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I remember, a few years ago, learning malady words from my Mandarin teacher.

Every textbook to teach adults Mandarin has the basics for sicknesses — the primary ailment taught, for whatever reason, being “la duzi,” or, um, loose bowels. (I swear, I knew how to say I had diarrhea before I knew how to tell a taxi driver where my house was.)


Anyway, we were discussing the words for “sore throat,” “headache,” etc., when I asked a question. It seemed to me you should be able to say the phrase, “I’m sick,” in a different way — “I have a sickness.”

When I asked, though, my teacher’s eyes went wide.

“No no, don’t say that!”

“Uh, well, I just thought that, like in English, you could say, “I have …”, you know?”

“No! That means you have brain problems — that you’re crazy!”

… Huh. and to think I’d just taken the words “have” and “sick” and plopped them together.

But then again, direct translations are often quite treacherous.

Just ask this poor woman I heard about a few months ago.

(Before preceding: The woman in question is local to Beijing, who has learned English for years at her school. The word that tripped her up: wan, which means “to play,” among other things.)

While chatting with her friends over a communication app, she was asked what she was up to. “Oh, just playing with myself,” she wrote. “What about you guys?”


Folks in the group weren’t sure what to say. And for good reason — to those perhaps unaware of the innuendo here, she had mistakenly suggested she was, well, engaged in an act of self-satisfaction. *wink wink*

That’s a lot of information to share, especially to a group over WeChat.

So what had happened?

Well, let’s start with a quick Mandarin lesson:

One of the most basic translations to this word is “to play.” You can “wan” a game, or with friends at a playground. In Chinese, this word also translates to “hang out” or “travel.” You’ll often hear folks say they’re heading to such ’n’ such a city to “wan.” This doesn’t literally mean play, but more to have fun, hang out, and explore that place.

The girl above, well, she was attempting to say she was just chillin’ by herself, and wasn’t up to much. “Wo ziji wan,” — “I’m hanging out on my own,” or literally translated, “I’m playing with myself.” Unfortunately, it was a simple case of a mistaken direct translation.

Something that has tripped up most everyone who has attempted learning a foreign language.

All I can say is I’m glad I’ve never made such a mistake outside of my class.

… That I know of.

Oh man, now that’s going to bug me.

But more importantly, I’m glad to have learned to be wary of direct translations so early in my Mandarin education. Because while my students call me the “crazy teacher,” I don’t fancy announcing to my employer I’ve caught the crazies. Honestly, it seems a bit unprofessional.

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