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.