A Chinese Tongue Twister

石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。
氏时时适市视狮。
十时,适十狮适市。
是时,适施氏适市。
氏视是十狮,恃矢势,使是十狮逝世。
氏拾是十狮尸,适石室。
石室湿,氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭,氏始试食是十狮。
食时,始识是十狮,实十石狮尸。
试释是事。

Shíshì shī shì shī shì, shì shī, shì shí shízì shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shízì shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì. Shì shì shì.
Shìshì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shénme shízì shī shì shì.
Shì shi shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, shì shǐ shì shí shì shízì shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shi shì shízì shī, shí shízì shíshī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

I tried to get a rough translation of it and it came out like this:

Stone Room’s poetic Guests facilities  to the lion, the oath to eat ten lions.
Always appropriate to the city of, as the lion.
10, applicable to ten lions appropriate of.
Yes, the appropriate Amur appropriate of.
as the ten lions, and relies on the potential, so that the death of ten lions.
pick is the ten lions dead, Stone Room.
Stone Room wet,  waiter wipe the Stone Room.
Stone Room as the beginning tried to eat those ten lions.
Food when the beginning of knowledge is the ten lions, in fact, ten lions dead.
The tested Explanation is the thing.

Thanks to strikingstar for referring me to this tongue twister!  I’d better get practicing!

And if anyone knows a more logical translation of this, I’m all ears!

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10 thoughts on “A Chinese Tongue Twister

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_Den
    Here’s a good translation that makes more sense.

    I wouldn’t call this a tongue twister because it’s not real Chinese by any definition. It only works if you pronounce the characters in the MODERN way, but the poem only makes sense using classical Chinese. So if you spoke it with perfect pronunciation and tones as described to someone 2000 years ago, they wouldn’t understand you, but they could read it, (some syllables would be pronounced with consonant endings that have disappeared over the ages), and if you speak it to a modern Chinese person, they will not understand any of it, and would only be able to understand it when reading it, with a bit of imagination. Words like “lion”, for example require a second (non-shi) syllable.

    This is akin to making a poem based on modern pronunciation, but using Shakespearean or much older English vocabulary or expressions that would be pronounced quite differently at the time, (pronunciation was quite different back then) although much more so since Shakespearean English is at least more intelligible than classical Chinese would be to a modern speaker.

    I’ve been sent this poem a lot lately, and I personally find it to be wasteful apart from tone practice. It’s as useful as just putting a random list of words together, which in itself can be useful, but it’s pure nonsense in terms of actually meaning anything in Modern Chinese and is not the tongue twister it claims to be even in Classical Chinese 😉

    If I were you I’d get your practice on real sentences that make sense!

    If you enjoy it though, have fun!

  2. Hey Benny! Good to hear from you!
    Thanks for the wikipedia link, that does clear things up a little bit.

    Yeah, it’s funny, since I posted this I had several people comment to me “That’s NOT Chinese!”. I was really surprised by that until I found out that it is written in “Classical Chinese” not “Modern” Chinese. I would think that it is more akin to Ancient vs.Modern Greek or Biblical vs.Modern Hebrew than Shakespearean English to Modern English. But it does clear up why it was so darn hard to translate!

    I didn’t post it so much for the practice, but rather to give an example of how many darn homophones there are in Chinese ( even though sometimes they make no sense as the above example demonstrates!). I found it quite amusing. Anyhow, true; practicing real sentences does probably make more sense!

  3. That’s precisely why I find the poem so stupid – people are using it to “prove” how hard Mandarin is, and it’s not Mandarin – as you said it’s like pointing to ancient Greek or Hebrew to prove how hard the modern versions are, and then not even doing it right in terms of proving how hard the ancient one is!

    I disagree about the homophones being such the huge issue everyone complains about and I’ll write about this in more detail later. We have homophones in English too, but context always makes it blatantly clear which one you are talking about, as it does with Chinese.

    Thanks for the nice words on my recent update.

  4. 四是四,十是十,十四是十四,四十是四十! I love that one! That’s the one that I was trying to remember when someone forwarded me the stone lion one. There are several videos of yi ge Jia na da ren putting native Chinese speakers to shame with that one.

    • LOL, I certainly believe that. There are too many dialects in Chinese. In many dialects, people don’t distinguish “z” and “zh”, “s” and “sh”, “c” and “ch”. Some people can’t even pronounce “z” “s” and “c”…

  5. Yuen Ren Chao was regarded (still is) as a brilliant linguist, translator, mathematician, musician (composer), and specialist in Chinese languages and culture. From that viewpoint along, one ought to be cautious in dismissing the importance of “Shi and the Ten Lions”. From a linguistics standpoint it was intended as a demonstration of the core difficulties of dialectical translation as well as a rebuttal to those advocating the success of Hanyu Pinyin language system (officially being promoted by the Chinese government) as a reliable transliteration/translation device. If nothing else, Chao certainly succeeds in that demonstration, in spades.

    More disappointing, however, are the comments here that (though referring to the work as a “poem”, dismiss it as “wasteful” and making no sense (“putting random words together) in its final translations. Taking the the narrative meanings of the story, in its English translation, and original classical Chinese (presumably) nothing could be further from the truth. And no doubt, a similar story be uttered/written in modern Chinese dialects as well (just not using a rote transliteration systems to do that) . But the story itself makes very good sense from a poetry standpoint and its sheer ignorance to say otherwise. Here is one sample of how the puzzling elements of the story all fit together in a very tight and meaningful way – something most students of poetry will easily appreciate as soon as they consider the work as a poem and not simply a linguistics demonstration: With the use of a few simple metaphors, on interpretation easily explains the “riddle” in a straightforward waya;

    “The First Solution Set:
    One solution to the “riddle” of the Ten Lions, is very close at hand. The poet, Shi, appears to be engaging in the making of the poem as well as being represented through its construction. With a poet at the helm, it a safe assumption that the story is employing metaphors that vector to one of the things poets are most intimately connected with, language.”

    “This particular poet lives in a “stone house”, an easy metaphor for the house of language (where most poets live) — the cold labyrinth of his own mind where he lives; has always lived in the crowd of language. His principle occupation is to hunt words, bring them home, dine on them. There are the “servants” he employees for his “housekeeping”. If the “stone house” is the poet’s own mind, then the servants are not “where’s”, they are “what’s”. What could these “servants” be that tend the house of language? His pen, perhaps. His glasses, maybe. His voice, certainly. His thoughts, absolutely.

    Otherwise, he seems to be alone, with his own thoughts. There is no hint of wife or family; no other voices seem to intrude. It is not hard to imagine him surrounded by old tomes and crumpled paper. He is looking for something to eat; something he particularly likes, swears he will get. What do poets like to eat? Why, words of course. “Delicious words”; magnificent words, perhaps ’lions of words’ if they get lucky. For some reason he seems to want ten of them (from which it might be deduced that he is hungry but not gluttonous. Ten, after all, is a rather modest number of premium words for a poet.)

    Where does the poet hunt for these ‘word-lions’? At the ‘market’ of course – the place where words are most likely to be found — dictionaries, thesauruses, other books and writings, his memory…). No reason to assume the ‘market’ is somewhere else. His shelves, his desk, books piled all around him on the floor all make for a perfectly good market place for hunting words . Ten beautiful, golden, powerful words appear in the “market”.
    The poem also provides a precise time that he goes to the market, but we attach no special significance to that other than it contributes to the concrete timbre of the poem. One might conjecture that ’10’/’ten’ may have some special symbolic importance (see below). But that is only speculation and unneeded for the metaphor to do its job. We do know the poet has hunted “lions” before (he “used to go to the market…”). Did he find other word-lions on those occasions? Perhaps, the story doesn’t say. But if he is a poet, we might presume so. Not all of his poetry could have been so spare as to contain no word-lions.

    In any case, on this particular day he not only finds one lion at the ‘market’, he finds ten of them at once! He takes out his arrows (his pen?) and “kills them” (puts them on paper). Many of us well know the feeling of words skewered on the tip of the poet’s pen. The poet takes his ‘lions’ home (into his mind or scratched on a notepad) . He is at home. the “floor” is “wet” – his “house” is dripping with emotion perhaps? Tears, joy, excitement at finding so many new words? It can get very wet (plain sloppy, in fact) when one finds ten perfect words on one hunt and brings them home.

    The poet can’t eat his fresh words quite yet, however. They’re still in his mind; in a mess of damp sentiment. It’s time to dry things off and to put his lions on the page and eat them. He calls upon his servants (remember them?) Things will get worked and reworked, edited and re-vised, until they are quiet “dry”. When the work is done it’s time to “eat” – to savor his work and digest it.

    But, whoa, hold on! Alas, after all that work, the thrill is gone too. All that effort in “drying” out his poem has also taken something else out’; the very ‘lionic vitality’ that was in those words when he first found them. The ink is dry, and so is the poet. His words have turned to stone (identical to the undifferentiated material his house is made of, language) — durable, perfected, memorable perhaps. But stone, nonetheless; immobile on the page, used and undifferentiated in his mind. They are no longer the delicious lions (fresh meat = fresh words), supple and ephemeral things; objects that had first rolled so deliciously on his tongue.
    When one considers the material itself, “stone”, from which both the “house” and processed words (lions) are made, the metaphor gets even tighter, and “wetness” now figures as a solvent by which words are slipped loose from the stone walls of language, shaped into meanings and finally re-worked into our texts until they rejoin the general schemas of language, to once again take on the character of stone.

    Poets and anyone familiar with reading much poetry will easily grasp that this interpretive rendering (there are many others) is no magic trick and quite within the compass of poetry — the reason “Shi” is regarded as a ‘poem’. And a pretty good poem as well. What is most disappointing about some of the previous discussion is that means to discourage others from considering the work further and dismisses it off-handedly. That is just plain ignorance turning itself into stupidity and asking others to climb aboard. – (© Red Slider, 2012)

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