unquestioningly obey someone to show you respect them. Most people dare not talk back to their elders even if they disagree, even if they know they are wrong lest they be seen as disrespectful. We have one class at our school where we talk about personal strengths and weaknesses. During the discussion we talk about how everyone has things they are good at and things they are bad at. Then I throw a curve ball into the conversation. I say, “Except me, I am perfect right?” As the teacher and usually the elder person in the class most students’ first reaction is to agree with me even though they don’t entirely believe my statement is true. It takes a great leap of courage for a student to defy my statement and point out that we had just talked about the fact that everyone has faults. Usually when they do confront my obviously untrue statement it is with an apologetic tone because they expect me to be upset by their disrespect.
For me these differences really highlight the cultural nature of language. English, I tell my students, is not just about learning the words you also have to learn about the people who use those words and the cultural implications and applications of those words. I think this is the hardest part of becoming fluent in a foreign language.