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Lao Ji (Lu Yanzhi) has been a prisoner for ten years. Another prisoner, a sixteen year-old who is in for murder has just slipped a stolen object into Lao Ji’s pocket while they are in line for dinner, and whispered to him to feel what it is:

1.  尽管手指头上没剩下多少知觉,  陆焉识还是摸出赃物是一块表,  并且摸出来它是谁的。

Despite his fingertips being numb from the cold, Lu Yanzhi can still feel that the stolen item is a wrist watch; moreover he can feel whose watch it is.

2.  是自己去年换出去的。换成五个鸡蛋、吞咽时噎得他捶胸顿足的白金欧米茄, 1931年的出品。

It’s his own, a platinum Omega, made in 1931,  that he traded away the previous year for five hen’s eggs, which he then choked on, beating his chest and stamping his feet.

3.  他觉得心跳得很不妙, 跳得血腥气满嘴都是。

He felt his pulse pounding in a not good way, and  in his mouth their was a taste like blood.

4。 换走欧米茄的犯人姓谢,  是个犯人头,  犯人们叫他“加工队”队长,  用棒子在犯人屁股上“加工”青稞,

The prisoner he traded the Omega to was surnamed Xie, a prisoner leader. The prisoners called him “processor team” team captain. He used a stick on the prisoner’s butts to boost the barley processing.

5.  砸糌粑面常常要达到以血和面的效果。

Kneading the barley cake dough the effect of blood mixed in with the dough could be achieved.

6.  小凶手是要填补陆焉识从未给“加 工”过的空白?

Does the young murderer want to fill the gap as if Lu Yanzhi has never passed by “Mr. Prossess.”

7.  老几贼一样飞快四望,  看看加工队谢队长是否在视野里。

Lao ji, like a theif, quickly looked around to see whether or not “Mr. (Process team)” Team Captain Xie was in the vicinity.

8.  不在。他满嘴血腥淡化一些。

He was not. The taste of blood in his mouth subsided a bit.


I sm not at all happy with my translation of sentences 5 and 6. It seems the style is very ellusive or suggestive, or something, but it certainly elludes me. Please help me understand these two sentences and give me any suggestions for improvements or corrections in any others that you may notice. Many thanks.

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I wouldn't overdo the "effect" translation in sentence 5, just a way of saying that it was common to have blood mixed into to the tsampa dough because of Xie's beatings.

Then sentence 6 looks to me to be our narrator wondering if the young murderer has slipped the watch into his pocket so he too can experience a beating -the filling in the blank is that, giving him an unpleasant experience he'd up to now avoided.

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Dear Jim, First let me say that I hope you are safe and well in the midst of the Covid outbreak. 


I am good with your comment on Sentence 5.


With sentence 6, are you suggesting that it is saying: Does the little murderer want [是要} (to set it up so that) the blank space which Lu Yanzhi's has never given to [给] "加工“ the occasion to fill in (with a good beating) will now have that opportunity (when he catches Lu Yanzhi having apparently stolen back his watch)?


Yes, I see it, and it makes perfect sense in the context as the author's (and Lu's) speculation, but DAMN, Chinese is hard! I guess what makes it hard is what makes it so fascinating as well. Thank God for people like you who are willing to rescue us beginners.



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Giving a good translation of 加工 would be the trickiest bit here I feel, as it's being used in a pun based on an over-literal reading in the sense that the beatings are to make them work harder - "add work" - as well as the standard processing meaning of the compound. So you'd ideally want something that could capture all that in English.

In my British idiom, working someone over is a beating, and that was one of the first possibilities sprang to mind.

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  • 2 weeks later...

As narrated by his granddaughter, Lu Yanzhi is a cultured man who is thrown into a "reform through work" prison camp in the Chinese northwest as a "counterrevolutionary." His horrific life has been described, with massive deaths of prisoners, whose dead bodies are left to be eaten by wolves. The conditions are grossly dehumanizing. The author, Yan Geling, in this introduction has been describing (ironically, as the camp is more beasial than the beasts) the foundation of the camp as an invasion into the pristine natural environment of the high plateau with its herds of horses and sheep, and it's wolves having lived in a natural balance for eons.


这是我祖父陆焉识和同类们被迫进犯大草漠的第四个年头,  正值人吃兽的大时代,  活物们被吃得所剩无几,  都是“谈人色变”。

This is the fourth year of my grandfather Lu Yanzhi and people like him being forced to invade the great grassy desert. That time was an great era of beastly suffering. Living beings suffered until there was not much left of them. Everything was “Let’s talk about changing human color.”


1. Is the reading of 吃 as "suffering" totally wrong? Does it actually mean: 

In that great era, honest men ate beasts. Living thing were eaten until there was not much left?


2. I cannot find any reference to the phrase 谈人色变. Is this a reference to the idea that communism would transform human nature?

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For 1. I expect it is literally eating anything that moves; if it's four years plus after the Anti-rightist campaigns it will be into the famine years around the Great Leap.


For 2. it's literally something like, "when we discussed the affairs of men, the colour/expression on our faces changed" with the suggestion it's drained of colour due to fear, you can see an example here: 奥威尔《动物庄园》法则:动物善良,谈人色变 - 知乎 (zhihu.com) and the original phrase it's adapted from 谈虎色变 谈虎色变_百度百科 (baidu.com). I note another common adaptation that came up when I searched was 谈性色变 where it's looking awkward at the mention of sex rather than out and out fear. In your context it's a time of great fear of other men and what they might do to you/each other and with the mention of other beasts you can see how swapping tiger for man makes sense.

色 is often facial expression in early texts, there's a Confucian thing about keeping your countenance set when serving your lord/parents, https://baike.baidu.com/item/色难/  i.e. not looking resentful when you do your duty.

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