River calls Mal a son of a drooling whore and a monkey (Ep5, “Safe” 2:54)
Chinese: 流口水的婊子和猴子的笨儿子。 (liú kǒushuǐ de biǎozǐ hé hóuzǐ de bèn érzǐ。)
Translation: You dumb son of a saliva-drooling whore and monkey.
Context: After the episode opens with a flashback sequence of River and Simon’s happy childhood, we see a frantic River. Simon wants to run some tests on River but she objects, tossing his medical kit. Mal walks in, narrowly missing the hurled bag, and River curses at him.
Usage: What the what? Apologies, but this is gonna be a bit longer than usual… What seems like a string of nonsense phrases actually sort of makes sense after you parse it piece by piece, but in no way, shape, or form, is this a common insult that you’d casually hurl around in your daily speech without those around you questioning your mental faculties. So let’s break it down: liu here means drool, koushui is saliva; yes, you can describe someone as drooling spit, but to me, this isn’t an insult. You typically use liu koushui in Chinese for two circumstances: to describe what a baby’s doing or to describe when food looks or smells particularly amazing that you’re salivating already. It doesn’t carry the same connotation of “dumb” that drooling does in English though I guess if you were an English speaker, you could interpret it that way (which perhaps has happened in the Firefly universe future where English and Chinese have melded like this).
Ok, so liu koushui is describing biaozi, which is a derogatory term meaning “whore.” Once we get over the weirdness of describing the whore as drooling, we see that the River is seemingly try to call Mal a son of a bitch (erzi at the end means “son”); but the common phrase to call someone a “son of a bitch” is 婊子养的 (biǎoziyǎngde, that is, “raised by a whore,” or if you prefer animals, 狗娘养的, gǒu niáng yǎng de, “raised by a female dog”). Sure, biaozi de erzi literally means the same thing, but it’s a much clunkier way to say it and in my head sounds like something Google Translate (or at least an old version of Google Translate) would spit out.
Ok, next is he (which means “with” or “and”) which means Mal is the product of not just the drooling whore, but also a houzi, a monkey. You could make the case that 跟, gēn which also means “with” or “and,” is a better fit than he. The difference in usage is quite subtle and there are exceptions to any guidelines you make for the two words’ usage, but to me, when describing how someone is the child of two people, gen feels a bit more apt, though he is certainly understandable. As for houzi, shrug, monkey doesn’t really have the “dumb” connotation that it has in English; in fact, when I hear houzi, I generally think “clever.” Better animals to exemplify stupidity are probably dogs or pigs.
Ok, the final insult: ben erzi, meaning stupid son. On its own, you can throw that around as an insult (though I guess you’d have to be criticizing their behavior as a disobedient child for it to make sense) without raising eyebrows (well, they’ll raise eyebrows that you called them stupid but they won’t question your grasp of Chinese…).
As for the whole phrase… well it’s a bit of a disaster. If you wanted to emphasize that they’re the son of a monkey and a whore, the meaning gets sidetracked and you don’t even get to how the insulted person is connected to all this drooling and monkeys until the very end of the statement. It’s a extremely delayed insult and would require some attention paid for it to register—not exactly the sort of qualities you want in a snappy insult. If you wanted to retain the meaning of what River said, better would be to indicate Mal’s connection upfront, with something more direct like “Your mother is a drooling whore and your father is a monkey” (你的母亲是一个婊子，你的父亲是一只猴子) or emphasize that the whore and monkey gave birth to a dumb son, that way there’s a narrative and it’s easier to follow (流口水的婊子和猴子生得真笨儿子。) Of course, these two versions still aren’t colloquial (use biaoziyangde for that), but at least it doesn’t sound as clunky.
Execution: It’s not even worth breaking down River’s usage since the phrase is just too inherently weird to even think about how it should sound. But it sounds awful spiteful nuff. I will say her that she starts off with an excellent liu koushui, but starts to slide with biaozi, and is also pockmarked with some curious accenting of syllables that don’t need accenting (or maybe it’s just because with all the zi’s it sounds unnatural). Admirable effort though! (Best part of the video: you can hear a cow moo at the 4-second mark [the crew was smuggling a herd at the time].)
Pronunciation: Sounds so weird, but I had to try: