Lost In Translation No More: An Update on the Chinese Mug!

Back in April we posed  the question… how many people does it take to translate a mug? We were up to four at that point with two more possibilities waiting in the wings of email communication. The mug in question was a vintage 1950’s enamelware covered cup made by the Peacock Enamelware Factory in Tianjin, China.

Due to its rarity and the fact that the message written on it was in Chinese (possibly Mandarin), deciphering the Chinese characters enough to associate them with English words and meanings was dauntingly slow. But with a little luck and a lot of perseverance connecting with online translation sites, friends of friends, and Chinese language books we got to the following stage of interpretation… (the blank dashes represent words we had yet to figure out)

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}

Theories surrounding the literal translation of the mug ran the gamut from Communist propaganda to marketing slogans (Eat at Al’s!) to an award of some-sort (mainly because everyone agreed that the middle line definitely referenced a prize or award of some kind).

Two weeks ago, when Google translator sputtered out two words, pride and factory, before shutting down completely, I thought for sure we were on the right track of this mug bearing some sort of political campaign message for an impassioned Chinese factory worker.  I could see him in my mind, eating his lunch, drinking his tea all along silently communicating his political ideology through the slogan on his mug.

Wonderfully, a breakthrough came in the form of the Nashville Chinese School when a last ditch effort was made to reach out to yet another language school (the fourth during this search!) just after the July 4th holiday. In two days, Irene from NCS had the whole mystery solved.  And to think this jewel of school was sitting right under my nose all these months.

Irene provided the following translation…

Progressive Manufacture
Award
Blaze Company – #2 engendering department

As it turns out our little covered mug was an award! Not exactly as sensational as a piece of communist history, this mug announced a prize for a job well done by an innovative manufacturing department. It was someone’s proud acknowledgement of accomplishment. A midcentury metal (pun intended!) of achievement.  A smile and a handshake, which is by far a happier association than communism.

Looking back on my original ideas of the translation, I see that we weren’t really that far off. First and Makes easily falls in line with Progressive and Manufacture. Prize and Award are the same. Burning Culture coordinates with Blaze Company.  We even had the number 2 figured out. The only part that drew blanks was the engendering department (which means the idea department or innovation department or possibly where sales and marketing resides!).

Aha. In solving this mystery of history we’ve also been able to answer the question of the day. How many people does it take to translate a vintage mug?

NINE!

Nine people and three months and lots of imagination to solve the slogan on a 64 year old mug.  I learned so many things on this fun little journey – but most importantly I was reminded to check my neighborhood first. Had I contacted Irene at the Nashville Chinese School in the beginning, this would have been the miniest of mysteries solved so fast. But on the other hand I would have never jumped in feet first to the deep end of the Chinese language pool. Knowledge is power(fully) exciting. And for that I’m grateful.

Cheers or 干杯  ganBei (as I now know they say in Chinese!) to Irene and to Sing and the host of other helpers involved along the way. And most importantly cheers to our vintage mug, who now has a spirit and a story.

If you ever need any translation help yourself, or want to embark on an interesting new language journey contact Irene here.

As for our little trophy of a Chinese mug – find her in the Vintage Kitchen shop here. Her exotic appeal and around the world scavenger hunt make for a happy little storage system for tea or spices or kitchen items of all sorts.

 

 

 

 

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!

Anxious to see what we found out about this little mug. Read PART TWO of the story here!