Fuzzy Wuzzy, or “毛毛寶寶”

Credit: https://www.deviantart.com/gh-mongo/art/Fuzzy-Wuzzy-138922842

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.

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