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 Strait. 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 National 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-Strait 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, n, 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 as "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 criminal 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.

[Update December 2023]

In the wake of the death of Zhu Ling, the victim in the poisoning murder case, I wrote a Weibo posting listing the errors in the petition text.

在中小学语文学习中,改病句或纠正错误用词是一种很好的学习方法,因为它能给我们留下深刻印象。但这种练习在英语学习中较少见到。这里举一例。2013年,有人在奥巴马白宫请愿网站We the People(“我们人民”)上发出请愿[1]
Invest and deport Jasmine Sun who was the main suspect of a famous Thallium poison murder case (victim:Zhu Lin) in China
In 1995, Zhu Ling as a Tsinghua university student was found out to be purposely poisoned twice by lethal chemical: Thallium, which leads to her permanent paralysis. It was indicated that Sun, her roommate, had the motive, and access to the deadly chemical. Jasmine Sun was investigated by police as suspect in 1997. But resources show that the case was mystically closed due to her family's powerful political connections. Resources also show that she changed her name and entered USA by marriage fraud.
To protect the safety of our citizens, we petite that the government investigate and deport her.
For more information on the case, please visit:

1. Invest(“投资”)应为Investigate(“调查”)。这是一个不可原谅的、低级的错误!
2. main suspect of: 更常见的词组是prime suspect,其后的介词应为in,因为后面是case(“案子”)。
3. a famous Thallium poison murder case: famous宜改为high-profile或well-known,因为famous有褒义。Thallium poison应改作thallium poisoning,金属名首字母不大写,poisoning是动名词,指出这个case是什么样的。
4. Zhu Lin...Tsinghua university: Lin应为Ling;将关键的专有名词写错是不可原谅的、不负责任的错误!另外,Tsinghua university应为Tsinghua University。
5. was found out to be purposely poisoned: out应删去。
6. chemical: Thallium, which leads: chemical后冒号最好改为逗号,Thallium应为thallium,leads应为过去式led。
7. investigated by police as suspect: police前应加the,suspect前应加a(或the,因为她是唯一嫌犯)。很多华裔、印裔在写英语时常常省略不可省的冠词。必须记住这条规则:单数可数名词前需要冠词!
8. the case was mystically closed: mystically不如mysteriously妥当。
9. USA: 前面应有the,华裔、印裔经常犯这个错误。
10. we petite that: petite(“小巧的”)与petition(“请愿”)毫无关系。这是一个不可原谅的、低级的错误!可改为we request that或we petition the White House to...。注意petition如果作动词,它极少紧接that从句(那或许是不规范的用法)。