January 24, 2013 | Mandarin

Fifty, or Cincuenta, or Cinquanta, Shades of Grey

A new language-learning strategy?

Today I was on the website of a Portuguese bookseller, Atlantico Books, when I noticed a Portuguese-language edition of Fifty Shades of Grey.

This got me thinking. It is sometimes hard to keep people motivated to pursue language study, so why not tie language-learning interests to what is obviously a global fascination with kinky sex?

Fifty Shades of Grey, Chinese, for Sale on

Fifty Shades of Grey, Chinese, for Sale on

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, by British author E. L. James, has already been translated into 40 or so languages, including Chinese—though traditional only, not simplified. 

A quick explanation of simplified versus traditional Chinese: I know very little about the simplification itself, but on the most basic level, if you see traditional Chinese next to simplified Chinese, the simplified characters are (as you might expect) on average visually simpler, maybe with streamlined forms and/or fewer brushstrokes.

The simplified writing system was introduced in the People’s Republic of China, or mainland China, in 1952. As you can imagine, this introduction was politically, linguistically, and logistically fraught. Traditional Chinese is still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but mainland China has for multiple generations used simplified characters. 

Fifty Shades of Grey, in Russian

Fifty Shades of Grey, in Russian

On New York City subways, I have seen signs from the MTA (the entity in charge of our sprawling transit system) with translations into both traditional and simplified, along with Spanish, Russian, Korean, and I forget what else.

The Chinese characters are common across Chinese dialects, so whether you speak Cantonese or Mandarin or something else, you would learn the same simplified Chinese characters if you lived in mainland China, and probably the traditional if you were elsewhere. 

Back to bondage. The Fifty Shades series—whose original Fifty Shades of Grey release was followed by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed—has also been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Greek, Russian, and many other languages, though I have read that it is unlikely to make its way into simplified Chinese because of the salacious content.

Simplified or no, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey clearly have much broader reach than, say, the lastest grammar on Portuguese or Catalan.

Fifty Shades Darker, in Greek

Fifty Shades Darker, in Greek

One of the great things about sex is that it is not hard to interest people in it, so I can imagine that books like these, used in intermediate and advanced courses, might be very effective in getting people to pay attention. And also great for learning helpful new vocabulary. After all, how many grammar books and flashcard sets teach you how to talk intelligently about blindfolds and anal plugs? 

I have not read the books in English or any other language. The one sentence I read in English made clear to me that these would not conform to my expections of literary quality. But in translation and with readers whose foreign-language skills are still in progress, writing sins become less apparent.

Generally I am a fan of reading high-quality literature in the original, not translations of less than stellar writing—but if we are talking purely about language-learning as opposed to literary literacy, and if the students are of age, why not?

Comments (4)

Elizabeth • Posted on Mon, February 11, 2013 - 2:14 pm EST

I love reading literature in its original language, but have found translations of something familiar let me focus on the new language more, since the story is known. But, I think I’ll stick to Harry Potter for this exercise, and still skip Fifty Shades.:-)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, February 11, 2013 - 2:37 pm EST

You will have great wizard-related vocabulary!

Robert Adams • Posted on Wed, February 20, 2013 - 11:46 pm EST

This is an interesting idea.  I wonder if one should focus on translations of more realistic books (like Ayn Rand’s Fountain Head) in order to learn more useful, but specialized vocabulary?  Although, I love me some Hogwarts.  Go JK!

Elizabeth • Posted on Tue, February 26, 2013 - 5:31 pm EST

Robert, You mean don’t have a need for wizard vocabulary in your day-to-day life?;-)

This is a good point. I confess one reason for the Harry Potter selections on this particular exercise is for the satisfaction of completing a book in another language relatively quickly.

For a more practical vocabulary, I do try to read a few news/magazine articles each week on subjects I’m especially interested in to build vocabulary for conversations I’m likely to find myself in.

I am curious now how some passages of “The Fountainhead” would be handled in French.

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