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terça-feira, 19 de janeiro de 2016

Chinese Language And Scents: Seeing Is Deceiving

by: Yi Shang

Plato’s ‘The Allegory of The Cave’ illustrated how knowledge obtained through the senses can be defective. When trapped in a metaphorical cave facing in only one direction, people saw shadows of objects that passed behind them instead of the true forms of the object. Those who escape can inquire into the true nature of whatever was seen. However, imagining there are indeed certain groups of people for whom shadows are the only sensible version in their world makes one wonder - how different is that world?
As someone who is fluent in both English and Chinese, and uses them naturally on a daily basis, I sometimes forget how lucky we bilingual or multilingual people can be, especially when it comes to perfume. Because for the majority of monolingual common folks out there who are not perfume enthusiasts like us, sometimes the only way of meeting a perfume is through the translated words. However, the translated version is not likely to possess exactly the same magic as the original words. Otherwise, the Italian pun ‘traduttore tradittore’ (translators traitors) wouldn’t exist.
Plato's Cave, Flemish School, 16th century, Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai, France (Photo: public domain)
Languages and scents together create an interesting combination.
Let’s say we were given exactly the same perfume to describe. It’s reasonable to speculate that we will be likely to use quite similar words for analytical descriptions, but the associations made from such olfactive experiences can be rather different according to each individual. Unless troubled with certain anosmia, we would’ve smelt more or less the same thing, yet we see it through rather different perspectives. Juliett has an interesting article tackling this topic, pondering ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Fragrances’:
"In my opinion, at the dawn of our fascination with fragrances, many of us faced quite an awkward situation during a conversation with people less interested in perfumery. Sometimes relatives ask you to recommend something or your friend needs advice, tired of using conventional Miss Dior for the last five years. People ask your opinion as an expert, telling you something like “you’ve got billions of bottles, you know everything,” and there comes an awkward moment. You start asking your friend what kind of freshness and exactly which flowers does he or she want, you start to fantasize … and suddenly you understand that all the person wants is the same thing, maybe with a fancy new set of buttons." - Juliett
Imagine a quite similar scenario as above, but with a certain extra or different linguistic element preplanned, shadowing in our mind, or shown to us when we were given exactly the same perfume for smelling. Then do we still smell the same unadulterated olfactory expression? Or do we consciously or unconsciously see it through certain lenses? Even worse, before anyone else can influence you, the language you automatically use dictates what you will see. Just like typing Chinese characters into the search engine will only yield more results in Chinese characters, vice versa with searching in Romanized letters. Sometimes two languages may never cross paths, they are like two separate ‘Caves’ of Plato’s. They segregate us, even though in essence the same perfume has been searched for. Let alone other interferences like diverse cultural heritages and socio-economic backgrounds.
What I’d like to poke around a bit further here, is when the language system is indeed different and no perfect equivalent can be found, how much will this influence what we see in a perfume? To narrow it down, I’d like to just focus on existing official translations of some perfume houses and perfume names in Chinese. So those who are trapped in the English monolingual ‘Cave’ and those in the Chinese monolingual ‘Cave’ may have some new amusement of seeing a slightly different shadow of the same thing.
Firstly, before any amateur findings are presented here, I’d like to share a story with you. It sparked my curiosity about various localized name versions of essentially the same perfume. A few years ago, my dad asked for my advice on buying Estee Lauder’s ‘Modern City’ perfume as a gift. I live in Australia and use English primarily when it comes to perfume, so I quickly did a literal translation in my mind and came to the conclusion that my poor old man must’ve been looking at some counterfeit perfume because there is no such ‘Modern City’. However, he insisted the existence of such perfume, in a proper prestige shopping mall! This intrigued me to search for ‘Estee Lauder Modern City’ in Chinese characters. I was so sure that I would be able to find some images of these counterfeit fragrances, point out why it is so, and be proud that I saved my dad from buying some potentially embarrassing gift. However, to my utter dismay, such ‘Modern City’ perfume is legit! What we English-speaking folks call Sensuous, is 摩登都市 (literal translation: Modern City) to any Chinese-speaking person.
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OK, now it’s time for some observations and categorization of the wide variety of translated fragrances names. These are just my observations from a bilingual person’s point of view, they are by no means scientific research or linguistically sound. Let’s have fun here and visit some of our familiar scents with unfamiliar names.

General Rule No. 1 – Phonetics, sound-alike shows what the perfume is… Or does it?!

Brand names or perfume names can be total loanwords to the Chinese language, and translation made by following phonetics can be seen in many brands. Phonetics-based translation gives us two types of products. They are like twins with rather opposite personalities. One is the brash, simple-minded kid who hides nothing. The other twin has seemingly the same look, but deep down has much more than what meets the eye.
Phonetics Twin A would say something along the lines of, ‘This is me, black and white, all here. There’s nothing else to inquire.’
Most of the perfume houses or names, which fall under this category, are those with some relatively common actual persons’ names. Folks in the English monolingual ‘Cave’ would get as much information out of it as one from the Chinese monolingual ‘Cave’. This might be boring, but it happens to be the fairest towards anyone who is somewhat permanently situated in one’s linguistic ‘Cave’.
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For example, Taylor from Taylor Swift , or Miu Miu’s Miu Miu, in their Chinese characters clearly inform the Chinese readers these perfumes are named after some people. Nothing more, nothing less. Though sometimes, the Chinese would add four extra characters, 同名香水(literal translation: same-name perfume), after the perfume name, to make sure the audience gets the message.
Phonetics Twin B would easily tell you, ‘I’m not sure you see me as I see myself. The world is full of greys. Oh, hang on, I’m not even sure am I who I think I am...’
Fragrances that fall under this type in translation are the ones with perfectly phonetic names, but the Chinese characters chosen for the phonetic purpose usually make people think a little bit more. When a Chinese see a commonly used Chinese character in a word or phrase, consciously or unconsciously, he/she references its meaning. That’s why most Chinese painstakingly choose the perfect Chinese characters to name their kids, because each character has its unique meaning. However, to an English ear, a dozen of unique Chinese characters simply all sound the same. Therefore, armed with a bit of extra knowledge of a certain Chinese character’s common meaning, those in the Chinese monolingual ‘Cave’ usually unwillingly yet automatically derive certain misleading impression towards a certain perfume or brand.
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For example, innocent Chanel has suffered from unjustified blames from average Chinese folks who are not as into perfume as we are. In mainland China, Chanel’s official phonetic name is 香奈儿. Here香 is a commonly used Chinese character, which means fragrant, good-smell, aromatic, or scented. It is an antonym of 臭 (smelly, foul, stinking). I often overhear boyfriends or husbands with untrained noses, who might’ve been dragged to a shopping spree, complaining at the Chanel counter in Chinese, ‘What Chanel (香奈儿), nothing is fragrant (香) to my nose. It should be called Foul-nel (臭奈儿) instead.’
Another example is with another big house, Guerlain. Nearly all the men who are not that into perfume or beauty appear to be a bit offended when I suggest them to try out Guerlain’s perfume. Because Guerlain, or 娇兰 (literal translation: tender orchid), conjures up all kinds of mental association of something soft, tender, feminine. Furthermore, the Chinese character 娇 has the radical 女 (female) in it. It can only make matters worse in convincing a very macho guy to see past the brand name and try some of its Habit Rouge. I doubt the founder Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain ever predicted that a common Chinese male would have a hard time to accept his brand, purely due to the name.
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General Rule No. 2 – Meaning-based Translation for better conveyance of message… Or do you get much more than what you bargained for?

Meaning-based translation has a lot of praise from the translation field, because it’s quite self-explanatory that you get more meaning out of it. Again, I can see two types of points here. They are like twins, too. Only this time they are more grown up and have got into the fields of their fancy. One is like a science student, who has a meticulous personality and follows laboratory manuals, equations and principles faithfully. However, the other one has dived into the creative field, does a bit of impromptu theatre here, and writes a few articles there.
Meaning-based Twin A’s most sweet words may be just quoting Gertrude Stain, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’
This type of translation applies to most words, which have simple, non-ambiguous, meaningful equivalents in another language. When obvious, meaning-based translation is used, most of the time the audiences from different language backgrounds will get the same picture. For example, those named after certain ingredients can’t fail to let people understand what they are.
Both Jo Malone and The Body Shophave a lot of great examples of such type of perfumes. Armed with a dictionary, a Chinese tourist in London can easily purchase the English Pear & Freesia that his sister back home is after, or test out all the RedBlack orWhite Musk perfumes in an Australian The Body Shop boutique. Maybe besides their lightness and simple nature, which are appealing to many Asians (this will open up a whole new topic of cultural and scent preference, which we won’t go into here), their simple names also contribute to the popularity among the Chinese? Straightforward names without too much confusion make life easier. One would be happy to know saying 橙花 (literal translation: orange blossom/orange flower)’ and saying Orange Blossom will eventually both lead you to exactly the same fragrance. Who wouldn’t like such assurance of knowing that you definitely are talking about the same thing, just in different language?
However, something as small as a perfume name, or as big as a whole language system, simply doesn’t always have direct one-to-one, cross-language equivalence in another language. Otherwise, where is the mystery? Also, translating and interpreting professions simply wouldn’t exist after dictionaries are perfected. Therefore, we see the meaning-based translation at its finest, or perhaps the most confusing in the perfume world.
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Meaning-based Twin B can easily get into full costume and give you a dramatic sign with emotion, tell you that ‘when a rose (玫瑰) was mentioned in the mail from far far away, I definitely see each letter reads like passion and the air surrounding it taste like wine. Wedding bells? Already ringing in the background...’
Things are not always black and white crystal clear in a name. Just like when analyzing the same literary work, ten people can easily give you ten totally different interpretations of what the author was trying to say. Therefore, when armed with the whole meaning-based translation and the spirit of presenting what is felt there, some rather different translations (in comparison with a more literal version) are given to many perfumes. Such translations can be derived through thorough considerations and best marketing directions. They are undeniably beautiful on their own. Some translated Chinese versions might be considered to be more poetic or beautiful than the original. However, I personally find this can be rather misleading to the Chinese audiences, because it plants certain images and various degrees of expectations in a perfume, which an English speaker will never see.
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For example, I have an English-speaking friend who felt a bit uncomfortable of letting people know that her perfume is called Insolence, because the name simply sounds cold and distant in her mind. However, my superstitious Chinese friend gave no second thought at all, in requesting a bottle of  熠动 (literal translation: glistening moving) from her boyfriend. This is because the English monolingual ‘Cave’’s Insolence is 熠动 for the Chinese monolingual ‘Cave’. When a Chinese see such a bubbly word normally associated with glorious, bright, lively, playfulness, who would even try to link 熠动 to a slight bit of insolence?
When someone sprays 桀骜 (literal translation: unruly) from a Chinese Dior counter, isn’t it likely that he/she has already subconsciously seen and feels a wild and proud rebel in the bottle? Will an English speaker extrapolate the same feelings from simple writing of Dior Homme?
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Languages are useful tools for facilitating communication, but the instinctive reliance on one can easily trick us into tunnel vision without knowing it. Some are happy with whatever names a perfume has, for the experience of the scent itself is the key, a name is just a name. Others might always wonder, if a word without perceived notions or language existed, what would a perfume’s true form be like? What about you?
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