Lost in Translation: Madame White Snake; 小青姨……你妈是白娘子吗…

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Saw this joke on Twitter today:

小姨的名字里有个青字。我和表姐一直管小姨叫小青姨,20多年了没觉得有什么不对劲。今天朋友看到QQ的备注list,忽然问了一句:小青姨……你妈是白娘子吗…… (from 橙西西 @ciciatc)

It's hard to translate into English. We'll need some context.

There's the popular Chinese legend Madame White Snake (白蛇传). This story every Chinese knows, and is a warhorse in plays, opera, movie, animation, TV series. In the story, a young nerdy scholar falls in love with a beautiful woman, and married her. She is actually a thousand-year-old white snake spirit. She has a sworn sister, a green snake spirit. (“spirit” here is similar to Western {nymph, demon, demigoddess}. Usually “evil”, but can be good.)

The white snake is called 白娘子 (literally, Madame White). Her sworn sister is often just called 青蛇 (literally: green snake).

TranslateWiktionaryhistory

The word 青 (meaning green, blue, verdant, youth) is also a common character in person's names.

Now, with the context taken care of, here's the translation:

Aunt's name has the word Green in it. We call her Aunt Greenie for past 20 years and never thought much of it. Today, a friend saw our online profile then asks: «“Aunt Greenie” … is your mom the White Snake?»

For a TV soap opera theme song based on this tale, see: 高胜美 - 千年等一回 (A thousand-years wait)

Google Translates Wife to Snake

Now, Google Translate got too excited about this tale and translates Madame to Snake:

Google translate wife to snake 2012-09-30
Google translates “wife” (娘子) into “snake”. 2012-09-30

The term 娘子 is a old form of address for wife by husband.

娘子 = 丈夫称妻子。

《北齐书.祖珽传》:“裴让之与珽早狎,于众中嘲珽曰:‘卿那得如此诡异,老马十岁,犹号骝驹;一妻耳顺,尚称娘子。’” (耳顺,六十岁的代称。)

《儒林外史》第三五回:“叫人挑着行李,步行到家,拜了祖先,与此同时娘子相见。

Here's different terms to address wife by husband. Some are semi-jokes.