February, 2015

2015: The Year of "羊"

Like in many other cultures, the Chinese zodiac has twelve animals. The year of 2015 is the year of "羊" (Yáng), an animal variously translated as "sheep", "goat", or even "ram" (male sheep). For some reason, only this year did the lack of this one-to-one mapping in translation become a hot topic. Around the time the Chinese lunar calendar started the year of Yáng i.e. February 19, 2015, there were numerous online articles debating the most proper word to fit the Chinese concept of "羊". Some have observed that "sheep" is used more in the greater part of China and "goat" more in the south particularly in the Guangzhou area, apparently consistent with the climate and the fact that wool keeps the body warm. But no overwhelming or conclusive evidence is available.

Among all the interesting discussions, perhaps the most academic and unique contribution comes from Prof. Victor Mair, a renowned sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He proposes the word "Ovicaprid" for "羊". According to Wiktionary, an ovicaprid is "a domestic sheep or goat. Also called a caprovine" and the word is formed by combining two Latin words ovis ("sheep") and caper ("goat"). The cleverness of this proposal is that the Chinese "羊" is ambiguous about the two species, sheep or goat. We may as well use an equally ambiguous word that could mean both, and in English, it happens to exist! The only little problem is that few English-speaking people know this word. But that's OK.

Actually, if rarity of the chosen word is not an issue, I have another proposal. The biological classification or taxonomic rank (from top to bottom: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, which may have sublevels in between) for sheep and goat are as follows:

		Sheep		Goat
...		...		...
Family		Bovidae		Bovidae
Subfamily	Caprinae	Caprinae
Genus		Ovis		Capra
Species		O.aries		C. aegagrus
All we need to do is to find the common name in the most specific (lowest) level in the classification, much like a search for the least common multiple in arithmetic. Thus we see Caprinae, the Subfamily, is the one, because both a sheep and a goat belong to it and it is a name at the level immediately above a level where a sheep and a goat start to belong to different categories. That's the word we're looking for as the translation for "羊". Again, when you say "2015 is the Year of Caprinae in Chinese culture", you'll get a "Huh?" in response. But that's not what we care about, is it?

Next year, 2016, will be the Year of "猴" or Monkey. Although it too has many species, the "猴" to "Monkey" mapping is pretty much one-to-one. But if you look at the 12 zodiac animals:


I would say quite a few will have debatable translation problems. Is "鼠" a mouse or rat? Is "兔" a rabbit or hare? Is "鸡" a rooster or hen or chicken? Is "猪" a pig or swine? And should we continue to translate "龙" to "Dragon"? (See "Dragon" for "龙": a mistranslation?) Not all of them are so lucky that we can find an equally ambiguous word to match the Chinese word, as "Ovicaprid" for "羊". But my strategy always works: Find the common name at the lowest biological classification below which are found "mouse" and "rat", "rabbit" and "hare", and so on.

[Update January 2017]
The year of "鸡" is an easy one, because "chicken" encompasses both "rooster" and "hen". On the other hand, the phrase "Year of Rooster" has already been deep-rooted in English usage, which incidentally causes unnecessary cry for gender inequality, in the animal world notwithstanding.

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