September 24th, 2011
So sometime last weekend I grabbed a copy of 新京报/The Beijing News to read while I was waiting for our takeaways. It must’ve been the weekend because it came with the books section. I happened to glance through the top 10 lists. Glancing through the 学术(academic? scholarship?) list, I came across a title roughly in the middle called 《翻译的基本知识》 (which for the time being I’ll translate as “Basic Translation Knowledge”) by 钱歌川/Qián Gēchuān. This grabbed my interest for two reasons:
- I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ordinary, mass market newspaper with an “academic” top 10 books list before.
- I seriously never would’ve expected to see a book about translation appear on any top 10 list.
And it just so happened that my wife happened to be doing some online shopping, so I put my order in, and the next day it arrived.
It’s a very small book, not the sort of hefty tome one would expect of a deadly serious academic textbook, but basically the same dimensions one would expect of a cheap paperback edition of a short novel. And it’s printed on fairly solid paper, too, so it’s not much of a surprise to discover that the chapters tend to be kind of short, even as short as only 3 or 4 pages. The blurb says it’s a good basic introduction to the study of translation. I’ve only read the first two chapters so far, and I’ve found them pretty easy going, only reaching for the dictionary a couple of times each chapter. However, in these two fairly short and simple chapters, a few things have jumped out at me.
In chapter one, 《一个古老的问题》 (an ancient problem), which is a quick and simple introduction to this age-old art called translation, which has certain age-old problems that remain exactly the same today is they did two, three thousand years ago, right on the very first page, I came across this rather striking statement:
…among the more than 3000 languages in the world today, those with writing are still a very small minority. This is not to say that some nations appeared later, so their writing developed later, rather it’s because their knowledge progressed slowly and their cultural level is very low. Everybody knows: Writing represents a nation’s culture. You can easily imagine just how low is the cultural level of a nation with no writing.
I wish I could say, “Incredible!”, but sadly, no, I’ve come across similar ideas before from people from a variety of places around the world. People who should perhaps check carefully their houses aren’t made of glass before they go casting stones about considering, for all their writing, their countries are home to plenty of phenomena that are not indicative of a “high cultural level”, whatever that may be. But my reaction instead was, “Have you never seen a wharenui? Observed closely its carvings and the woven patterns of the wall panels? Listened attentively as the histories and genealogies encoded in those carvings and panels were explained to you? Looking further across the ocean I was raised in: How do you think the Pacific was settled? No, not by accident and sheer luck, as used to be believed, but by exploration and the transmission of detailed knowledge of the stars, winds, currents, the locations of islands and how to get to and from them from generation to generation, and all of that without any of the nations that arose in the Pacific (with the sole possible, mysterious and much debated exception of Rapa Nui) knowing writing until the arrival of Europeans. And let’s face it, there’s no way the kumara could have spread from South America across the Pacific if the ancient Polynesian navigators didn’t know what they were doing. So, Mr Qian, I don’t know how you measure a nation’s cultural level, but I remain unconvinced that the presence or absence of writing tells you terribly much at all.
Chapter 2, 《约定俗成万物名》(“The names of the myriad things are established by usage”?), starts with a quick explanation of Thomas H. Huxley’s division of the world into “natural things” (自然物) and “artificial things” (人为物), and points out that as we ourselves count as “natural things” and the materials we use to make stuff all come from nature, all “artificial things” are sourced from “natural things”. He then moves on to quote Shakespeare, Xunzi and Y.R. Chao to show that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, his point being that natural things are the same all over the world, it’s only the names that change according to language. So if you want to translate cow into German, show it to a German and ask, “What do you call that?” Fair enough, except that species vary from region to region, and a language whose speakers have never encountered a particular plant or animal aren’t going to have a word for it – which is why New Zealand English, for example, is peppered with Maori names for plants and animals native to New Zealand (although some did acquire English names).
The names for natural things, however, are rather more problematic. Artificial things differ across cultures as each culture has found its particular solution to various problems. Like how to write, for example. Qian objects to 笔, being the thing traditionally used in China, being translated into English as “brush”. “Brush”, he says, indicates a variety of tools for sweeping, scrubbing, tidying and cleaning. Well, yes. But, oddly enough for one who studied in London, he omits the brush that is an implement for painting pictures. He also objects to an alternative translation of 笔 as “Chinese pen”, as pens are a European thing and were originally made from the quills of goose feathers, then steel, then there were ballpoint pens, and in any case, pens all have hard tips, whereas a 笔 has a soft tip. The translation of 墨 as “ink” or “Chinese ink” presents a similar problem, as 墨 is solid, whereas ink is liquid. And through all of this I’m thinking, sure, but is there anything really so wrong with translation by allegory? Or is perhaps ‘translation by simile’ a better term for it? I can imagine a conversation amongst a group of fusty Old China Hands, some of whom have studied China, others of whom have not, at about 4 in the afternoon aided by a few gin and tonics going something like this:
“So just what is this 笔?”
“It’s what the Chinese use to write with.”
“So it’s like a pen?”
“Well, it is used for the same purpose, but no, it’s more like a brush, the difference being that the brushes our artists use have the hairs of equal length arranged in a long, thin line, whereas the 笔 has its hairs arranged in a circle, the hairs on the outside being rather short, but those in the middle quite long, so that the hairs come to a point at the tip. And just as Van Gogh dips his brush in paint, then applies the paint to the canvas to create a picture, the Chinese calligrapher dips his 笔 in ink then applies it to paper to write his characters. Indeed, they consider calligraphy to be the highest form of art, you know?”
“So, rather than ‘pen’, we really should call it a ‘writing brush’?”
And of course, interspersed in all of this are murmurs of “How quaint!” and “Fascinating!”, in vague tones more suggestive of “Another gin, old chap?” or “How about a round of bridge?” than any interest in the ancient mysteries of the Orient. At the same time, the scholars of Chinese culture in the group are actually thinking, “What a bunch of boring old farts this lot are! At the very least the club could make some effort to get some decent gin*, that might make this lot a touch more tolerable.” But I digress.
The chapter ends with a perfectly sound argument for the adoption of loan words where necessary. Nothing wrong with that. Last I checked, every language has loanwords. I have a book on the topic of loanwords in Chinese (《汉语外来词》史有为著：商务印书馆，2000), and to take another example from my home ocean, on encountering the concept of ‘tapu‘ (also ‘tabu’, ‘kapu‘ or ‘ha’a’) as they explored Polynesia, the English needed a word to explain to their bosses back home what they had learned. Scouring the English language failed to turn up a word that carried the full range of meaning of tapu. ‘Sacred’ and ‘sacrosanct’ are close, but do they carry enough of the sense of ‘inviolable’ and ‘forbidden’? So just adopt ‘tapu’ as a loan word, and when ever anybody asks, “Well, what does that mean?”, explain it. And so we acquired the word ‘taboo’.
And Qian ends the chapter with a sentence with which I wholeheartedly agree:
When handling artificial things, translators must be extremely careful.
Perhaps this post comes across as a bit too negative. In the first two chapters I’ve come across things I strongly disagree with, yes. But Qian makes good points too, and there’s plenty more book to read. So I will continue, certainly, and I do hope, and see plenty of reason to hope, that whether in the negative or the positive, Qian will shed some light on the mystical art of translation. After all, my job does involve a bit of translation, and anything that helps me improve my own technique is most welcome.
*If one defines “decent” as “pleasant and enjoyable to drink”, then it should be pointed out that decent gin is in fact a myth. It’s not a well known story, perhaps because it’s so hard to pin down any hard and fast facts connected with it, but about the time Britain was fighting a war or two to defend its right to sell drugs, a young-ish Londoner going by a name reported variously as “Croydon”, “Clayton” or “That nutter down the pub who was always going on about gin”, in the spirit of Spanish conquistadors in search of El Dorado, scoured the New Zealand bush in search of “decent gin”. On arriving in a village and explaining his quest, the locals laughed so loudly that an ageing totara tree (in some accounts, a tawa, miro, or rata) collapsed on him, bringing his quest to an abrupt and quite terminal end. His few acquaintances in Russell all agreed that the lack of junipers in the local forests should have been clue enough he was barking up the wrong tree, or perhaps just plain barking mad.
It has also been pointed out by heads wiser than I that a drink that must be mixed with something else to make it palatable should probably best be relabelled “lighter fluid”.
June 3rd, 2011
So one thing that has frustrated me about my Chinese study – and it is all entirely my own fault – is the sheer amount of writing I’ve done on cellphone and computer using pinyin input instead of with pen and paper the old fashioned way. It’s frustrating, because the result is I can read a lot, but when I’m in, for example, a post office and need to write my own address, I have to whip out my cellphone and type it out so I can copy it down. This strikes me as being utterly absurd. Also, and this is in large part a function of my age, the time I was studying those other languages, and the comparatively undeveloped technology available back then, I never had to face such a huge divergence in my French, German or Russian reading and writing abilities. Well, ok, there are pretty huge differences in script to take into account with that comparison, too. But even so, it’s frustrating. Basically, I feel like a language is not properly learned unless the learner can write it, too. And no, I do not have any rational defence for that statement. Let’s just say I’m mostly pretty old fashioned in my language learning attitudes. All my dictionaries are dead tree editions, for example, and I only use online dictionaries because I do a lot of my reading online, the stuff I translate is most often emailed to me, and the online dictionaries can keep themselves more up to date more easily with neologisms.
And so I decided a long time ago that my next cellphone would have handwriting input and I would bloody well use handwriting input for Chinese, at least. And about a month ago my wife and I came across that magic convergence of a valid excuse and a way to upgrade cheaply and got ourselves new matching his and hers Nokias with handwriting input. And for me, so long as the phone had all the same functions as my old one, all I was worried about was that handwriting input.
And it’s hard. I don’t think it took terribly long to get the muscle memory back, at least for those characters I use often, after all, I’ve studied them all with pen and paper. It’s hard because you have to keep constant adequate pressure on the screen, write the strokes quickly enough so the phone interprets them as all part of one character and doesn’t separate your intended character into two or three nonsensical characters, and your handwriting has to be clear enough for the phone to read. And to make matters worse for me, my handwriting (in any language) was never great to begin with, but somehow it’s much, much worse with stylus and touchscreen than pen and paper.
And for all that, and although on several occasions I’ve had to write a character several times over, concentrating ever more each time to getting the strokes as close to perfect as I am capable of, the phone can be surprisingly forgiving. Somehow the phone’s logic is fuzzy enough that the chaotic mess of dots and squiggles my attempts to write turn into suddenly become exactly the character I wanted. But that in itself is a frustration, considering the logic is also fuzzy enough that an attempt at writing looks very much like the character I wanted in the input field, but the suggested characters are a series I’ve never seen before.
The big plus I’ve found, though, is the ease of switching between alphanumeric (i.e. pinyin) input and handwriting. Yes, this could be an excuse to be lazy, but so long as I’m being stubborn about handwriting, it’s a quick and easy way to check up on a character I may be unsure about, and there are many ways and many reasons I may be unsure about a character, from momentary lapses in memory to the sudden need for a character I know passively but very rarely have reason to use. So quickly flip to pinyin input, study the structure of the character, flip back to handwriting. I’ve found this approach surprisingly effective for moving characters I’ve known only passively into my active vocabulary.
A side benefit is the massive increase in ease of incorporating arabic numerals and latin characters into Chinese text. Really. The handwriting input has buttons to go in to arabic numerals or latin characters without changing over to English text input, but they’re completely unnecessary.
So for all the difficulties, I’m getting good value out of this handwriting input. My next challenge is shifting this handwritten Chinese from that basic and very repititive every day stuff to the kind that requires a much greater range of characters.
May 19th, 2011
Now that I apparently have a spare moment or two…
Last Friday (yes, I know that’s almost a week ago, I’ve been busy) I took my wife and daughter up to the hospital for their 6-week check up. As my wife was off getting our daughter’s birth certificate and having her own check up, my mother in law and myself took my daughter to see her doctor. And the following conversation (more or less, relying on memory here) occured:
MiL: 她吃完了就ngè了。(As soon as she’s finished eating she [obscure dialect word])
Doc: 啊？吃完了就饿了？(Ah? As soon as she’s finished eating she’s hungry?)
MiL: 不是。吃完了就拉了。(No. As soon as she’s finished eating she poohs.)
饿 (è, hungry) is commonly pronounced ngè in Yanqing County and some variation on nè or ngè in the Northeast, so the doctor’s misunderstanding is quite understandable, especially in a context when she is checking on the health of a 6-week old baby.
I had never heard a word ‘ngè’ meaning ‘to pooh’ or anything similar until our baby was born and nappies needed to be changed. Apart from my mother in law, I have heard one other person say this, a cousin in law. So that’s a sample size of two (oh so statistically significant!), one Yanqing County born and raised, one from neighbouring Huailai County but living in Yanqing since marriage, both of whom normally speak Yanqinghua (indeed, I’ve never heard that cousin say anything that could be mistaken for standard Mandarin. My mother in law is capable of speaking Putonghua, and I’ve heard her speak Huailaihua, but she usually sticks with Yanqinghua).
Looking in my dictionary, going through in pinyin alphabetical order the characters that could be pronounced ngè in Yanqinghua, I mercifully quickly find “屙, ē, dial. discharge (excrement or urine)”. In Yanqinghua, an ng- initial seems to be commonly added to words that in Putonghua start with a vowel, and we have a change in tone, but the character seems to fit. Still, I wish my dictionary would give some kind of indication of the dialects a character is likely to be used in rather than just mark it as being used in some dialect or another. And I have things that need to be done half an hour ago, so I really shouldn’t sift through the rest of the e, ne and any possible nge entries to see if there’s another character with a similar meaning. In fact, I should just stop typing now and click ‘publish’ and go be productive.
March 10th, 2011
Yes, I am breaking the long, long silence.
Driving did increase the amount of book reading I did, as most days I’d have anywhere from 5 to 40 minutes sitting outside my wife’s work waiting for her. But now she’s claimed her maternity leave (and yes, I am getting a little nervous, now with a touch of bureaucracy anxiety to boot…), I have to find new ways to carve out a little dead tree reading space.
Like stay offline.
Did I really just type those three words?
Like now that the weather has suddenly got warm enough, on days like today when the spring wind doesn’t try to emulate Wellington on a calm day, sitting out in the garden with a book after class. Ah, yes, sweet civilisation. Fresh air (well… ), a gentle breeze, sunlight filtered through the branches, and a good book. How much better could it be?
And so this afternoon I was sitting there with my book, 《汉语方言学（第二版）》by 李如龙 (高等教育出版社，2007). Chinese dialectology. Fascinating, or at least it promises to be now that I’ve got through the first, introductory chapter. I can only get through so much introduction of the subject before I start getting impatient. But I succeeded at that much, at least. Indeed, I’d just started on Chapter 2, the formation and development of the Chinese dialects, when one of the local characters turned the corner with his dogs.
He looks to be of around about retirement age, average build, round, easygoing face, a good-natured spark in his eyes. I often see him out walking his dogs, 3 or 4 of them (it’s hard to keep track, as he often stops to chat with other dog walkers), at around four in the afternoon, and he always has at least a friendly smile and a ‘nihao’. Occasionally, we’ll chat for a little, like today.
“Studying?” he said.
“What’s your book?”
“Oh? Which dialect?”
“Well, all of them, I suspect,” as I showed him the book.
And he taught me a saying, which I quite liked:
五里不同音,十里不同俗 wǔ lǐ bùtóng yīn, shí lǐ bùtóng sú
Go five li (2.5km), the accent is different. Go ten li, the customs are different. I’m not sure of what to make of the first few of those Baidu results linking the saying to either Shanxi or the Ancient Tea and Horse Road. In any case, it certainly seems to linguistically and culturally sum up a lot of China, and we went on to chat about how even different parts of Beijing have their own dialects. He mimicked a phrase or two of the Fangshan dialect, then mentioned Yanqing to the north. So I gave him an example of Yanqinghua.
But there was one other thing he said that got my curiosity. He described local patterns of speech as “土话”. ‘土’ tǔ, definition number 3 in the dictionary that lives on my desk being “local; native”. But check out the two examples it gives:
他穿着那件大褂显着土得很 He looks very rustic in his gown
他说的是很土的北京话 He speaks with a broad Beijing accent
土 translated as rustic and broad? Well, “local” may explain the “broad Beijing accent”, but skip over to definition number 5: unrefined; unenlightened. Indeed, “土话” seems to carry with it some kind of value judgement, a suggestion of a lower class or lack of education or social standing. And the very first page of my book contains this statement:
Scholars have pointed out that words like “sub-dialect” and “sub-patois” easily create a mental association with “second rate” or “inferior”, and are certainly not suitable names.
[note: the translations of “方言” as “dialect” and “土语” as “patois” are Li Rulong’s]
The same page contains the delightful saying “土得无字可写” – “so crude it can’t be written” or perhaps “so crude there are no characters with which to write it” – which should be taken, in the context, as an example of the attitude not to take, that of seeing dialects as being something vulgar and low class, the babble of the Great Unwashed.
And so here’s me wanting to take the scholar’s approach that all dialects are perfectly valid means of communication and of equal value, and observing that although this guy is using a word that would seem to imply that local dialects are low class, he certainly seems to be taking an awful lot of pride in the fact that China has a vast multitude of local dialects.
January 17th, 2011
This may sound a little odd, but one unexpected side effect of driving is that I’m getting more reading done. I mean, actual dead tree book reading, as opposed to wasting vast amounts of time online reading. The reason is that I pick my wife up from work four evenings a week, and the traffic being rather unpredictable, especially through the CBD, I generally allow the better part of an hour to get to her work. Yes, it has taken me over an hour to drive that measly eight kilometres, thanks in part to the bottleneck formed by the cutting under the railway line at Baiziwan, but mostly due to the vehicular insanity that frequently reigns from the entrance to the Dongjiao Market through the CBD to the southern edge of Hong Miao. Really, the run north from home to Baiziwan is sweet, and once I’m in Hong Miao, the rest of the trip is easy, but the Dongjiao Market and the CBD are often best described as slow motion mayhem. But usually I manage to get through there much quicker, and I usually have time to spare when I arrive at my wife’s work. The amount of time I have to spare can be anything from a few minutes to half an hour, though, so I’ve gotten into the habit of taking a book with me and reading as I wait. And so driving has got me reading more.
And so I picked up my copy of 余华/Yu Hua’s 《活着》/To Live, I book I acquired and first started reading somewhere in the region of three or four years ago. The trouble is, I acted on the half-remembered advice of one of my Russian lecturers, and used it as study. Study as in ‘look up every new word’. And so it quickly became work and all the fun was drained out of reading a book that I had been enjoying. And so, funnily enough, it was put aside and ignored for quite some time. About three or four years, in fact. And so I picked up this book I had failed to read and took it down to the car with me at four-ish every afternoon, drove up to Tuanjiehu, and read as I waited, but this time not worrying about new words, just enjoying the book. And so, funnily enough, this time round I did actually finish reading the novel.
But I have to say I’m disappointed, and I don’t think my disappointment is due to me having spoiled myself with so much Lao She and Lu Xun over the summer and autumn – at least, not entirely. No, I think my disappointment might be due to a couple of things lacking in To Live.
September 11th, 2010
It was actually about two weeks or so ago, but I finally finished reading Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi (老舍的《骆驼祥子》, which I believe is also translated as Rickshaw Boy). This makes it the first Chinese novel I have completed reading in Chinese (I have read quite a few in English), although it is not the first I have started.
August 15th, 2010
So I finally made it up to the chapter in my Classical Chinese textbook introducing Tang poetry. It seems a little ridiculous that it took me so long. 10 years in China, 10 years studying the language, right from the word “go” I’ve been curious about ancient Chinese literature and philosophy, and ever since the day in Changsha in late 1999 I found a surprisingly good little bookstore, I’ve been collecting various versions of mono-, bi- and trilingual editions of various of the classics. And finally I actually sit down and learn myself something about this poetry that is supposed to represent a high-point in Chinese literature.
Of course, all of my Chinese study has been done in my spare time, which does not help. And I’ve followed the usual process of burst of solid effort and serious improvement – plateau – burst of solid effort and serious improvement – plateau. But a quick glance at my blogroll and an observation of just how sorry a state it is in will show you that probably the biggest factor holding me back has been my own natural laziness and inertia.
Anyways, this summer, as soon as all the semester’s loose ends were tied up, I sat down and studied. I head over to the office at about 10am Monday to Friday, study through till lunch time, and many afternoons I’ve gone back to the office and put in another hour or two. It’s felt good. Why the office? Less distraction, and I’m already there for those odd occasions when a prospective student comes in for an interview, further minimising disruptions. And considering the absurd heat and humidity we’ve had to suffer through this summer – aircon that is not buring through my electricity.
And why Classical Chinese? I discovered quite some time ago, through one of the more useful comments to have been left on this blog, that considering Chinese writers often throw a little Classical flourish into their writing, learning a bit of Classical would help improve my reading ability. Also, see the first paragraph where I wrote “right from the word “go” I’ve been curious about ancient Chinese literature and philosophy”, and throw into the mix that I firmly believe literature is the highest form of art, and poetry the highest form of literature (actually, come to think of it, that rarest of creatures, good literary translation, is probably about equal). My reading level has been good enough for some years now to handle modern literature (I just need to stop wasting so much time online and start picking up the books and reading them), but Classical is a whole other story, and something I need to work on. And to me it makes no sense to learn a language without exploring at least some of the literature, and there’s no point exploring the literature if you’re not going to read the classics as well as the modern stuff. I am very glad that my French education included Racine and Molière as well as Sartre, Duras and Camus. At the very least, that allows me to say, “Well, I’m not such a great fan of Molière, but that may be as much to do with a clash of teaching and learning styles between the lecturer and myself.” That’s a million times better than, “Molière? Yeah, sounds familiar….” Likewise, I’m sick and tired of only being able to say, “Yeah, I’ve heard of Li Bai. He liked his booze, didn’t he?” At least now I have actually read three of his poems in the original and have an idea that I think I do actually like the guy. I’m a long way from being able to tell you anything intelligent about Tang Poetry (or any aspect of Chinese literature), but at least I’ve made a start, and that feels good.
August 8th, 2010
A few links for those interested…
Via this blog post I found a few things that may be of interest to those studying Chinese.
First up is Microsoft’s Engkoo. I’m still trying to figure it out myself, and the interface isn’t entirely cooperative with my eyes just yet (although I’m sure if I play around a bit, I’ll figure it out). Confused Laowai says that it “pulls examples from the internet!” I think that may be half my confusion. Worth a look, at least, anyways.
Second is Social Mandarin, which it seems Confused Laowai is developing. My first impression is that it’s a great gathering of Mandarin learning experiences, tips, and shared resources. I will definitely be keeping an eye on this one.
And finally a note: I have no real excuses for the silence on this blog of late. I’ve had a post on my first experiences with Tang poetry planned for a while, but a series of interruptions combined with my own laziness (as in about 10% interruption, 90% laziness) have prevented it from being written. I’ll get on to it soon.
July 19th, 2010
A few weeks ago a colleague asked me about the 把 construction. Her teacher and her textbook had explained enough for her to know how to use it, but the big question was “WHY?”. Under what circumstances and for what reasons does one use 把 to place the direct object before the verb? Unfortunately, the most I’d ever been told about this particular construction was that sometimes it just sounds better. My grammar book had nothing to add. We checked with another colleague with significant Chinese study experience, and he had nothing to offer, either, beyond that it was somewhat similar to the passive.
Of course, it’s not passive, definitely active, but in terms of pure structure, the simple placement of the components of the sentence, it does bear some similarities.
And then today I cracked open my HSK Advanced textbook, and what did I see?
一、“把”字句 1, the “ba” sentence
Something that originally didn’t exist, after some action is produced. When expressing this meaning, do not use the “ba” sentence.
The wrong example it gives is “她把女孩生了”, which is wrong because the daughter wasn’t there at first, but was produced by her giving birth. It should be “她生了一个女孩”
The object following “ba” should be definite, or both interlocutors should already know it.
And here the wrong example is “你把一本小说看一看”, which is wrong because which novel is not specified. “你把这本小说看一看” is correct, because we have one specific novel which both interlocutors know.
The verb following “ba” must be an action, while verbs expressing relationship or mentality, such as to be, to have, to be like, to belong to, to know, to like, etc, can not be used in a “ba” sentence.
And here the wrong example is “他把这件事知道了”, which is wrong because to know is not an action. This should be “他知道了这件事”.
Because the “ba” sentence expresses that something has, through some action, been changed, influenced, or produced some result, the verb after the “ba” generally does not exist alone in the sentence. Usually it carries after it an element expressing “change”, “influence” or “result”, or at least needs a “le” or an additional verb after it.
Am I running into linguistic vocab that my dictionaries don’t know in that last clause? In any case, for “usually”, I think we should read “always”, as the book insists that a verb left hanging alone at the end of the sentence is wrong. Here is it’s wrong example: “他把杯子打”. Wrong because the verb is left hanging there with nothing to tell us the result of his having hit the cup. This time we get two right examples: “他把杯子打了” and “他把杯子打碎了”. The simple addition of “了” in the first right example indicates that something has changed, and the second right example tells that his hand moved, struck the cup, and the cup broke – plenty of changing things there.
Auxilliary verbs and negatives must be placed before the “ba”, and can’t be placed before the verb after the “ba”.
And here we get two wrong and two right examples, one each for auxilliary verbs and negatives. Starting with the auxilliary verbs, our wrong example is “我把感冒药应该吃了”, which should be “我应该把感冒药吃了”, as the auxilliary verb “should” needs to sit in front of the “ba”. And for negatives, our wrong example is “我把作业没做完”, which should be “我没把作业做完”, as the negative “没” – “haven’t”, needs to sit in front of the “ba”.
So there you go. It doesn’t solve the great “So why do we bother with this extra complication to Chinese grammar?” question, still leaving us with my old teacher’s “Because sometimes it just sounds better” as the best answer I have yet come across. But this is the most I have ever seen written on the subject, and it does give a lot more information about the circumstances under which one can or cannot use the “ba” structure. And on where to put your auxilliary verbs and negatives. And don’t forget to leave your verb hanging all lonely at the end of the sentence – it needs at least a 了, if not something a little more detailed, to indicate a change in state. Oh, and make sure the direct object is something specific or that both interlocutors already know about.
Is it bad of me to want to add a “给” in front of many of those main verbs? It’s a desire that’s especially strong with “我应该把感冒药吃了” for some bizarre reason.
This post is written especially for Claire, but also for anybody else struggling with the vagaries of the evil 把 in particular, and Chinese grammar in general.
Update: I almost forgot: The textbook this comes from is 《HSK（高等）速成强化教程》An Intensive Course of HSK (Advanced), edited by 刘超英，龙清涛，金舒牛 and 蔡云凌, Beijing Language and Culture University Press, 2002.
July 17th, 2010
Now that I’ve got that little lunchtime rant out of my system, here’s what I really wanted to blog about once I’d gotten the fuel into my system. Luqiu Luwei has another fascinating post on the subject of language, one that starts with bilingual education in Kashgar, then moves through Hong Kong and Singapore to the preservation of local languages.