a geisha by any other character

This has to do with Memoirs of a Geisha. But I don’t give a hoot about what is probably a profoundly silly movie that I have no intention of paying money to see. Nor do I care about Beijing’s profoundly silly objections to it. What I’m interested here is how Chinese characters were manipulated for the name.

In Mandarin, the word for “geisha” is yìjì, which is written ?? in traditional Chinese characters and ?? in “simplified” Chinese characters. The word for “memoirs” is huíyìlù, written ??? (??? in simplified characters).

Thus, Memoirs of a Geisha could be translated as Yìjì huíyìlù, which it has been up to a point. (This is something of a surprise in itself, because Western movies tend to be completely retitled in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China rather than have their titles translated into Mandarin. There’s a tedious sameness to most of these titles, which tend to imitate titles of other popular movies and throw in ? (ài, love) a lot.)

As written in Chinese characters, the title in Taiwan of the movie is ?????, not the expected ?????. Note the difference in the second character:

? vs. ?

The form in the movie title has the “person” radical ?, while the original form has the “woman” radical ?.

The one with the woman radical is strongly associated with prostitution. Here are a few of the many prostitution-related words that contain this character:

  • ?? ch?ngjì n. prostitute; streetwalker
  • ??? ch?ngjìgu?n p.w. brothel
  • ?? jìgu?n p.w. brothel
  • ?? jìn? n. prostitute
  • ?? jìyuàn p.w. brothel
  • ?? yíngjì n. prostitutes serving military units
  • ?? zh?ngjì n. zither-playing courtesan

Even a word for male prostitute takes this character: ?? (jìnán).

Here, by way of contrast, are some of the words containing the character with the “person” radical:

  • ?? (also ??) jìqi?o n. (1) technique; skill; craftsmanship; dexterity (2) acrobatic gymnastics
  • ???? cáijìzh?shì f.e. a person of outstanding ability in craftsmanship
  • ??? g?w?jì n. (1) (trad.) female dancer/singer (2) (Jp.) Kabuki
  • ???? gu?yùjìli?ng id. devilish stratagem; evil tactics
  • ??/? gùjì n. old trick/tactics
  • ???? gùjìchóngy?n f.e. play the same old tricks; be up to one’s old tricks again
  • ?? jiànjì n. inferior/lowly arts
  • ???? jì’érzh?c? f.e. One’s cleverness stops here.
  • ?/?? jìli?ng n. (1) trick; intrigue; maneuver (2) skill; dexterity; craft
  • ?? jìyì n. (1) mechanical arts (2) expert skill

So the switch from ? to ? was an attempt to soften the connotations of prostitution, changing Memoirs of a Geisha (i.e. prostitute, in common association, whether that’s just or not) to Memoirs of a Skilled Performer. It also brings to the fore the phonetic basis for Chinese characters as it is no coincidence that ? and ? are pronounced the same. This same phonetic basis, however, is why the revised name isn’t really different; it just looks different. All this is the written equivalent of fancy footwork. It doesn’t really change a thing. Yìjì is the word for geisha, so that’s what is going to come to mind, not “skillful performer” — not unless the movie-title’s usage somehow becomes widely used and longlasting. But I doubt it.

After all, the translators could have adopted another word for geisha, g?jì, which takes both forms: ?? and ??. So why not use ?? and get rid of that troublesome ? character without bending any usage? Because the main word for geisha is still yìjì, and geji is also used for prostitutes (there’s that word again) who sang and danced. And maybe some people would have been expecting a musical because of ? (g?, song).

Although it might sound sophisticated for the translators to have played with Chinese characters this way, it’s not really all that different from naming a band Wyld Stallyns instead of Wild Stallions.

Memoirs of a Wyld Stallyn? Hmm. Now that might have potential.

source: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Lost in Political Din, IPS, February 7

7 thoughts on “a geisha by any other character

  1. It works the other way around too.

    The movie “Better than Sex” from taiwanese director Chao-Bin Su (2002) has
    the original title ???? (ai qing ling yao). Which means, Effective Love Medicine?!

  2. This entry seemed a bit hard on the title changers, although I admit my knowledge on Mandarin usage of the word “yiji” for geisha is nil. Looking in the “Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary”, however, produced no entries for either “yiji” or “geji”, which makes me ask how common and well known these terms and their written forms really are, as well as the cognitive dissonance the informal varient discussed causes.

    Also, since Chinese characters are in fact a phonetic system of writing (by which I mean each character more or less stands for a sound or group of sounds in the various forms of Mandarin), isn’t it desirable that characters representing different senses of the same semanteme be conflated in writing?

  3. In Kanji geisha is ??. (Please note the first character here is the traditional Chinese character. The kanji actually differs from both the simplified and traditional character.) The translation of this would be “artist” or “person trained in the arts”. It contains absolutely no connotations of or references to prostitution.

    It would be interesting to know when the Japanese and Chinese terms diverged.

  4. The above article makes it look like the translators of the movie title came up with the term “??,” but this rendering of geisha was in common use in Taiwan long before Memoirs of a Geisha came out. The translators just decided to go with the less sleazy, if not officially accepted rendering.

  5. David is correct. Geisha is literally “art person”. There is nothing at all to do with prostitute in the word. ??=art person. ?=art. ?=person. That’s what geisha means. Geisha are not prostitutes at all. Some may have affairs and be the mistress to a man, but that’s not really related to their identity as a geisha. About a hundred years ago, loss of virginity was part of the maiko-to-geisha initiation, but that is no longer done.

  6. Hm, I have to say that ?? appears very frequently in literature with almost the sense of a just plain prostitute — ?? springs to mind.

    What I don’t understand is, what if they had used ?? in the Chinese movie title? What they did do seems like calling the movie ‘Memoirs of a Prostitute’ in English — there’s no word for ‘geisha’ in languages other than Japanese so why not borrow the Japanese word, selecting whatever glyph will be understood?

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