Sunday, May 19, 2013
For example, "computer" is generally called "计算机" in mainland China and "电脑" in Taiwan. But of course there's no absolute rule. On the web page of Nationaly Taiwan University, a search for "計算機", limiting the result to their web site only, returns 20,600 hits; search for "電腦", 96,700. On the mainland side, the 百度百科 (Baidu encyclopedia) page for "计算机" starts with "计算机（Computer）俗称 [commonly known as] 电脑". It appears that "計算機" used in Taiwan more frequently occurs in an academic context while "電腦" is more casual or refers to a personal computer. In the mainland, it used to be almost exclusively "计算机" in both contexts and has shifted more to "电脑" when referring to a personal computer. I think the reason for this shift is twofold: (1) intensive cross-Straight cultural exchange in addition to the big trend of global communication in this Internet age; (2) relative ease in pronouncing "电脑" (diànnǎo) compared to "计算机" (jìsuànjī). The latter becomes evident when you try to say the word increasingly faster; it takes an effort to position the tongue correctly in pronouncing jìsuànjī while diàn and nǎo have the same consonant at the ending and beginning, respectively, of the characters.
Semantically, though, "电脑" is an awkward or absurd translation. It literally means "electric brain", which, had it been adopted decades ago by the pioneers of the computer technology or its users, would be a natural choice. But neither mainland China nor Taiwan is related to the invention of a computer, and so cannot invent a word for it to be backported to the language associated with the invention and expect to be accepted (see my theory of linguistic authority). On the other hand, "计算机" is a perfect literal translation of "computer", although "机", literally "machine", goes beyond the meaning of the suffix "-er" by limiting it to a machine, which in this case is acceptable since a "computer" does not refer to a person that computes but only a machine in the context.
The story does not end here because there's another word to be translated, "calculator". Both "compute" and "calculate" are accurately translated to "计算" in Chinese. But since "计算机" was already taken for "computer", what's left for "calculator"? My Taiwanese friend told me while they call "computer" "電腦", they call "calculator" "計算機". Mainlanders, on the other hand, call "computer" "计算机" or "电脑", and "calculator" "计算器", literally the same as "计算机", but with the last character changed (thanks to the rich synonym repository in the Chinese language), it cunningly circumvents the problem created by the semantic equivalence of the two English words. Well, are "compute" and "calculate" really semantically equivalent? Walter W. Skeat's Concise Dictionary of English Etymology says "compute" originated from Latin com- (together) and putare (think), and "calculate" from calculare (reckon by help of small pebbles). We may conclude that "compute" sounds like more sophisticated computation while "calculate" is for rudimentary arithmetic, and they correctly match the relative complexity between a computer and a calculator. Unfortunately, there're no two good Chinese words that mean the same apart from this subtle difference in connotation. Maybe "算数" is one for the lower end "calculate". But early Chinese translators didn't happen to choose "算数机" for "calculator", so be it.
Related to this translation discrepancy in computer technology are "程序" and "程式" for "(computer) program", "硬件/软件" and "硬體/軟體" for "hardware/software", etc. Fortunately, these differences are historical in the sense that they're limited and won't expand to new words, as the Chinese people in the mainland and Taiwan are more than ever in contact with each other.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
Saturday, March 16, 2013
I'm curious about the time of the change from "chairman" to "president" as the English translation for "主席". According to Wikipedia, "The office [of President of the People's Republic of China] was formerly known as the State Chairman and the Chinese Zhǔxí still literally translates to this. The official translation switched to President after 1982 in conformity with Western terminology, although the Chinese word is still used to translate other offices of 'chairman'". So the change occurred in 1982. What's special about that year? The English page of Wikipedia is not as clear as the Chinese page, which states that “中华人民共和国主席”职务自1954年召开第一届全国人大以后开始设立；1968年开始悬空；1975年通过的《宪法》删除有关“中华人民共和国主席”的条款，取消此一职务；1982年通过的《宪法》恢复了主席和副主席设置。 （The office of "President of the People's Republic of China" was established in 1954 when the first National People's Congress was held. It began to be vacant in 1968. The constitution passed in 1975 removed the clause with regard to "President of the People's Republic of China" and abolished this position. The constitution passed in 1982 re-established the positions of President and Vice-President.)
China in the early 1980's saw a hectic if not tumult transition, politically and economically. One element in these changes was conformity with the standards in the rest of the world. It's no surprise that the English word "chairman" for "主席", as the head of state, is replaced with the more common and less ambiguous "president".
Etymology doesn't play any role in the translation. "主席" literally means "the mat of the host" (or "the primary mat" since "主" has both meanings). "Chairman" is the man or person in the chair, while "president" originally means "sitting in the front" (Latin "Praeses"). Neither is significantly closer in meaning than the other to the Chinese word. But since both "主席" and "chairman" have a noun component in them, could that have been the reason why the 1950's and 1960's Chinese translators chose "chairman" instead of "president" as the English translation?
Having found the time the translation switched, we may conclude that there were two state chairmen in the history of the People's Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong and Chairman Liu Shaoqi, the latter in office from 1959 to 1968. After that, all we have are presidents, from President Li Xiannian (1983-1988) to the just elected President Xi Jinping (习近平).
Note that we're talking about head of state in this short article; the "Chairman of the Communist Party of China" and "Chairman of the Central Military Commission" remain to be "chairman". In connection to that, there's one minor special case to be dealt with. Mao Zedong intended to transfer his power to Hua Guofeng, a paramount yet weak leader of China after Mao's death in 1976 for a short time. Because of his insistence on Mao's principles and practices, there was a brief period when the phrase "英明领袖华主席" (wise leader Chairman Hua) became popular. Since he was not the head of state, the title "Chairman" is not equivalent to the latter-day "President", but only "Chairman of the Communist Party" and "Chairman of the Central Military Commission", two titles he did assume. It's possible, however, that the Chinese people back then would care less about this distinction, and unknowingly but incorrectly consider him as a successor to Mao in his full rights, including the state-of-head title of "Chairman", now called "President".
Friday, January 18, 2013
The January 9 issue of Journal of Neuroscience published an article Lifelong Bilingualism Maintains Neural Efficiency for Cognitive Control in Aging (full article). Although there's no difference in "simple working memory span" between mono- and bi-linguals, "older adult bilinguals switched between perceptual tasks significantly faster than their monolingual peers." And "older adult bilinguals showed a pattern of fMRI results similar to the younger adult groups: they outperformed monolingual older adults while requiring less activation in several frontal brain regions linked with effortful processing." "[T]he bilingual requirement to switch between languages on a daily basis serves to tune the efficiency of language-switching regions..., and that over time the increased efficiency of these regions comes to benefit even nonlinguistic, perceptual switching".
It's no more news that multi-language efficiency or simply studying a foreign language postpones Alzheimer's onset. (In a leisure-reading article I wrote, I almost gave up on finding a reasonable excuse for my study of foreign languages and reluctantly settled on possible prevention of Alzheimer.) But it's easy to lose sight of news that hints at the negative side of bilingualism. For example, in Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind (full article), published in February 2010 of Current Directions in Psychological Science, we read "bilinguals typically have lower formal language proficiency than monolinguals do; for example, they have smaller vocabularies and weaker access to lexical items."
Lastly, if bilingualism has the same effect as more education on delay of the onset of Alzheimer, be aware that research shows that in spite of delayed onset, faster progression of the disease after onset is associated with more education.
Nevertheless, there're far more benefits reported in research than possible harm in bilingualism to mental health. There may even be more, although possibly diminishing, benefit in trilingualism than bilingualism, but no research has been conducted to my knowledge. In a nutshell, cerebral stimulus as in language study is highly recommended in our natural aging and should be followed throughout the life, not to be terminated when you no longer need to take exams or when you retire.
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Monday, November 12, 2012
One particular case is the inscription "山东博物馆 " (shan1dong1 bo2wu4guan3, Shandong Museum). On October 9, 2011, somebody first suggested a possible alternative reading of the cursive writing, "心系情妇那" (xin1 xi4 qing2fu4 na4, heart tied to mistress there). On October 21, more possible readings "山东情妇馆" (shan1dong1 qing2fu4 guan3, Shandong Mistress House) and "心系情妇波" (xin1 xi4 qing2fu4 bo1, heart tied to mistress wave or bosom), and it starts to evolve into a short story. A day later, "山东情妇报" (shan1dong1 qing2fu4 bao4, Shandong Mistress Newspaper) was suggested, and the full story was completed:
十一期间一对儿情侣在山东博物馆游玩，小伙子凝视着博物馆上面的字说：“书法写的不错啊，心系情妇那！” 女孩说：“你傻B啊！明明是山东情妇馆！贪官的情妇都关这里面了！” 这时，一个路人经过，听到两人的对话，心里暗暗想：两个2货！不认识字还在这装有学问！明明是心系情妇波！！
(During the October 1 national day holiday, a couple were touring around Shandong Museum. The guy stared at the inscription on the museum building and said, "Calligraphy not bad, 心系情妇那!" The girl said, "You stupid! It's obviously 山东情妇馆. The corrupt officials' mistresses are locked in there!" A passer-by heard their talk, and thought to himself: two idiots pretend to be educated not knowing how to read, it's clearly 心系情妇波!)
You judge the reading. Here's the image:
If the above image is not shown, this smaller image is from the official web site:
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
The discussion was quite active, with most responses providing cases where a non-relative can be called uncle in different parts of the world in different languages, even in the US. But there're some nuances in usage: in most cases, if the name follows the title, it becomes more acceptable (just "Uncle" may be rare but "Uncle George" is acceptable in many situations); this addressing is more popular in a rural area; and it was used more than it is now.
Keeping those minor differences in mind, I would summarize three types.
(A) Even a stranger on a bus may be called aunt, uncle, grandpa, grandma, older brother/sister, not followed by a name. Countries having this usage: Japan, China, possibly many other Oriental countries.
(B) A good friend may be called aunt, .... Countries: UK, Turkey, Germany,...
(C) Only family members or relatives are addressed like this. Countries: US,...
The above distinction is definitely changing in time and varies from place to place even inside one country or culture zone. I've been in the US for only 20 years and never lived in a rural area. I won't be surprised if a neighbor is called Uncle George by all kids on the street. But that's probably very special, only for specific persons deserving this dearly respect in a small area, not generally applicable. So I don't consider it to be type (B).
An example in type (A) is at the beginning of this posting. Here's another one. A Chinese greets his male same-age friend at the door. If the friend is a Chinese (or Chinese American), the father would like his child to say to his friend "叔叔好！" (literally "Hello Uncle"). But if the friend is not a Chinese, this greeting ("Hello Uncle") would be awkward and confusing to say the least.
The three types do not include cases that are too informal, or if the title applies to only a very specific person in a specific group (imagine a well respected old man in a church where everyone dearly calls him "Grandpa"). The reason for these exclusions is that in these cases, these family relative names can be used across all cultures, not culturally sensitive or interesting.
Needless to say, there's nothing absolute, especially the distinction between (B) and (C). It's more like a continuing spectrum. At one extreme, a stranger on the bus can be called "uncle" if he yields his seat to a little kid, who would say "Thank you, Uncle!". At the other extreme, the man has to have fairly close relationship with the child or his parents to be addressed that way. It's the degree of the closeness, maybe among other factors, that maps into the continuing spectrum.
Monday, October 15, 2012
leonAzul on this page, it means, best if placed against or in front of a plain setting or background. Hence my translation:
水天同, perhaps the best Chinese translator of Francis Bacon's works, has the same understanding, with this translation:
compared to others'
德行犹如宝石，朴素最美 <-- Not right
善犹如宝石，以镶嵌自然为美 <-- Correct
美德好比宝石，在幽暗背景的衬托下反而更显名贵 <-- Over-"translated"; where's 幽暗?
(The above Chinese translations are collected at fang的BLOG)
Monday, September 10, 2012
To be fair, a dictionary of a spelling language (language whose writing system is alphabet-based) never lists a Chinese word as is. An English dictionary never has a non-Latin spelling entry, thus excluding not just Chinese, but any Oriental language, Hindi, Arabic, any Slavic language, and many others as well. To incorporate "饺子" into an English dictionary, the spelling "jiaozi" is used. Now, if we need to have this "symmetry", we must add to the Chinese dictionary a Chinese-character-transliterated word such as "摁逼诶" in place of "NBA". It looks funny though. Why? I guess it's because the users of the word "NBA" in China are used to it and appreciate its simplicity. (How long do your eyes stay on "摁逼诶" for your brain to process the same info as "NBA", even if your native language is Chinese?) If this had happened a century ago, "摁逼诶" would most likely have been accepted in preference to "NBA". But nowadays the Chinese audience of "NBA" are at least able to pronounce English letters. The beauty of simplicity rules. Considering the law of survival of the fittest almost equally applicable to linguistics, I don't see a bright future for "摁逼诶" or any other transliteration.
Hence the dilemma between two rules: the established rule of dictionary compilation, and the situational usage of a word in the population. Because a Chinese character is intrinsically more difficult than a Latin-based word, incorporating "jiaozi" instead of "饺子" in a dictionary of Latin-based language is natural. But on the Chinese language side, the two rules are having a tug of war. Leaving "NBA" or any letter-word out of the Chinese dictionary retains its purity but increases inconvenience of a general reader -- he has to consult another dictionary. The awkward "摁逼诶" in the dictionary would be useless because nobody and no media would likely adopt that spelling.
My take on this: The Chinese dictionary can have an appendix listing the commonly used letter-words, without not yet accepted Chinese transliterations ("麦当劳" is OK but "摁逼诶" is not). It avoids the dilemma by explicitly stating that these words are not Chinese and yet they frequently occur in Chinese text. Inclusion of them is merely for the convenience of readers.
P.S. With the ubiquity of the Internet, this debate may become irrelevant and eventually forgotten, as the Chinese readers that care about "NBA" or any letter-word have easier access to the web for the meaning of the word than the paper-based dictionary. Although this particular dictionary, with no online version, serves as a prescriptive guide in mainland China, its definition of the letter-words may not be as authoritative.
Sunday, August 5, 2012
The awkward "which time" is a literal equivalent of "第几次" as in "Which time is it you come to New York?" The English "time" is one word for both the time you use a clock to keep track of and the ordinal count of repetition of you doing something, which is a measure word. Other languages may use two words for these meanings (时间, Zeit vs. 次, Mal). The reason "which time" sounds unnatural may be related to this particular polysemy (one word having multiple meanings) of English "time".
Here are more challenging ones, "第几个", "第几件", and "第几本", as in "老师要我们读John XYZ的ABC系列的所有三本书，你在读第几本?" ("The teacher wants us to read John XYZ's all three books in the ABC series. Which book are you on|reading now?") But "Which book are you on?" is not a good translation because the answer may well be "I'm reading his Book Title". The question actually demands the answer "I'm reading his first|second|third one". English "which" properly matches "哪一(本)". It does not specifically ask the ordinal number as the Chinese "第几(本)". The fact that these Chinese question words are more challenging is probably because "个" and "本" have no measure word equivalents in English, and although "件" may be "piece", "Which piece ...?" does not specifically demand an answer of the ordinal number in the series.
A little follow-up. A Chinese reader says "So English is deficient?" My answer is that every language may have stronger expressive power than another in one case, but less in another. In this case, Chinese wins. In the case of subjunctive mood, Chinese loses (you have to guess whether "如果我有1000块钱" is counter-factual "if I had 1000 dollors", although "如果我是你" is definitely "if I were you"). In the textbook case of ambiguous English sentence "He hit the man with a stick", Chinese wins because you can't make up an ambiguous sentence in Chinese. And the list goes on.