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Green horses, apples, and “unalived”: Translating secret languages

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Jun 12, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Imagine that you’re exploring Chinese social media. You have a basic knowledge of Mandarin, and are surprised to come across words and phrases that don’t seem to make sense. Why are people calling each other paratroopers? What’s this about a green horse? And why is seafood being mentioned in contexts that have nothing to do with the ocean or fine dining?

It turns out that China’s Mandarin speakers have developed a complex form of wordplay and internet slang that allows them to get their real messages past website and government censors.

Ask someone in the know and they’ll tell you that the word for “paratrooper” in Mandarin sounds similar to an insult meaning “stupid”. The latter was censored by social media platform Baidu.

Ask that same speaker about the green horse and they’ll explain that it’s a symbol of being free to go about your life and have access to things like taking a flight, due to a clean bill of Covid health from the Chinese government. In the country’s Covid coding system, this is known as “green code”. The slang term comes from the fact that the Mandarin word for “horse” sounds like the word for “code”. “Green horse” has become such a popular term that it’s even spawned cute drawings and real-world merchandise.

And how about the seafood thing? Ask a Mandarin speaker in the know and they’ll tell you it’s a reference to censorship. Originally, there was only one seafood-related replacement word for this: sea crab, which sounds similar to the Mandarin word “harmony”, a euphemism for censorship. But once the censors themselves got wise, the term “sea crab” was banned as well. Internet users fought back by simply choosing to use any other seafood-related term instead, making it a lot harder for those in power to crack down.

The world of Chinese internet slang is a fascinating one. But it’s far from the only example of secret languages and lexicons that were created to confuse or conceal things from those in power. Slang and secret languages exist around the world, and are constantly evolving and changing.

Another notable example, for instance, is Cockney rhyming slang, which originated in the East End of London, probably in the early to mid- 19th century. No one is exactly sure why Cockney rhyming slang came about. Some say it was a sort of game to confuse those who weren’t in on it. But others suggest it might have been used by criminals to confuse police and informants, a role similar to older forms of criminal slang like thieves’ cant.

Regardless of Cockney rhyming slang’s origins, anyone not in the know would surely be confused by a phrase like “going up the apples”, which means “Going upstairs”: “Apples” is a shortened form of the original phrase “apples and pears”, which rhymes with “stairs”.

Moving to more contemporary origins, a similar phenomenon to Chinese internet slang is on the rise on American social networks, too. Dubbed “algospeak”, it’s an ever-growing list of terms that are used to get around social media platforms’ censors.

Algospeak involves several strategies. One is to replace letters with symbols or numbers that look similar - for instance, “c@sh” instead of “cash”. Another common algospeak strategy is to use creative language with the same meaning as a censored word -- for instance, “unalived” instead of “dead” or “killed”.

Secret languages and slang are fascinating examples of the richness and creative possibilities of language. But they can also make translation and transcreation even more complicated.

Luckily, a qualified translator will be keeping up with trends in the languages they work with and should be aware of the potential secret meanings behind what would otherwise seem like nonsensical or irrelevant words and phrases.

You could say that a good translator knows a language’s secrets, as well as its secret languages.

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