Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting

I keep hearing non-native Chinese speakers greet a native Chinese with a friendly "Ni Hao Ma?" (你好吗?). It's time to set this straight: "Ni Hao Ma" is not native Chinese. It sounds so artificial that a native speaker immediately envisions a foreigner speaking with a big smile but drifting tones. I'm not sure why this 3-character greeting is not used by the Chinese but mostly used by foreigners. I think it has to do with a direct translation of "How are you?" What else could be a better translation of this 3-word English phrase?

So what's the native Chinese greeting? It's a simple "Ni Hao!" (你好!). Why do the Chinese people not like to append a "Ma" (吗)? I don't know. Whoever invented "Ni Hao", perhaps during the Vernacular Chinese Movement a hundred years ago, probably didn't like to make this frequent greeting phrase any longer than necessary.

If you do need to ask the question as if saying How's your situation?, "Ni Hao Ma?" certainly makes sense. That is, this 3-character question is used in an inquiry, not greeting. But in that case, "Ni Hai Hao Ma?" (你还好吗?) or "Ni Zuijin Zenme Yang?" (你最近怎么样?) may be just as or even more common. Similarly, you ask the plural "you" with "Ni Men Hai Hao Ma?" (你们还好吗?) or "Ni Men Dou Hai Hao Ma?" (你们都还好吗?).

[2012-06 Update] A Taiwanese pointed out to me that "Ni Hao Ma?" is said among Taiwanese. I don't recall hearing them say that in a greeting; I can't imagine two native Chinese/Taiwanese walking toward each other and both saying "Ni Hao Ma?" to each other, shaking hands. But it may be because I haven't had enough greetings with them. If "Ni Hao Ma?" is more common among Taiwanese and "Ni Hao" more common among the mainlanders, again, in greeting, not inquiry, then this posting may be titled something like "Ni Hao Ma?" is not a native mainland Chinese greeting. (After all, there's not one single Chinese linguistic authority in the world, but as many as the number of regions where the majority of the population speak Chinese.)

[2013-05 Update] In case a reader is still confused, I'd like to briefly emphasize the main point: The single Chinese word "问候" has two meanings, greeting and inquiry. In the sense of greeting, "你好!" is the choice. In the sense of inquiry, "你好吗?" is a perfect question sentence. This short note is about greeting, as when two friends run into each other on the street and neither had any recent incident that would worry the other. Saying "你好吗?" as a greeting sounds foreign, or causes confusion or misunderstanding.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chinese Dance "Flower Kidney"

My kids were reading the English version of the program for an end-of-year show in the Chinese community. They had doubt about the last one in the list, supposed to be the most exciting among all, "Flower Kidney". That doesn't sound right to them, or to me. If you have some knowledge of Chinese folk dance and also enjoy Chinese cuisine (a really Chinese one), you may guess what the Chinese title for the dance is: 花腰花.

What the hell is this? And Why is it linked to kidney? Here's my guess (and I can pretty much guarantee the accuracy). Go to Google Translate:|en|%E8%8A%B1%E8%85%B0%E8%8A%B1
and see what it is. That's right. The first 花 is "flower" and the two characters "腰花" is kidney, as in "炒腰花"  or stir-fry (pig) kidney.

So, what is exactly this dance? Ignorant of Chinese folk dance, I have to hazard a guess. "腰花" is likely some dance stressing the waist (pun intended) of the dancer, not sure how the name came about. The first "花" is unlikely related to Flowers, but instead suggests variations of a standard pattern, as is often the case in traditional Chinese folk music. Therefore, the most appropriate literal translation is probably "Waist Dance With Variations". Prepend "Chinese" and add translator's note, as you wish.

(On the other hand, I bet the waist dance indeed can be related to kidneys, in the sense that it improves your health if practiced moderately, or degrades it or harms the kidneys if otherwise.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why the Chinese language should not adopt phonetic writing?

This is part of a comment posted to Xujun Eberline's blog Will Chinese Go Alphabetic? Re-posted here as a standalone piece. "Phonetic" and "alphabetic" are used interchangeably when referring to a writing system.

There's an often-forgotten aspect of the resistance against Chinese romanization: unification of China. A number of scholars have expounded this idea since about one hundred years ago. The earliest I read is from Sun Yat-sen in his "Three Principles of the People". If China were to use an alphabetic writing system, people in different regions of China would soon find it impossible to communicate with each other due to great differences in pronunciation of the dialects, and China would disintegrate into many small countries as Europe. Sun's voice might appear weak against the few prominent figures in the 1920's and 1930's advocating romanization, because Sun's major concern was something bigger. In fact, that idea is largely unknown to most people, in spite of reiteration by a few scholars mostly in Taiwan. Generally, in the past 100 years, when the Chinese woke up to the fact that China is weak in power, romanization of the Chinese writing system would gain momentum, and subside in other times. I think the latest wave was in the 1980's, on a much smaller scale than its predecessors. With economic boom in recent decades, romanization is only a wishful thinking of the foreign students interested in something about China except the language itself.

To be fair, I think it's proven that children spend more time studying Chinese to a literacy level than studying an alphabetic language. But in view of the benefit of national unity, and to a lesser extent, artistic and literary beauty, let the kids, or foreign students, suffer! (By the way, I'm not sure if there's proof that simplified Chinese takes less time to learn than the non-simplified, but all anecdotal evidence suggests so.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Technical document needs literal translation

A question recently asked on a Chinese database forum is about the translation of the Oracle database term "recursive call" to "递归调用". That's a perfect literal translation. But the problem is that the word "recursive" or "递归" in computer programming refers to the fact that a function calls itself, as in this pseudo code:

function f()
{ //some condition to stop the loop
  call f();

In case of Oracle, a recursive call has nothing to do with calling the function or routine from within itself. Instead, it refers to a background, lower-level, normally database kernel-level, function call, not issued by the user. (In case of PL/SQL, it's a user-written SQL modified by the PL/SQL engine behind the scenes.)

This is an interesting topic to translation in that I believe, all technical translation should be literal, using the word, in the target language, that has long been established as a proper translation. In this case, "recursive" has only one translation "递归" in Chinese, with no other choice. As to whether the original document used the correct word, it's the original author's responsibility. A translator can add a translator's note to his translation, but should not choose a word that he thinks more closely matches the original meaning.

Similarly, "object-oriented programming" should indeed be translated as "面向对象的编程", even though I think "object-central", "object-centered", or "object-focus" would be better in the original language. And Oracle's "recursive call" may simply be called "lower-level call", so as to not raise the eye-brow of a seasoned programmer unnecessarily, not to mention the fact that an Oracle PL/SQL programmer may actually write code that has a real recursive call as in this example.

Having said that, I won't go further to say Christopher Columbus' "Indian" should be translated as "印度人" instead of "印第安人", which is a perfect translation. Columbus made a big mistake to equate American Indians to Indian Indians (so to speak). An obvious mistake is better corrected in translation if incorrect in the original language. But a word only questionable in the source is better left alone in the target language. After all, a translator may do more wrong in trying to outsmart the original author, causing endless confusion among the readers of the translation.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Chinese Accent in English Pronunciation

One could write a dissertation on foreign language accent. But here's a little observation I made after my recent reading on phonology. Some Chinese have a hard time to pronounce [ʌ] as in 'but' correctly, substituting [a] as in Chinese "阿" for it. But those living in an English-speaking country long enough can easily make a distinction not only in listening, but in pronouncing it as well. Now comes the more difficult one, the difference between [a] ("阿") and [ɑ] (as in "palm"). I knew the difference and subconsciously made the distinction in pronouncing "阿" and "palm" in its own context and language. But I had not realized the International Phonetic Alphabet actually used two different symbols to represent them until recently I did some casual reading of Wang Li's Chinese Phonology (汉语音韵) and Bernhard Karlgren's book on the same subject. So what's the difference between these two vowels? A good explanation is in the vowel chart of the IPA. For native Chinese, all [ɑ] needs is to move the tongue slightly toward the back from where it is needed to pronounce the Chinese [a] ("阿").

Chinese accent, or foreign language accent in general, in speaking English, is actually easier to overcome when English has a syllable [note] completely non-existing in Chinese (or that foreign language). When there's a syllable that sounds like one in Chinese but does not exactly match it, the native Chinese student learning English will conveniently substitute the Chinese syllable for the English counterpart without being corrected. Short of an incentive to make this correction in his future career or life, the substitution becomes permanent or fossilized.

[note] It would be better to talk about the more "atomic" element, phoneme. But that may be slightly too technical to people that stumble across this blog.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Off-topic: "Those from Taiwan know their Chinese but not their English..."

A recent topic in a Chinese forum titled

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Levels of translation quality proposed by Yan Fu: A small example

Yan Fu (严复, 1854-1921), a thinker, translator and educator, proposed three levels of translation quality, i.e., progressively, 信, 达, 雅, roughly, fidelity to the original, sentence fluency, and elegance of the translation, respectively. Numerous books and articles talk about these standards. I just want to give a simple case to illustrate the point. At my first job after graduation in China, I worked with a coworker that recently graduated just like me, except she had an English major. One day she suggested we translate a short paragraph in an English novel, separately. I don't remember any part of it, except this sentence, "He put his hands on her waist". Naturally, my translation goes, "他把手放在她的腰上". Then I looked at hers, which is "他搂着她的腰". I almost gasped at the perfect choice of the word (or character) "搂" (hug or embrace). I don't know why she picked that paragraph to test my translating skills, perhaps because she or her teacher or schoolmates tested it before and found it interesting.

Back to the 信-达-雅 standard. No doubt my translation has fidelity (I got the meaning right), and fluency (the Chinese sentence is natural and understandable), but definitely lacks elegance. If the material were from a technical book instead of a novel, my rendering of "put hands on" would be good, or even better without elegance. But it's a novel, a literary piece of art. Mr. Yan's highest standard 雅 is not just desired, but really demanded!

On the other hand, the original sentence, "He put his hands on her waist", begs the question whether it's elegant in itself. I think not. Should the translator inject a bit of literary element in translation? Well, I guess it depends. In this case, it looks appropriate. It's not uncommon a translated piece of work is more beautiful than the original, although the opposite is more common.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Proper name translation (2): standardization

This is a sequel to Proper name translation: semantic or phonetic. Proper names pose a challenge to translation not because of the language, but because of their unique features. Selection of semantic or phonetic translation is only one of them. A more common problem may be standardization. This is not obvious to English-speaking people, who are used to translated names in English provided on the source side by the translators of the originating language. But occasionally, there are no source side translators. Shortly after 9-11 of 2001, bin Laden's name was spelled differently in various writings. I contacted regarding their spelling in a 3(?)-part long article. They explained the name was being standardized at the moment.

I used to work at an organization in China officially designated as the agency translating the United Nations documents into Chinese. Choosing correct Chinese characters for proper names is a big deal. We follow certain sources in sequence: check the People's Daily first, check ... (some other official news media), check less authoritative newspaper, and so on. If the name in Chinese is still not found, use a standard proper name translation dictionary. Yes, such a dictionary does exist. Nevertheless, proper names are still translated differently across different regions where the Chinese language is spoken, such as mainland and Taiwan.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Off-topic: What language is popular?

There are many ways to gauge what foreign language is popular. One way is to check how many books are at a bookstore. I went to a local Borders Bookstore and noted down the following. The numbers are the numbers of book shelves holding books for that language (self-study books, dictionaries, easy readers, etc):

Arabic: 1
Chinese: 1
French: 4
German:: 2
(ancient) Greek: ?
Italian: 3
Japanese: 2
Korean: less than 0.5
Latin: 1.5
Portuguese: 1
Russian: less than 1
Spanish: too many

Even if this were not in south Texas, I bet Spanish would still beat any other language. I'm surprised at the high number for French and relatively low number for Chinese, considering the fact that more high schools or junior high have both as foreign languages. But that's what the market is, or at least what the bookstore follows.

[Update] This posting has a follow-up in 2015: What language is popular? A revisit.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"有情人终成眷属" and "Money talks" on Google Translate

Google Translate is increasingly popular. But more mistakes are also being found, especially when idioms are translated. One salient example is the Chinese-to-English translation of "有情人终成眷属" [People in love eventually get married], which is translated to "Money talks" [有钱能使鬼推磨]. I checked a few other languages I know, such as French and Spanish, where the translation is "L'argent parle" and "El dinero habla", respectively. They both literally mean "Money talks".

How does this or this kind of errors occur? According to Inside Google Translate, Google Translate "looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation for you". Let's check those "millions of documents" for this particular idiom. Search for
"有情人终成眷属" "money talks"
quotation marks included, and the result is 31300 hits as of this writing. Most indeed bear titles associating the Chinese idiom with "money talks". But some are apparently talking about Google Translate's mistake. So to be fair, we need to filter them out. Try excluding "Google" with the minus operator
"有情人终成眷属" "money talks" -google -"谷歌"
Again, quotation marks included. The result is 26400 hits. The first hit

Album : Money talks
Chinese : 有情人终成眷属  (You Qing Ren Zhong Cheng Juan Zhu)
Artist : Zheng Yuan (郑源 Zheng Yuan)
Release Date : 1/18/2006

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Proper name translation: semantic or phonetic

In researching a subject in history of Chongqing, I came across various English translations of the name of a building, "白公馆" in Chinese, e.g. "Bai Mansion", "Baigong Guan", "Baigongguan", "White Residence", "White House".[note] The interesting part is the translation of "白". Should it be phonetically "Bai" or semantically "White"? The answer is, It depends on the origin of the name. According to Baidu, this building was named after its owner Bai Ju (surname Bai). So the correct translation must be phonetic. "Bai Mansion" may be the best, although "Baigongguan" serves well as the name of a place. I don't suppose Mr. Bai, the owner, called it "白公馆" with intention of using a pun. But if he had done so, our translation would be impossible, or you pick one you like.

This reminds me of the translation of "Rice University", a reputable college in Texas. In the late 1980's, people in China referred to it as either "莱斯大学" or "稻米大学". But since the school was named after a person, as was known to all later, only the translation "莱斯大学" survived.

[note] If you need to see who uses which term, use these keywords to search on Google (quotation marks matter; example for "Bai Mansion"):
"白公馆" "重庆" "bai mansion"
chongqing "bai mansion"
chungking "bai mansion"

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"最近" is not always "recently"

I've seen too many Chinese use the word "recently" to translate "最近" incorrectly. explains "recently" as "in the recent past" or "not long since". It clearly indicates the past tense, as in "I bought a car recently", "我最近买了一辆车". But "我最近准备买一辆车" should be "I'm going to/I'm planning to buy a car soon", not "...recently". This mistake is made presumably because the English textbooks in Chinese equate "最近" with "recently" without pointing out the tense it should be used in. Interestingly, the Chinese having immigrated to English-speaking countries subconsciously avoid using the word "最近" in future tense *in Chinese conversations*; they tend to use the word "很快" [literally "very quickly" but more appropriately "soon"], as in "我很快要买一辆车", which reflects the influence of language on thought.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Translation of a sentence in Classical Chinese

> 一句文言,大家看怎么翻译合适?
> “民困于贪残之政,故托言大鼠害己而去之也。

This is a classical or literary Chinese sentence from "Interpretation of The Book of Songs"(《诗集传》) by Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, 朱熹), who lived in the Song Dynasty more than 800 years ago. I hope the following translation is close:

The people suffer under the government of greed and cruelty. So the author allegorically talks about rats that cause harm to him and his attempts to get rid of them.