How Many People Does It Take to Translate a Mug?

The title of this post makes it sound like a bad joke is on its way. But in all seriousness this is a real question we are trying to answer here in the Vintage Kitchen. The mug in need of a language lesson is this one…

a 1950’s era Chinese covered mug made by the Peacock Enamelware Factory in Tianjin, China.  With its cute button top style lid, aged patina, classic red, white and blue colors and the lettering of that faraway land it has all the potential of becoming a fully functional exotic storage tin for tea, spices or other little kitchen sundries in need of corralling.

But before it becomes one of the items listed for sale in the Vintage Kitchen shop, some mysteries need to be solved. First and foremost is the obvious one…what exactly is that jaunty little message written across the front? Could it be something cheery like Have A Great Day!? Or could it be something promotional like Eat at Al’s Pancake World? Or could it be something deeper and more meaningful like a message relative to Asian pop-culture or 1950’s history?

Once we find out that info, then we’ll be able to answer our second question… what was this mug used for and how? Was it a vessel for hot tea, or noodle soup or fried rice? Maybe all three! Was it part of the general household serving brigade or did it carry on-the-go lunch for a factory worker or a shopkeeper or a government aide with a message to share?

It is very unusual to see vintage enamelware with such writing on it. This covered mug is very, very rare so I’m thinking that the possibility of it reading Eat At Al’s is pretty unlikely. But you never know until you actually know, so we aren’t assuming anything at this point. Which takes us back to the big question…just how many people does it actually take to translate a mug?

So far that number is four. Four people and the internet.  And the message is only just partially translated.  After figuring out that it is written in Mandarin (the local dialect of Tianjin where the mug was made),  I stumbled across a vintage Chinese propaganda poster site and started noticing some similarities in letters between the posters and the mug. This would make sense for both the time period and the fact that there is no decorative imagery on the mug.  Perhaps the saying has something to do with a powerful political statement! These are some of the posters with matching letters… one has to do with the little red book about Communism,  one with leader Mao Zedong, one with birth control and one about agriculture…

Pulling out key words from some other poster translations I then started down the online-dictionary translation road and began matching up American words with Mandarin characters.  Like any language where one word could have several meanings this wasn’t the easiest route but at least I was getting somewhat in the neighborhood of possible translations. Also I was working with an American keyboard so I couldn’t type in any Mandarin characters. It was trial and error guessing at English words to see what kind of  similar Chinese characters they would produce.

A most helpful breakthrough came when Sing in Seattle and her brother sent back a few possible suggestions regarding what they could make of the translation… the words ADVANCED PRODUCTION and the word PRIZE. Maybe this mug was an award given for achievement or some sort of recognition like employee of the month! With possibilities ranging from Eat At Al’s to communist propaganda to good-job accolades, the mystery of this mug was getting more intriguing by the minute. Determined to be able to tell the proper true story of this vintage marvel for a future buyer, I was completely committed by this point on solving the puzzle.

Next came a paper diagram so that I could keep track of all the word possibilities and see if a general theme or idea would begin to emerge…

Working around the ADVANCED PRODUCTION  and PRIZE words I began doing searches for any word that could be remotely associated – factory, assembly, worker, champion, reward, office, competition, building, community, win, made, propel, leader, team, unite, etc etc etc. Over the course of two weeks, every time I thought of a new word that might be appropriate I’d consult the dictionary and see if I had a character match. Little by little, words started getting paired up. As of today this is what I have deciphered so far line by line… (The underlines are words that I have yet to figure out. In parenthesis are other possible translations that may be helpful or may be the actual verbiage in relation to the overall sentiment).

First ____  Makes ____       {related words/themes from this line include: living, livelihood, give rise too, birth, life}

Prize  {reward, given for victory}

Burning Culture 1st ____ ____ 2nd ____ _____  {collectivization, work, worker, skill, profession, individual}

Could it have something to do with a worker’s union? Or a denouncement of non-communist ideaology? Could it be a call to action towards creating a better life or a better community? Could it be the Keep Calm and Carry On mantra of  mid 20th century China or the more wordy motivational version of our contemporary one-liner Hustle? In 1940’s Tianjin, Chinese citizens were trying to take back their marketplace from foreign residents who had set up competing concessions within the city. Tianjin is also the 6th largest city in China and has long been prized for being an innovative hub for trade and finance and an important power player in the country’s economic health. So perhaps this mug’s message could have been a local rally cry for national pride and patriotism. Oh the possibilities!

This week I reached out to two new people for possible translation – one a Chinese language school and the other a collector of Chinese propaganda. But in publishing this post I’m also reaching out to you for your helpful translation skills. If you know any amount of Mandarin or are a student of Chinese history please comment below with your thoughts and translation suggestions. Together, we’ll see if we can shed true light on this mysterious little mug yet. Stay tuned for info (hopefully) coming soon!

 

 

 

One thought on “How Many People Does It Take to Translate a Mug?

  1. Pingback: Lost In Translation No More: An Update on the Chinese Mug! | In The Vintage Kitchen

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