Saturday, December 6, 2014

Which English letter do Chinese pronounce wrong the most?

The answer to the titled question depends on how much the Chinese has already studied English. If he knows almost nothing about the English language, it's likely he pronounces letter "A" as [ɛ] instead of [eɪ], "C" as [sɛ] instead of [si] (or [si:] if you want to emphasize the long vowel), and "K" as [kɛ] instead of [kei]. Let's ignore these people and focus on those that have learned enough English and have probably been living in an English-speaking country for some time and whose level of English as a second language has fossilized.

In my observation, the most commonly mispronounced English letter is "N". Instead of [ɛn], many Chinese pronounce it like a prolonged [n], missing the vowel [ɛ], or the vowel is too short and weak to be heard. This is particularly evident when he/she spells a word on the phone, where a very clear, distinct pronunciation of each letter is expected, e.g., "His name is Wang, W-A-N-G" (['dabulju:], [eɪ], [n], [dʒi:]). Due to the nasal nature of [n], with the initial vowel [ɛ] stripped off, the other side of the telephone would likely ask "W-A-What-G?" Of course giving an example word solves the problem, such as "N like in Nancy".

Note the IPA symbols for the mispronounced letter "W" in the above example sentence. The first vowel I wrote is [a] and the second [u], while the correct pronunciation of "W" is ['dʌbə(l)ju:] (parentheses for the optional phoneme). Too many Chinese pronounce [ʌ] as [a], because [ʌ] does not exist in Chinese. This substitution also occurs for [ɑ], which again does not exist in Chinese. So letter "R" is read like [ar] instead of [ɑr]. Fortunately, [a] alone does not occur in English; it only exists in diphthongs (e.g. [ai]). Mispronunciation by substitution of it for [ʌ] or [ɑ] won't cause misunderstanding, just a distinct foreign accent.

I'm not sure why "N" is read by Chinese as [n]. If you know why, I'd like to hear your comments.

Note: The difference between [ʌ] or [ɑ] and [a] is clearly indicated in the International Phonetic Alphabet vowel chart. Both vowels not existing in Chinese are pronounced in the back side of the mouth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why Chinese choose uncommon English names

A Washington News article Satirical news site attacks China’s weird English names quotes a BBC article, which ultimately quotes a CCTV News article Tips for Chinese choosing an English name. Indeed, some Chinese people choose English names that sound too outlandish, with unnecessary connotations, such as Dragon, a fierce often wicked beast in western culture, or Sugar, a name implying a flirtatious character. Readers of these articles understandably laugh, and then question why Chinese choose English names, and why uncommon names.

Here's why English names are commonly used. Many Chinese characters are hard to pronounce except by people trained in Chinese, one of the most difficult languages in the world. I would estimate that more than half of Chinese names, more than half of which are of three characters, contain at least one phoneme a westerner finds difficult to pronounce. Of all 21 pinyin initials, q, x, zh, r, z, c, and s when followed by i, and j, ch, sh to some extent, pose a challenge. Among the finals, e, yu, yue and probably a few others are often mispronounced. Mispronunciation goes beyond what I list here. Many years ago I had a master car mechanic friend named Ge Xun. One day another buddy of mine and I tried hard to solve a car problem with no success. We decided to call Mr. Ge, even though he warned us not to call him at work unless there was a crisis. When the phone was picked up by a guy in his shop, I realized I had no way to tell him my friend's name as said in Chinese. So I had to spell out each letter. Later my friend told me he had an English name George. It makes perfect sense for those with such Chinese names to have English names just to make everybody's life easier.

Now let's explain why Chinese choose uncommon English names. According to a China Daily article, So Many People, So Few Surnames, "there are about ... 4,000 to 6,000 [Chinese surnames], of which about 1,000 are most frequently used", while Mark Antony Lower's English Surnames: An Essay on Family Nomenclature, Vol. I (p. xii-xiii) claims, even in 1849, that there are about thirty to forty thousand English surnames. In addition to the number difference, Chinese surnames are much more concentrated on the common ones; for example, "In northern China, Wang (王) is the most common surname, being shared by 9.9% of the population" (Wikipedia). English surnames, even as common as "Johnson", would not enjoy a dominant 10% distribution. A much larger number and a greater variety of English than Chinese names make it possible that two people with English surnames can choose a common given name with little concern for the same combination of a common given name and surname. You may have two John's in office. But it's unlikely to have two John Smith's. But if two Chinese are both called John, you may end up with two John Wang's in the cubicles not far from yours. The solution taken by Chinese immigrants to the English speaking countries or Chinese workers in a mostly English speaking environment is to use less common given names. "John" is a bad one. "Nicholas" may be better. Unfortunately, "Dragon" is bad, too, from a different direction.

So what's the best solution? There's no ideal one. Let's focus on given names and forget about surnames for now. It has to start from birth. For new or would-be parents, here's my advice. If you anticipate your child to live or work in a global environment, give your child a Chinese name whose pinyin is easy for non-Chinese to pronounce. That is, avoid names such as Ge, or Xun, or Qiu, or Zhong. (Refer to the list above.) Then the child never needs an English name just for easy pronunciation. He or she may still consider an English name, but for a different purpose: easy for his hundreds of business clients to remember his name, for instance.

P.S. A frequently asked question is, Why don't Japanese or Indians living in the US choose English names? One reason is that Latinized Japanese or Indian names are never difficult to pronounce. Secondly, they never had this tradition. Chinese immigrants, aside from the pronunciation perspective, probably follow the tradition established by early Chinese immigrants, mostly from southern China and Taiwan. But whether the tradition, or lack of, is actually just an effect of the pronunciation difficulty may need more research to find out.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Scholarly translation should be literal

This is an abridged English translation of my article in Chinese 学术翻译:直译或意译?(Scholarly translation: literal or free translation?).

In 1983, Xu Guozhang (许国璋), a well-known Chinese translator and linguist, described his translation of Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy as "译文力求醒豁,不按词典译义,而按词的文化史涵义翻译" (The translation strives for clarity. It does not go by the dictionary, but by the sense of the word in its cultural history.) He gave examples of translating "feudal" to "拥据领地(之诸侯)" ((the princes holding) the fiefs) instead of "封建", "anarchy" to "诸侯纷争" (dispute among the princes) instead of "无政府" because "当时无中央政府" (there was no central government back then), "adventure" to either "猎奇于远方" (adventure to places afar) or "探无涯之知" (explore the knowledge domain of no limit) depending on the context instead of "冒险", "antiquity" to "希腊罗马" (Greek and Roman, Greece and Rome) instead of "古代", "fame and beauty" in the context of the Renaissance to "享盛誉于邦国,创文艺之美" (enjoy fame among nations, create beauty of art and literature). He thinks this style of translation achieves the goal that the reader of the translation best understands the text.

No doubt Mr. Xu's translation is aesthetically superb and the sentences flow naturally. But I disagree with him on one point: Scholarly translation should be primarily literal, secondarily free or paraphrasing. Translation strives for fidelity, fluency, and elegance, strictly in that order (see Levels of translation quality proposed by Yan Fu: A small example). But in practice, various factors influence the weight of each of the three standards. Generally, literature demands higher "fluency" and "elegance" and so occasionally lowers the standard for "fidelity". But for a scholarly work, emphasis should be on "fidelity", with "fluency" not below passable readability. As to "elegance", it's something nice to have.

Take "feudal" not being translated as "封建" as an example. Today's consensus among Chinese scholars and dilettantes (or amateurs) is that the mainland China after 1949, actually even a few decades earlier than that, abused and misused the word "封建", which in its true sense only applies to the political and economic system prior to the Qin dynasty (221 to 206 BC), which is close to the feudal system in medieval Europe. So this Chinese word takes two meanings now, the proper one applicable to the pre-Qin China and the medieval Europe, and the misused one "applicable" to almost the entire Chinese history. There seems to be a reason for rejecting the translation of "feudal" to "封建" due to its overwhelming misuse in the past century. However, this "feudal" to "封建" word-mapping has been around for so long that a new invention such as "拥据领地(之诸侯)" would do more harm than good by confusing the reader, who knows exactly the intension and extension of the word "封建" in the context of European history. The same logic goes with translation of "anarchy" to "无政府", "adventure" to "冒险", and others.

Nevertheless, accepting a translation that started out inaccurate but ended with widespread acceptance and correct understanding is limited to ones without blatant errors. When Christopher Columbus arrived in America, he thought it was India and named the people Indians. Several major European languages follow suit, causing confusion between Indians in India and Indians as native Americans. But German is an exception, using two distinct words for these two peoples. So does Chinese ("印度人" and "印第安人", respectively). That's what should be done.

Based on the principle that scholarly translation should be primarily literal, secondarily free, I further propose that the ideal of scholarly translation is for the reader to be able to guess the word in the original language in order to minimize misinterpretation of the original text. This ideal is of course not to be completely realized, because a word in language A may map to multiple words in B, and vice versa. Note that it's not for every reader to be able to guess the word in the original language, but only for those that can read the language. Then, what's the point for a reader who doesn't know the language to guess the original word? And why would one already knowing the language read the translation? If the author in the source language used multiple words with almost the same meaning, it's best to use multiple different words in the target language in translation, so the reader, regardless his knowledge of the source language, is at least given a chance to appreciate the author's choice of words with subtle nuances.

Literal and free translations are two extremes. Literary translation is close to free, scholarly translation close to literal, and translation of science and technology cannot but be literal, or serious consequences might follow. Sometimes a literal translation inevitably leads to difficulty in the target language. A translator's note is to be added. This is a compromise between fluency and translator's responsibility.

Russell's History of Western Philosophy may be considered as a scholarly work. In spite of its wide readership and high popularity, the title does not necessarily reflect its content; it's more like a history of western thought. Most readers are not professional scholars, who would read classics and published research articles to write more research articles or books, but are educated general public, who read it to improve knowledge and cultivate critical thinking. Like any major encyclopedia, this book is in the middle between truly scholarly works and easy readings for laymen. Thus, Mr. Xu's free translation of this specific book is not to be blamed. Scholars or students in academic studies reading Chinese translations, however, would be advised to consult this book in English if they decide to cite references to the book without misinterpretation.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Technical translation: word "apply" as a case

You frequently see the Apply button on a computer. For instance, after you make some configuration changes, you can press OK to apply the changes and exit, or press Apply to apply the changes and stay where you are. Surprisingly, there's no perfect Chinese translation for the word "apply" in this sense. Common translation is "应用". But that word in modern Chinese is synonymous with "使用", i.e. "use"; e.g. "应用方法" (use the method). The English word "apply" here actually means "make or commit the changes now". It would be awkward or just plain wrong to say "use the changes".

Here are more examples. When software has a bug, you apply a patch to fix or work around the bug. Chinese translators still use "应用" as the counterpart for "apply", as in "应用补丁", literally, "use the patch", which is semantically different. Colloquial phrase "打补丁" sounds natural, but it is too informal. Data replication software copies data changes from the primary site to the replicated site and applies the changes to synchronize the two sites. In Chinese, it's said "应用数据变化(修改)".

Fortunately, tech savvy Chinese readers have no problems understanding "应用" here. If it takes a while to get used to it, they'll get used to it. But for me, I can't help searching for the perfect word. "实施" (implement)? "使用" (use)? "采用" (adopt)? None is the exact match. I know the set of Chinese characters has been frozen for about a century now (probably even for newly discovered chemical elements), but Chinese words are invented on a yearly, if not monthly, basis. If there's no perfect word in the existing Chinese vocabulary, can a new word be created instead of using an existing word in a slightly different or new sense? One thousand years ago, Chinese translators created a large number of new words in translating Buddhist scriptures, and the words later migrated to Japan. One hundred years ago, Japanese translators created many new Chinese words in translating western technology, and they migrated to China. So, what Japanese translators say about "apply the changes", or some other technical jargon, would be an interesting question.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"we should all be learning Chinese..." thus they say

In a recent Facebook posting, I read

I keep coming across the same opinion, something along the lines of "we should all be learning Chinese, they're going to take over the world, etc etc..."

I, personally, think it's a pile of rubbish,...

To that, I responded (with slight modification here):

Whoever said "we should all be learning Chinese, they're going to take over the world" is very wrong. I'm a native speaker. This kind of claim occasionally appears on Chinese forums, just to create a few hours' laughs and sneers. Seriously, I can think of two reasons to refute this claim, other than a well-known one, i.e. China is still far behind in innovation in everything: the current practice of the Chinese government in promoting the Chinese culture has too many flaws; the Chinese is a difficult language. The first problem may be largely solved when the element of ideology goes away, which will happen eventually, probably sooner than most people have expected. The second problem remains as is. In spite of certain individuals' language talent, there's indisputable statistics to prove that Chinese, Arabic, etc are the hardest among popular languages for an English speaker. See How hard is Chinese?. (I already emailed and asked, Defense Language Institute will not have a web page hosting that frequently referenced content even though it belongs to them.) If a language is difficult for most people of the world, it's unlikely to become a dominant language. The success of English in this regard is not just due to the coincidence of the UK and then the US being advanced in most areas of technology and their mother tongue being English, but also because English takes less time to learn for non-English speakers than do many other languages (largely due to replacement of case systems and gender, the rarely useful features in modern languages, by word order, prepositions etc). People in the 21st century are just too busy to learn a language in order to conduct normal business. Unless the Chinese language magically becomes simple, it won't take over the world.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Off-topic: Joke: Recruiting

A joke found on the Internet. (Two lines omitted from the original.)





A company is recruiting. Lots of people call in saying the security guard stops them at the entrance and they expect somebody to come out to usher them in. The recruiting officer says, if you can't even deal with the security guard, you don't need to come.

In the end, the one climbing over the wall to get in becomes the overseas market specialist.
The one getting in after reasoning with the guard becomes an R&D engineer.
The one who coaxes and pesters to get in becomes a customer service manager.
The one fighting himself in replaces the security guard.

Value lies in the result. In front of the same obstacle, you chicken out, while others look for a way out.

[note] "翻墙" literally means "climb over the wall". But it also refers to the action of circumventing the Great Chinese Firewall to reach the Internet outside of China.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"He" (他) and "she" (她) mix-up for Chinese students

It's a known fact that a Chinese student learning English tends to mix up "he" and "she" in speaking, with "he" said more than "she" by mistake (subconscious male chauvinism?). A reasonable explanation is that "he" and "she" are pronounced exactly the same in Chinese, , even though their written forms differ.

Now I find evidence that could support this theory, however self-explanatory it already is. In the Facebook Polyglots group, a Finnish man writes:

"I have wanted to raise my children to be polyglots. But, I have found it challenging to teach them two languages. I've spoken English to all of my three sons from day one. They all speak English, but have trouble remembering basic words and make beginner mistakes. Just today, when I called my eldest son and asked: 'Are you home already? Is your mother there?' My 13-year-old, with whom I've spoken English every day of his life, says: 'He's home. I think he's upstairs.' With unconcealed frustration, I said: 'She, not he.' 'Oh! Sorry, I forgot'."

What a pleasure in finding other people making the same mistake! Seriously, this gentleman's children can speak a little of multiple Romance languages, attesting to their language capabilities. And yet a mistake is made because "he" and "she" are the same word in Finnish, hän, not just the same in pronunciation, but also in spelling, a stronger case than in Chinese we may say. In fact, the same can happen in a few other languages. I remember a polyglot friend of mine told me his Armenian friends sometimes make this mistake too. In Armenian, again, one word, նա, can mean both "he" and "she".

To permanently solve the problem, you have to think in the language you speak, English in this case. If the thinking process is in Chinese, Finnish or Armenian, and speaking is after a translation, possibly a very fast or nearly subconscious one, the risk of making this mistake still exists. But before achieving the level of thinking in English, the best the student can do is speak slowly.

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)
Dutch (Hoeveelste)
Esperanto (Kioma)
Finnish (manieth)
French (combientième, quantième) [The poster says quantième is very formal and rarely used.]
German (wievielte)
Japanese (何番目)
Kazakh (Нешінші)
Marathi (kitva) [The poster specifically says Hindi probably does not have this word.]
Persian (چندمین)

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) as "甲骨文" (oracle bone script), and possibly his 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 that "甲骨文" is a beautiful translation, that it is not a mistranslation, and that "神谕" would be terrible. 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" as "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 evaluate? - 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 got 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 heroes"). 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 as, 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 only handed down to later generations of Chinese Christians 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 Buddhist texts.