Fuzzy Wuzzy, or “毛毛寶寶”

It all started with a blue pair of fuzzy pants.

I’ve been wearing the same blue Bossini pants as my winter pajamas for the past ~13 years. It used to be so long that the pant legs went past my ankles, and I had to tie the drawstring extra tight to keep them from falling off. Now, over a decade later, the pants fit perfectly (although the drawstring, weakened from years of use, still requires extra fastening). And, believe it or not, the pants are still “fuzzy.”

Last winter, while remarking on the fuzziness of my pants, Kevin broke into rhyme:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair,
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy was he?

It was the first time I’d ever heard the tongue twister, and I soon committed it to memory. Whenever Kevin uttered the word “fuzzy,” I’d dutifully follow up with my well-memorized lines: “wuzzy was a bear…”

Now, a year later, winter is descending on Chicago and my fuzzy pants are back. Yesterday, Kevin asked me how I’d render the “fuzzy wuzzy” rhyme in Chinese. Now, I’m not someone who typically feels most creative at night, but the translation almost seemed to create itself:

Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī xióng
máomao bǎobǎo méiyǒu máo
máomao bǎobǎo bìng bù máomao duì ba!

Above is draft 1 of the translation. As you can tell from the transliteration, I immediately prioritized alliteration. Chinese is a reduplicative-generous language, especially with adjectives (e.g. 小小 = “small small”), so 毛毛 (“furry furry”) felt like a good way to translate “fuzzy” (毛毛蟲 is caterpillar, and they’re certainly fuzzy creatures).

Now, what is a “wuzzy” anyway? In my understanding of the rhyme, it’s basically a marker of cuteness, so 寶寶 (“baby”) seemed appropriate. 毛毛寶寶 has the catchy, alliterative ring to it that “fuzzy wuzzy” has. Although, to be fair, there’s something extra-cute about the “zz” sound in English that I’m not sure I’ve totally replicated in the Chinese.

I wanted the syllables to all match up, which is where the final line was a challenge. A trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (e.g. fuzzy), and the third line is entirely in trochaic meter. So:

fuzzy | wuzzy | wasn’t | fuzzy | was he?

Side note: to my delight, the Wikipedia page on trochees cites Taylor Swift:

The Taylor Swift song “Blank Space” contains examples of trochaic metre in its chorus, which is responsible for many listeners mishearing part of the lyric as the line “Got a long list of ex-lovers” is forced into an unnatural shape to fit the stress pattern:Got a long list of ex-lovers

Where the stress would, in spoken English, naturally fall on the ‘ex’ of ‘ex-lovers’, it instead falls on ‘of’ and the first syllable of ‘lovers’, which can confuse on first hearing and cause the mind to try to fit an alternative two-syllable word into the ‘of ex-‘ foot. Supposedly, the line is misheard as “All the lonely Starbucks lovers”. 

Anyway, back to “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” My initial attempt achieves the trochaic meter:

毛 | 寶 | 不 |毛 | 吧?

But, alas, metrical translation is not enough. What makes the final line sublime in English is its impeccable wordplay:

Fuzzy Wuzzy Wasn’t Fuzzy Was-he?

Aside from the alternating F / W words, “Wuzzy” and “Was he” are also homonyms! The creator of this nursery rhyme has taken a nonsensical word, “wuzzy,” and transformed it into a perfectly poised rhetorical interrogative: “was he?”

The problem with my current Chinese translation is that I don’t quite hit that sweet spot.

Fuzzy Wuzzy Wasn’t Fuzzy Was-he? = F W W F W
máomao bǎobǎo bìng bù máomao duì ba? = M B B M D

The final 吧, which gives the poem its rhetorical effect, doesn’t quite give the poem a triumphant sonic finish when it introduces a new consonant into the line (“d”). I’ve been racking my brains, and here are some alternate endings:

毛毛寶寶名叫毛毛好嗎 ? Máomao bǎobǎo míng jiào máomao hǎo ma? 
~Is it right to name wuzzy “fuzzy”?
毛毛寶寶面貌並不毛毛! Máomao bǎobǎo miànmào bìng bù máomao!
~Fuzzy wuzzy’s appearance ( 面貌 ) is indeed not fuzzy!
毛毛寶寶明明並不毛毛! Máomao bǎobǎo míngmíng bìng bù máomao! 
~Fuzzy wuzzy is clearly (明明 ) not fuzzy!

Sound-wise, I prefer the last one, although only the first one has the rhetorical effect that matches the English original. But seriously, how cute is:

毛毛寶寶明明並不毛毛 !
Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī xióng
Máomao bǎobǎo méiyǒu máo
Máomao bǎobǎo míngmíng bìng bù máomao!

This morning, Kevin sent draft 1 to his family group chat, and his mom immediately responded with a revision to line one:

毛毛寶寶是隻貓; Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī māo
Fuzzy wuzzy was a CAT! 😻

Here, we really see the magic of translation. It doesn’t really matter whether fuzzy wuzzy is a Cheshire or a grizzly; what matters is the fuzziness. And you don’t get a fuzzier translation than:

毛毛寶寶明明並不毛毛 !
Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī māo
Máomao bǎobǎo méiyǒu máo
Máomao bǎobǎo míngmíng bìng bù máomao!

(I am very open to more suggestions, by the way!)

This morning, I finally thought to Google the origins of “fuzzy wuzzy,” and ended up on a Reddit thread about the unfortunately racist origins of the phrase; during the Mahdist War, “fuzzy wuzzy” was a pejorative name that British troops gave to the Hadendoa people because of their hairstyles. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it (bleh). Honestly, there’s something quite dark about this poem. If you search up “fuzzy wuzzy” in Google Images, you also get sad photos of a hair-less bear. What a buzzkill! (or fuzzkill, wuzzkill).

Thankfully, none of those connotations are translated into the Chinese. And that, dear readers, is what is gained — not lost — in translation.


Snow landed in Hyde Park this week!

It was Thursday, October 31, but the Halloween Hype was enveloped by a thickening blanket of snow all day. The weather forecast predicted it would snow and lo and behold, the weather did not flake on us (well, it did, depending on how you interpret that joke).

Since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with snow. Hong Kong kids don’t grow up with snow, and it becomes emblematic of the magic that “going abroad” promises: picture-perfectness, Christmas wonderland, new clothes.

I think I was destined to love snow because the last character of my Chinese name, 霙, means snowflake or sleet (I prefer snowflake). It comes from the poem “雪夜獨宿柏仙庵” / “Staying in the Bai Xian Temple on a Snowy Night” by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi. The character “霙” isn’t found in certain dictionaries, which is a fun fact I’ve always treasured. My English name, May, comes from the Chinese word 妹 (mèi), “little sister.” Having been named after a Chinese character found in a poem and a homophone translation, I like to think (somewhat vainly) that I was ‘born’ to write and translate poetry.

Written in around 1075, the poem is below:



Wǎn yǔ xiān xiān biàn yù yīng, xiǎo ān gāo wò yǒuyú qīng.
Mèng jīng hū yǒu chuān chuāng piàn, yè jìng wéi wén xiè zhú shēng.
Shāo yā dōng wēn liáo dé jiàn, wèi rú qiū hàn ruò wèi gēng.
Tiān gōng yòng yì zhēn nán huì, yòu zuò chūn fēng lànmàn qíng.

Staying in the Bai Xian Temple on a Snowy Night

Night rain becomes fine jade sleet
While pure winds blow on temples above
Mid-dream, my window is pierced
Yet the only sound in the quiet dark
Is the bamboo leaves’ quick cascade.
Barely past a winter cold myself,
How will fields recover from the autumn drought?
We can hardly foresee heaven’s intents,
For soon again a warm breeze will blow
Bright crisp color into fine spring days.

The above is a translation I did for an advanced workshop around 2 years ago, and what you’re about to read is part of the translator’s note I wrote to accompany the translation. As is typical of Su Shi’s work, contrasts and surprises are abound in this poem. The abruptness (yet nothingness) of the commotion in the window disrupts the delicate image of the jade-like sleet, and this disruption is accentuated by how line 3 begins suddenly with “夢驚,” (dream-surprised). I’ve replicated the original syntax in my translation, beginning line 3 with “mid-dream.” Moreover, the description of the bamboo ‘cascading’ is also strange; 瀉 means to flow rapidly, and is not a word that one would typically use to describe bamboo. The array of emotions (tranquility, concern, hope, etc.) in the poem also adds to its internal juxtapositions.

My first attempts to translate the poem involved trying to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter, and I experimented with the first and last lines as such:

“The night rain swiftly turns to snow, while cool winds on high temples blow Heaven’s intents are hard to guess, for soon again the spring breeze blows”

A merit of this approach is that I echo the pun in the original with “清” and “晴” (qīng/line 1 and qíng/line 4); the former signifies clearness and purity, while the latter denotes the sunshine of spring (fun fact: the last character of my sister’s name is 晴). The identical rhymes that begin and conclude the poem make it come full circle. However, I felt that being constrained to a rhyme scheme wouldn’t allow other elements of the Chinese poem to shine in English, so I revised to forgo meter but incorporate internal rhymes. Even without the doubling of 清 / 晴 in my second draft, I’ve attempted to retain the poem’s ‘full circle’ effect by concluding lines 1 and 4 with “fine jade sleet” and “fine spring days,” respectively.

The last three characters of the original, 爛漫晴, succinctly convey the bright colors ( 爛漫) and crisp clearness (晴) of a sunny spring day, but it is challenging to be as tersely communicative in English. Thinking of how Pound kept the radical of Chinese characters in mind while translating, I used the word “warm” in my translation because the character for “fire” (火) appears in “爛.” Finally, although Su Shi was not in any way inspired by Robert Frost, and vice-versa, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between this poem and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” one of my favorite English poems. The sound of “easy wind and downy flake” in Frost’s poem reminds me of the bamboo sounds that Su Shi hears. So, there is some cross-pollination between:

The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   


Yet the only sound in the quiet dark
Is the bamboo leaves’ quick cascade.

Su Shi’s poem is about the unpredictability of the weather, and as such of life. It snowed all day on Thursday, but on Friday the autumn colors reasserted themselves again. Today, which is Saturday, only the highest rooftops still carry the powder of our Halloween snow. We can hardly foresee heaven’s intents, indeed.

Because I can’t resist a revision, here’s my 2019-updated translation of Su Shi’s poem, which in some ways is my namesake. With this revision, I’ve again attempted a return to form; 8 lines with 7 syllables each (to match the Chinese). With this revision, I’ve abandoned some of the choices I described in depth above, but I suppose that’s all part of the process. Until the next revision…

Baixian Lodge on a Snowy Night

Night rain turns to fine jade sleet
Pure winds blow on temples high
Mid-dream, my window’s pierced
By nothing but the leaves’ cascade.
Barely past my winter cold,
Will fields brave the autumn drought?
Who can know heaven’s intents
For soon we’ll see fine spring days.