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Lost in Translation

March 17, 2009

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tea_saucerI have been trying to learn more Chinese and Japanese vocabulary, which obviously includes learning to recognize characters. As I’ve been approaching this more attentively I’ve become even more aware than usual of the number of objects in my environment that have written language on them that I do not know the meaning of. With a word in Pinyin (the written form of Mandarin that uses the Roman alphabet, with diacriticals indicating the tones) or Romaji (the system for writing Japanese using the Roman alphabet), it is fairly easy to determine the meaning in English. It is not such an easy matter to translate a Hanzi (Chinese) or Kanji (Japanese) character into English, unless the character is available in electronic form and can be copied and pasted into a dictionary. If the text exists only on a physical object it can be quite a challenge.
 
The saucer in the accompanying photograph above is terribly vexing for this reason. I immediately recognized the tea character (cha = 茶), and I was able to identify the character in the lower right (器) as qì which means tool or utensil, but the other two I can’t find. In addition to visually scanning through lists of tea-related characters with definitions, I even tried guessing what sort of other words might be used on this item with “tea” and “tool,” but my detective skills have failed entirely so far. It doesn’t help that the burned in character isn’t all that sharply defined. I have four of these bamboo tea saucers and this one is the clearest to read.
 
mascot_charactersMy other example, which is inscribed into the clay on a tea mascot shaped like a foot, I have not been able to translate at all. Given the nature of the object, which is incorporated into gongfu cha with the intent of influencing luck and/or prosperity, I would expect the text to be something related to those ideas. I’m quite curious about this one in particular because I’ve seen this foot/insect or spider theme on various Chinese items and I don’t know anything about the origin of it. I’m curious whether the little sculpted arthropods are insects or spiders. These particular two have six legs and antenae and not very spider-like bodies, but they’re somewhat stylized.
 
I have a very strong aversion to abstracting language into decorative elements as I am not willing or able to divorce writing from meaning. My lack of ability to read Chinese doesn’t render it meaningless, just puzzling. As a rule I try to avoid having anything in my possession that bears language of any kind unless I know what it means, so I find these bits of unidentified language a little frustrating. In the case of tea items this is hard to avoid, and hard to resolve, but at least I can safely assume that they do say have something relevant about tea. They’re not likely to be lyric essays on the beauty of broiled salmon or something pornographic.

Would any of you Chinese-speaking tea people like to help me out with a translation?

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