Anonymous asked: No post this year. Are you going to finish the series?

On temporary hiatus until I finish a couple of research papers and this book I’m working on. Sorry! We hope to pick this up in April/May and finish over the summer. Thanks for checking in.

Mal calls the cow buyers liars (Episode 5, “Safe” 10:52)

Chinese: 废话 (fèihuà)

Translation: Nonsense.

Context: Mal and the crew go to Jiangyin to sell their smuggled cows. They meet at the arranged spot with the buyers, who express dissatisfaction with the looks of the cows. They say the cows are scrawny, and Mal objects.

Usage: Fei means “wasted” and hua means “speech,” so together it means “an unnecessary, nonsensical, or incorrect statement.” You could use it to reprove somebody like Mal does here, though you could also use feihua in more playful, joking situations or for more sarcastic purposes. Like if you say to a pregnant friend on line at McDonalds, “You sure you want to eat here? It looks like you’re packing on some weight there,” she could sarcastically respond, “Feihua" to mean something like "Isn’t that obvious?" or "Don’t waste your breath" or "No shit, Sherlock" (if she doesn’t knock you out first). Said on its own here as Mal does, it’s a mild expletive meaning "Rubbish."

Execution: Mal does a reasonable job pronouncing it. Does well with the tone on fei but the hua doesn’t fall as sharply. Even so, overall, it’s one of Mal’s better performances thus far.


Simon’s father says Simon would have access to any ‘tian xiao de’ that filtered in from the cortex (Ep5, “Safe” 1:38)

Chinese: 天晓得 (tiānxiǎode)

TranslationHeaven knows. / Who knows.

Context: Young Simon and River are playing when their father enters the room. Simon complains to him about how their source box shorted out and he lost half his essay. He begs for a new dedicated source box, but his father refuses, saying Simon would then have unfiltered access to anything on the cortex.

Usage: Not quite. As mentioned in this previous usage of tianxiaode in episode 3, you generally use it as the start of a rhetorical statement, as in: “Only heaven knows what we’ll encounter on our trip to the outer rim of the galaxy” (with “Only heaven knows” being a stand in for “Who knows”). You use also use tianxiaode to describe an innumerable or unexplainable thing, for instance, “Jayne has god knows how many guns,” (“god knows how many” meaning so many that humans can’t count them all: 天晓得Jayne有[这么多/几把]枪). It’s often also used as a rebuke: (“After he starts drinking, tianxiaode what he’ll say.”) 

But the way it’s used here is improper. Based on the way it’s inserted in the sentence here, you’d think tianxiaode was a noun of some sort: “Yes, and you’d have access to any tianxiaode that filtered in from the cortex.” But tianxiaode actually just means “who knows” not “who knows what.” If you wanted to more accurately capture the usage and meaning of tianxiaode, you could re-word it to: “Yes, and tianxiaode what you’d be able to find that filtered in from the cortex!” 

Execution: Could work a little more on xiao's tone (it should rise after the initial fall), and put less of an accent/emphasis on the de, but overall, I like his pronunciation (though the xiao is more like she-ow as opposed to his she-ah). Quite reasonable!


Young Simon tells River to go see her ghost (Episode 5, “Safe” 1:08)

Chinese: 见他的鬼 (jiàn tā de guǐ)

Translation: “Damnit” or “Bloody hell”

Context: In a flashback, a young Simon and River are playing. River pretends that they are at war and trapped by the dinosaur-riding Independents. Simon scoffs and exlaims jian ta de gui.

Usage: No way. I mean, what young Simon meant to say was “No way!” in response to his sister, which I don’t believe is well expressed with the phrase jian ta de gui (so also a “No way!” from me on how they used the phrase). Jian ta de gui is a more fleshed out version of the oath jian gui, which literally means to “see ghosts.” It’s just a catch-all phrase for when you’re displeased with something, sort of like in English “Damn.” Ghosts can be inauspicious agents in Chinese culture, so saying “see a ghost” implies underworld, Devil type stuff. Jian ta de gui has the same overtones, except it literally means “see your ghost.” You can use it to swear at somebody (especially if you take offense at something they’ve done or said) or as a general curse of your situation.

Why Simon uses it here, I’m not sure. Guides have translated it as “Like hell (that’s not true)!” which is sort of a liberal interpretation of the phrase to try and have it fit the situation, but you need another follow-up sentence in order to really convey that sort of message otherwise it just sounds too much like a “Damnnit!” or “To hell with it!” It would probably be best to add something like, 见鬼, 绝对不可能! (“Oh hell, that’s definitely not possible!”), but even then, it’s something you probably wouldn’t say when you and your sister are playing make-believe and she says something ridiculous. He’s not taking offense at what she said (unless he’s some sort of anti-Creationist extremist who’d curse out his sister for pretending that dinosaurs and people might’ve lived together at one time). 见鬼, 绝对不可能 is the kind of phrase a fed-up migrant worker would say if his boss asked him to do another 12-hour shift. 

Execution: Pretty hard to recover this due to the mismatch in the words’ emotional tone and the situation. On one hand, young Simon could’ve said it in a more angry or annoyed manner to really reinforce the oath’s forcefulness. On the other, he could’ve said it in a super playful manner, maybe with a laugh, to make sure his sister knew he was joking and using the phrase ironically. It’d be like in English where you laugh and say, “What the hell!” at something so incredulous you find it funny. But this middle of the road approach just doesn’t work. (Good pronunciation, wrong tone on gui.)


Simon and River’s father says “Mei guanxi” (Episode 5, “Safe” 1:18)

Chinese: 那,没关系 (nà, méi guānxi)

Translation: In that case, don’t worry.

Context: Young Simon and River are playing when Simon exclaims something mildly profane (link to be posted soon). Their father, Gabriel, overhears and Simon apologizes. Their father chuckles at their explanation and tell hims if that’s the case, then not to worry; it’s no problem.

Usage: Na here is just a particle that is used to link two thoughts together, roughly translated into English as “so” or “then”; it’s used here to explicitly connect the children’s explanation to his response. Mei guanxi has been translated in other guides as “that has nothing to do with it” or “it doesn’t matter,” which is indeed one of the translations of the term (guanxi means “relationship,” mei means “lacking” or “none,” hence “no connection”) and totally legit for responding to say “How is your job related to your degree?” if you’re a lawyer who studied art in college (well, technically, you’d say 没有关系, meaning “it doesn’t have a connection”), or for responding to “Should we have chicken tonight?” (Mei guanxi would equal “doesn’t matter” in such a case). However, when used after an apology or a statement of thanks, mei guanxi is best translated as “It’s no big deal.” It’s both used to excuse someone for a small slight (“Sorry I ate the last cookie.” “Mei guanxi, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll bake more”) or to deflect praise (“Thank you so much for picking me up from the airport.” “Mei guanxi, it’s no big deal.”) Knowing this, we can see how it’s properly used in this scene. 

Execution: The tone on mei is badly off, but the pronunciation in quite good. More of a pause after the na would also be best. Overall, not bad.


Young Simon Tam says getting a new source box is a big change (Ep5, “Safe” 1:58)

Chinese: 大变化 (dà biànhuà)

Translation: big change

Context: In a flashback, young Simon and his sister River are playing. Their father walks in and Simon complains about how he lost half his essay because his “source box” shorted out on him. He begs for a new one, and after some mock outrage, his father reveals he’s already ordered one for him. A joyful Simon exclaims “This is so da bianhua.”

Usage: This is funky sounding. Da is big, bianhua is change, so far so good. But as mentioned previously, some phrases just sound wrong without a 的 (de) between the adjective and the noun. Da bianhua might work in a newspaper headline where de's are typically dropped or if you have another adjective describing a big change. But the worse offense is the fact that the phrase is being used as an adjective (Simon seems to intend to say “This is so awesome" or "This is so life-changing”) when in fact it’s an adjective-noun phrase. If they really wanted to get across that the source box is a really big change in Simon’s life and also follow the Chinese pattern for saying it (“这是很大的变化”), it would have been best for him to say something like “This is a very da (de) bianhua," wherein da bianhua maintains its function as a noun phrase.

Execution: Hey look, it’s apparently a  Disney-age Zac Efron! Is he still relevant? Anyway, the pronunciation is solid and the tones are pretty good, but it certainly doesn’t sound like Chinese because it doesn’t flow. Like Mal, little Simon has a bit of the “pronounce each syllable as if it were a word”-itis. Link up bian and hua a bit more, throw in a de, and it’d be more than passable.


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:

Kaylee tells Inara that Simon is just so handsome (Ep5, “Safe” 8:20)

Chinese: 帅 (shuài)

Translation: handsome

Context: The crew lands on the backwater colony of Jiangyin to sell their smuggled cows. While on a break, Inara and Kaylee head over to the souvenir gift shop. Kaylee daydreams about Simon, calling him handsome, just as he is about to walk into the store himself.

Usage: Shuai is a word that historically referred to the commander-in-chief in an army (you still see it in the game of Chinese chess, xiangqi, written in the traditional manner as 帥 for the red piece’s general, and coaches of professional sports teams are often referred to as 主帅 rather than the more commonplace 教练), but in everyday language, it’s more typically used to call a guy “good-looking.” You could translate it as “handsome” or even “cute,” but just note that you would never call a girl shuai, the word is exclusively used for men. Shuai sort of carries a somewhat chaste connotation—a shuai guy isn’t necessarily sexy (though he could be), but he’s super cool and has an adorable quality (if younger) or a charming, elegant quality (if older). He usually also has really great, flowing hair (I feel like quasi-androgynous guys are more likely to be called shuai). Simon, definitely shuai. Mal, probably not. Wash, sorry, but as awesome as you are, you are likely never to be called shuai. Basically, any guy you’d call “dreamy” or a “dreamboat” in English you could definitely call shuai, though non-dreamy good-looking guys could also be called shuai too: it depends. Conventionally good looks matter more for classifying a guy as shuai; personality less so.

Kaylee, sweet innocent thing she is, sounds so adorable cooing out a giddy shuai. But knowing what we do about how, erm, horny she is (sorry, there’s no delicate way to put that) and how much she wants to bed Simon, something more forceful like xìnggǎn (性感) wouldn’t feel totally out of line. But as is, shuai works ok here.

Execution: Kaylee gives the word a Taiwanese “s” instead of the more Beijing standard “sh” sound, but otherwise I got no bones to pick over this.