Saturday, March 29, 2014

"第几" has no English equivalent: a follow-up

In August, 2012, I blogged that "第几" has no English equivalent. (If you haven't already read it, you may want to take a quick look first, but ignore my explanation based on presence or absence of measure words (量词) in a language.) Now I'd like to expand this topic to include other languages and so posted a discussion at Based on the responses, I place languages into three groups according to their capability to ask about the ordinal number of an item in a series. (Words in parentheses are the words or phrases equivalent to the Chinese "第几". Hyperlinks point to other people's discussions. Words in brackets are my comments.)

Group 1: a single word serves as the question word

Chinese (第几)
Finnish (manieth)
French (combientième, quantième) [The poster says quantième is very formal and rarely used.]
German (wievielte)
Japanese (何番目)
Marathi (kitva) [The poster specifically says Hindi probably does not have this word.]

Group2: a phrase is needed

Russian (какой по счету)
Swedish (vilken ... i ordningen)

Group 3: some logic is needed to deduce the ordinal number, or you ask in a different way, or there's not a general interrogative construct

Spanish [? debated]

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Joke due to translation: "Oracle bone script" was registered as a software brand by Americans

On Weibo, the Chinese microblogging web site, there's an article titled "甲骨文的呼唤" (the Call of Oracle Bone Script), where I read

Translation: The three characters, 甲骨文 (oracle bone script), of ours, were registered as a software brand by Americans. Even 甲骨文字 (oracle bone script) search software was invented by Americans.

The author 中华古文字研发中心 is evidently annoyed at the cyber-squatting of a very Chinese name by a non-Chinese company. What's going on?

Let's put everything in the historical perspective.

* The word "oracle" dates back to probably 2000 BC according to Wikipedia, referring to "Frenzied women from whose lips the god speaks". The Chinese word for this is "神谕" (literally, god's decree).

* From the 14th to 11th century BC, the first Chinese script, 甲骨文 (literally, shell bone writing) was written on the shells of animals mainly turtles in today's Anyang, Henan Province of China.

* In the late 1800's, these shell bones with characters on them were discovered by Chinese scholars.

* In 1977, "Ellison co-founded Oracle Corporation in 1977 with Bob Miner and Ed Oates under the name Software Development Laboratories (SDL)" according to Wikipedia. "The name Oracle comes from the code name of a CIA project which the founders had all worked on". In 1982, the company was renamed to use "Oracle" in its name.

* Some time after that, the Chinese translation of Oracle Corporation and its database software names came into existence. The Chinese name chosen is "甲骨文".

Since the word "oracle" has at least two meanings when Oracle Database or the company was born, god's decree (神谕) and Chinese turtle or oracle bone script (甲骨文), which one did Larry Ellison and his friends have in mind when they named the software or company as such, or if the name was directly adopted from the CIA project they had worked on, which did the CIA project team initially have in mind? According to an Oracle FAQ page, "The word Oracle means: Prophecy or prediction; answer to a question believed to come from the gods; a statement believed to be infallible and authoritative; a shrine at which these answers are given."

So it's obvious that Mr. Ellison did not consider the second meaning of the word as the name of the company or its flagship software. In fact, it's likely that he was completely unaware of the obscure Chinese oracle bones. The Weibo article cries for Internet domain name squatting of "甲骨文" by Oracle Corporation due to the author's ignorance of the history of these events, an unfortunate Chinese translation of "Oracle" (as company or software) to "甲骨文", the same word to mean oracle bone script, and possibly lack of basic English reading skills.

Because "Oracle" (as company or software) took the meaning of god's decree, the correct Chinese name should be "神谕", not "甲骨文". I consider the current Chinese names "甲骨文公司" (Oracle Corporation) and "甲骨文数据库" (Oracle Database) to be incorrect translations. I posted a message to my Weibo and also as a reply to the article, "As an Oracle database administrator, I'd like to remind the author..." Interestingly, my reply was deleted (the author of a Weibo message can delete other people's replies). Some of my Oracle database friends responded to my message saying "甲骨文" is a beautiful translation, "神谕" would be terrible, it's not a mistranslation. Well, I told them it's a mistranslation from the linguistic or etymological point of view. A similar example is early Taiwanese translation of "Rice University" to "稻米大学", as if "Rice" was the cereal grain in this context, which would definitely disturb Mr. Rice, the founder of the school. This I blogged about before.

Let me end this blog posting with an interesting story, possibly true. The famous Chinese singer, Liu Dehua, Andy Lau by English name, once went to the countryside and saw a restaurant by the name "Liu Dehua Restaurant". Not happy with infringement of his big name, he requested to talk to the owner. An old man came out, saying "I've been called Liu Dehua all my life. Who are you?"

[Update 2014-04-05] I got to record this funny true story that just came in. My friend, a well known Oracle database expert in China, posted a message on his Weibo today:

今天收到一个妹子电话,问我,你做什么的?我莫名其妙反问,什么事。妹子说,我这里出土两片甲骨,似乎有甲骨文,能帮我鉴定下么? - 这么多年了兄弟们[泪],第一次有正宗甲骨文的业务上门啦!
Translation: Today I got a phone call from a lady asking, What do you do? Confused, I asked her, Why? She said, two 甲骨 (shell bones) were excavated here. Looks like there's 甲骨文 (oracle script). Can you help identify? - After so many years, my brothers [tears], for the first time we've got the authentic oracle business coming to our door!

That posting was followed by lots of joking replies!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Chinese religious language

A Christian friend of mine introduced me to The Reverend Wang Zhiyong (王志勇)'s translation of The Confession of Faith of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster (威斯敏斯德信条). In view of the fact that the English text was written in 1646, I think Wang's translation, built on or having consulted previous translators' work, is remarkably accurate. But choice of certain words in Chinese stopped me to think in an attempt to understand as well as possibly improve. Take for example "edify their brethren" in Chapter XVI (Of Good Works). The Chinese is "造就弟兄" (literally "build the brothers", where "造就" is normally used in a different phrase, e.g. "时代造就了英雄", "the age or era or times created the heros"). According to Wiktionary, indeed "edify" can mean "build" and "construct" although rare now; nowadays most people understand this word to mean "instruct or improve morally or intellectually". I brought this point to my friend and asked why it was not translated to, e.g., "教导弟兄" ("educate or instruct the brothers"). Her reply is quite educative to me: The Confession is meant to be read by Christians and the Chinese translation uses words commonly used by the Chinese Christians, "造就弟兄" being a common saying among them.

We know that technical terms usually have their own dictionaries. But it's unlikely that a Chinese dictionary of religion or Christianity has an entry for "造就" for this special meaning unknown to non-religious Chinese readers. These are jargons, but not keywords, and do not deserve a place in a dictionary or even an entry in the index at the end of a book. And these jargons can even be "虚词" ("empty word", "functional word"), such as "因着" ("because", "because of"). A Google search for "因着" shows almost exclusively Christian sources. How this word, which does not exist in 汉典 dictionary, came about and was handed down to later generations of Chinese Christians only would be an interesting research project.

Religious texts may have other unique characteristics in the Chinese language. When Buddhism was introduced into China in the Han (206 BC–220 AD) through Tang (618–907 AD) dynasties, new words were invented in translation. But there's another interesting, albeit perhaps insignificant, change in the language. Normally a four-character phrase, oftentimes a 成语 (idiom), has the semantic or word boundary in the middle; i.e. the first two characters form one word and the latter two the other. But a Buddhist word, if of four characters, may break this rule. In "得大自在" (attain Maheśvara) or "大自在天" (Maheśvara), there's the three-character word ("大自在"), which is quite common in Buddhist terminologies. Here's a more obscure one: "知 见 立知,即 无明 本" from 《楞严经》 (Śūraṅgama Sūtra). I intentionally inserted spaces between characters or words that form semantic units. A possible translation of the 8-character sentence is "(Your own) knowledge and sight establish your knowledge (of the world). That is the root of unwiseness." In reading 文言文 (literary Chinese text), identifying word boundaries is more important than in reading the vernacular Chinese. It helps to keep in mind the presence of many odd-number-character words in Buddist texts.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Modern" and "现代" or "近代"

The standard translation of "modern" to Chinese is "现代" (literally, "present epoch"). Unfortunately, Chinese (and possibly Japanese) historians and textbooks also have the word "近代" ("near epoch"), which, surprisingly, is usually translated to "modern" as well. According to Wikipedia, modern history began approximately in the 16th century, which falls into the 近代 (or even earlier, before 近代) in Chinese parlance, definitely not 现代. Since "modern" includes both what Chinese historians call 近代 and 现代, the whole of "modern history" should be properly translated to "近现代". But if the context limits the period to only part of the full span of modern history, "modern" should be translated to one of the two Chinese words, 近代 or 现代, depending on the context.

An obvious question to ask here is, Where is the division in timeline between 近代 and 现代? The Chinese Wikipedia page for "近代史" is made a counterpart for the English page for "Early modern period". So a natural answer is, Refer to whatever time the English phrase has the modern history divided by. Since early modern period is from 1500 (the end of Middle Ages) to 1800 (the age of Revolution, especially the French Revolution in 1789), that corresponds to 近代, and the period from 1800 on is naturally 现代.

But there're always different opinions. For example, according to the "近代史" Wikipedia page, the People's Republic of China traditionally takes 1640 (English Civil War) as the beginning and 1917 (Russia's October Revolution) as the end. But this tradition may be slowly going away as a result of academic globalization. Another page, for "中国近代史", states that "中国大陆的中国近代史学界基本确立从1840年“鸦片战争”到1949年“中华人民共和国成立”的分期方法" (the Chinese 近代史 scholars of the mainland China generally establish the chronological span of 1840 the "Opium War" to 1949 the "Establishment of the People's Republic of China" [as 近代]). The latter statement seems to be closer to what I remember. In that case, the generally accepted international standard of "early modern history" started way before the (mainland) Chinese historians' 近代, by more than three centuries, and ended about 150 years earlier!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Thought" and "以为"

The Chinese word "以为" means "thought", as in "I thought it was Tuesday today" (我以为今天是星期二). There's only one little detail some Chinese speakers often overlook: the verb in the subordinate clause should be in the past tense. "I thought it is Tuesday today" is not right.

If you think about it, though, the past tense in the subordinate clause doesn't meaningfully indicate a past behavior; only the verb "thought" in the main clause is clearly in the past. The past tense of "was" in the example sentence is required by the grammatical agreement between the main and subordinate clauses. Probably due to lack of this semantic implication in the subordinate clause, a Chinese student often takes the easier word "is" and forgets the correct one, "was".

Interestingly, I found this sentence in a German learning CD: "Und ich dachte es ist Dienstag." (literally: "And I thought it is Tuesday") That means in German, it's acceptable to use the simple present tense in the subordinate clause even if its main clause uses the past tense. But I'm sure using the past tense is fine too ("Ich dachte, es war Dienstag.").

Friday, August 9, 2013

Translation: a case study, "feminism" and “女权主义"

In a Chinese high school language class, students are taught the concepts of "内涵" (intension, not to be confused with intention in spite of the same pronunciation) and "外延" (extension, not to be confused with action of extending something), two linguistic terms that seem to be less known among American high schoolers. The intension of a word is the concept or idea it evokes, while the extension of it is its referents or what it actually denotes. Therefore, "Venus" has the same extension as does "Morning Star" or "Evening Star" in the culture the latter two terms are used because they refer to the same planet, but the three words themselves all have different intensions or meanings.[note1]

A recent discussion among apparently a group of sociologists on Weibo (microblog mainly in China) questions the translation of the word "feminism" to "女权主义". My response is that this translation has been infused with the translator's own understanding, namely, addition of "权" (rights). This semantic expansion of the word during translation creates an intensional asymmetry between the two words in their source and target languages. On the other hand, according to Wikipedia, feminism "is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women." The Chinese word "女权主义" properly denotes the same referents, or extension of the word; people using "feminism" in English or "女权主义" in Chinese will not have any problem solely due to the translation of this word in either direction, unless the definition is someday changed on the "rights" part. "Feminism" properly or solely based on its intension means a doctrine about femininity or the female gender, not necessarily related to the rights of the said group of people. If one day in the future it no longer denotes movements and ideologies for women's rights, possibly on the day when equal rights are indeed achieved to most or all parties' satisfaction,[note2] and the word continues to refer to some doctrine related to women, the Chinese counterpart "女权主义" will become a mistranslation, and a more direct, intension-mirroring, translation such as "女性主义" will be appropriate.

It would be interesting to check how other languages translate the word "feminism". As of this writing, Google Translator offers 72 langauges, almost all of which, including some adopting a non-Latin alphabet, use a word similar in spelling and pronunciation to "feminism" in English (or rather, its Latin root), suggesting the same cognate. Apart from those languages, the following are the few languages that make up their own terms (literal meanings of the words are in the parentheses):

Chinese: 女权主义 (women-rights-ism)
Arabic: نظرية المساواة بين الجنسين (gender equality theory, 性别平等理论)
Hindi: स्त्रियों के अधिकारों का समर्थन (support of women's rights, 对妇女权利的支持)
Persian: عقیده بهبرابری زن ومرد (belief in equality of men and women, 男女平等之信仰)
Swahili: haki za wanawake (women's rights, 妇女权利)
Vietnames: chủ nghỉa nư quyền (women-rights-ism, 女权主义) 
Urdu: تحریک نسواں (women's movement, 妇女运动)
Gajarati: નારીવાદ (theory of women, 妇女理论)
Kannada: ಸ್ತ್ರೀ ಸ್ವಾತಂತ್ರ್ಯವಾದ (women freedom argument, 妇女自由论争)
and the weirdest of all:
Marathi:स्त्रीयांना पुरूषांबरोबरीचे समान हक्क मिळावे अशा मतप्रणालीची चळवळ (women purusambarobarice same rights strong commitment towards the tribe movement, 妇女??同等权利、对部落作出坚决承诺的运动, where the second word is machine-translated to "men-analogous" -- What's that?)

Since I don't know any of those languages except Chinese, please correct me on the literal meanings I put in the parentheses.
[note1] This example is taken from Saul Kriptke's "Identity and Necessity", Identity and Individualism, p.141, ultimately attributed to Willard V. O. Quine.
[note2] See e.g. an August 2013 article on Spiegel, "Frauen als Besserverdiener: Mongolische Männer fordern Gleichberechtigung" (Women as better money earners: Mongolian men demand equality), which suggests that the Soviet Union's influence significantly promoted women's status.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Translation of "computer", "calculator", and others

Some English words that were created or became popular after 1950's but before late 1990's are translated differently between mainland China and Taiwan, due to the lack of cultural exchange during that period across the Taiwan Straight. Notable among these words are those related to technology.

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 in Chinese for "calculator"? My Taiwanese friend told me while they call "computer" "電腦", they call "calculator", surprisingly, "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). It seems that "compute" is for 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

Incorrect English in a petition to the White House

I just saw Invest and deport Jasmine Sun who was the main suspect of a famous Thallium poison murder case (victim:Zhu Lin) in China, a petition to the White House calling for investigation and deportation of a suspect in the Zhu Ling case. I'm pleased with this volunteer work that aims at bringing this 18-year-long horrendous crimincal case to a satisfactory end. However, the author of this petition is seriously lacking in basic English language skills. Lousy errors occur from the title to almost the end: "Invest" for "Investigate", "Zhu Lin" for "Zhu Ling", ..., "petite" for "petition". I'm deeply disappointed with this apparently Miami-based Chinese gentleman that has a warm heart yet inadequate training in English. Let's see if the White House will respond to a petition full of grammatical as well as factual (Zhu Lin for Zhu Ling) errors, if the signature count reaches 100 thousand.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"主席" (Zhǔxí) was Chairman, is President

Nowadays, the Chinese head of state, "主席" (Zhǔxí, zhu3 xi2), is always translated as "president", not "chairman" as in the Mao Zedong's times, as in "Chairman Mao". But the English word "president" is almost always translated into Chinese as a different word "总统", which goes back into English definitely as "president", and never "chairman".

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

Reposting: Bilingualism and mental health

(Reposting from my other blog)

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.