How to Translate Stuff into Chinese

Translation is an often tricky issue for many interpreters and translators. There are varying beliefs about how one should go about it, whether that be keeping the meaning, the style, or word choice. On one hand, keeping the meaning intact seems like the obvious choice, since it’s what most people are looking for, and it gets the job done. Translation is just conveying the meaning of a text in one language in another, right? It’s not that simple. The Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任 – Zhào Yuánrèn) remarks that translation is a “multidimensional affair”, in his paper “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese” (Chao 109). In this paper, Chao discusses how translation is rarely a simple task.

Chao observes that “when you translate a text, it is always in a context, and when you translate something spoken, it is always spoken in a situation” (Chao 110). The context of any translation makes the work more difficult since it includes time, place, society, class, education, etc. This is especially true of a language such as Mandarin Chinese, which has changed considerably from its classical form, and of which many dialects exist.

With this in mind, it may then be better to preserve the overall structure and style. However, even this is difficult, since the stylistic choices of an author or speaker are not always evident. Chao argues that “fidelity”, or truthfulness, to the original text, is the mark of a good translation. But, as one might expect, even that is a complex topic. Keeping in with Chao’s theme, which is the art of translation into Chinese.

As some readers may already know, Chinese is a large family of interrelated but mutually unintelligible tonal languages (for the most part). However, they share a writing system consisting of ideographs, or symbols that represent ideas and words. In contrast to many other languages, it is not a simple affair to translate names, places, or novel technological concepts into Chinese. This is because the translator is limited to using the existing characters, and therefore existing syllables available to read those characters.

For example, the word “chocolate” cannot simply be rendered as “cho-co-late” with various tones. In Hindi, and other Indian languages, you can do something like that: चौकलिट (caukliṭ). In Chinese, what has been settled on is a kind of phonetic translation where the individual characters are interpreted only for their sound: 巧克力 (qiăokèlì).

Due to many people trying their hands at translating such words, there are words translated according to different methods, such as semantic translation, where the meaning is more relevant than the sound. This is the case for words such as “taxi” and “plane”, which are (出租车/出租車 – chū zū chē)and(飞机/飛機 – fēi jī), respectively. These roughly mean “rented vehicle” and “flying machine”, respectively. These are what Chao calls “functional translations” (Chao 115), which translate the concepts rather than the meanings of words of a text. Phonetic translation is comparatively rare, due to the clumsy nature of the resultant translations in speech.

An interesting aspect of this predicament in Chinese is that it raises the question of how new words come to be. Technically, all Chinese characters are composed of components called radicals, providing a sound, tone, or semantic element to the syllable. Sometimes, the meaning is not obvious, or the pronunciation is not obvious. But there is definitely a logic to the characters, one that is implicitly understood by native speakers/readers of Chinese. However, it requires a much more developed understanding of that logic to be able to create new characters from scratch.

Now, why would someone need to do that? Well, if you’ve read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, you have read the whimsical poem known as the “Jabberwocky”. It is widely known for using words that sound like English but are not real words at all. This quality of a text is rarely seen, and difficult to translate, which Chao notes in his paper. It is to the point that Chao, who was a gifted polyglot, actually generates his own characters which adhere to the logic of Chinese characters, but are not coined words in and of themselves. This reflects the quality of word choice and stylistic decisions made by Carroll with words like “brillig” and “outgrabe”. To me, that’s pretty amazing, since I imagine you have to be very well read in Chinese to do that. I’ve uploaded a picture of the poem in Chinese below:

Citation: Chao, Yuen Ren. “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 29, 1969, pp. 128. www.jstor.org/stable/2718830.

While Chao used Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a system that he devised, I’ve done my best to produce a modern Pinyin version of the romanization of his translation below, in addition to the original Gwoyeu Romatzyh text.

Yeou ‘tian beirlii, nehshie hwojihjide toutz
Tzay weybial jiinj gorng jiinj berl
Hao nansell a, nehshie borogoutz,
Hair 
yeou miade rhatz owdegerl

Yŏu (yī) tiān béi lĭ, nàxiē huójìjī de tōuzi
Zài wèibià’er jĭnzhe góng jĭnzhe
Hăo nánsì’er ā, nàxiē bōluógōuzi
Háiyŏu miēde rānzi òude gé’er

Feel free to correct me if something’s wrong! My primary difficulty was deciphering what miade was supposed to be, but my best guess is miēde, since according to Chao’s paper, the poem’s pronunciation falls within the Chinese phonemic inventory, and mia isn’t a valid syllable.

Anyway, with regards to translation in Chinese, you’ll find that nowadays, people go with a functional translation for the most part. It’s an interesting translation strategy, and makes being a Chinese interpreter or translator difficult. That said, you shouldn’t feel discouraged about learning Chinese! I hope this article was interesting and informative!

Also, other news: My Hindi guide has been updated and uploaded, so feel free to download it whenever you’d like!

Revising Language Guides and Other News

Hey everyone! I just finished my revision of my guide to learning Kannada, and I will be doing so (over time) for all of my other guides. Please take a look at the new guide when you can at this MediaFire link!

I’m still continuing my studies in Hindi and Korean, brushing up vocabulary and grammar, but the Hindi guide will also be receiving some revisions as well. Make sure to stay tuned for updates, and look out for fresh articles this year!

Personality in Language: How I Plateaued in Language Learning

In my last post, I mentioned how I recently plateaued in my study of foreign languages. I’m going to explain why it happened and what I’m doing to get out of it.

Linguistic relativity (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)

But first, I need to explain a little bit of linguistics jargon. It all starts with the principle of linguistic relativity, popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory that concerns how language influences thought. There are two versions, one labeled weak and one labeled strong. The weak version states that language influences how we perceive the world, affecting our cognitive processes. The strong version posits that language completely determines our range of cognition and how we perceive reality.

What does that have to do with learning languages?

The hypothesis doesn’t really concern the process of acquiring languages so much as whether language as a feature of human communication influences thought. The weak version of the hypothesis is widely agreed upon in academia through empirical studies, though there is little discussion of its application to language learning. The question is: If language influences thought, does that mean that knowing more languages allows us to perceive the world differently?

I personally think that every language does perceive or categorize the world differently, and that you cannot really understand the way someone else thinks without learning their language first. If we think of every language as a distinct personality or mindset, we’ll begin to see how exactly my plateau came to be. In the language learning community, there is a sentiment that we behave differently in different languages, which will be key to understanding my plateau as well.

How my plateau started

My first language is Kannada, though my primary language is English. This admittedly influences the way I see the world, since my cognitive “vocabulary”, so to speak, is different from that of someone else. What I mean by “cognitive vocabulary” is that I have certain categories, words, and frameworks that allow me to perceive the world and intuit meaning in certain ways. But what this also means, is that I have tendency to see other “personalities” or languages, through the frameworks of Kannada and English. My understanding of other languages is in part influenced by Kannada and English.

When I learned Spanish, I was able to learn it fairly easily, in part because it had some features that were similar to English, and I could interpret the meanings of new words due to my ability to understand some Latin and Greek roots of various words. This allowed me to learn Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan quite easily as well. So far, my language learning was largely informed by an understanding of English and Romance languages, and therefore I tended to see language through such lenses. My English and Romance language-speaking personalities predominated.

My problems began when I started learning Korean, which I struggled to grasp for four years. I had similar issues with Hindi as well. While these are completely different languages, the problems are not altogether unrelated. I wouldn’t be able to form even short sentences correctly. Even though I knew the grammar, I wasn’t using it correctly all the time. I kept asking myself: “Why isn’t it coming together?” And I only stumbled across the answer recently. I was trying too hard to learn Korean and Hindi the way I had learned Spanish and other languages.

How I started moving forward

Things only began to click into place as I began studying Mandarin Chinese with a fresh perspective in a classroom, rather than being self-taught. It allowed me to re-evaluate the way I was approaching language learning. Writing my Kannada guide also changed things, as I had to write lessons on Kannada grammar, with categories and structures that I had never formally studied. I was starting from scratch.

By approaching Korean and Hindi as Romance languages (which they most definitely or not), I was missing a lot of key nuances about those languages, including culture and word choice. I was attempting to replicate my personality in English/Kannada and other languages in Korean and Hindi. My English is somewhat academic; I’m that guy who uses “big words” a lot. My speech is less peppered with slang compared to how most people around me talk. My Kannada is fairly ordinary, if somewhat sarcastic. My Spanish has been described as proper and polite, though assertive with my opinions.

I realized that Korean simply doesn’t “think” in the same ways about the world, with a completely different history as a language, and very different sociocultural and sociolinguistic norms. Hindi doesn’t operate the same way as Kannada, with different uses of the same words that exist in Kannada, and having a different approach to word choice.

My resolution was not to give up on Korean or Hindi, but rather to re-evaluate my strategy. I decided to stop trying to write my own guides for now (even though I’ve already written one for Hindi). I’m going to write more eventually, but only as I acquire more fluency and understanding of how the languages work. I need to listen to dialogue more, and get a better feel for how people speak in Korean and Hindi. I have to change how I study language, and see what others have done before I begin trailblazing on my own. My Korean or Hindi-speaking counterpart might not necessarily use “big words” the way I do in English.  That’s something I’ll have to figure out in time.

Concluding remarks

For those of you out there who might also be struggling with language learning, I hope this piece is some help to you. The key is to approach every language with clean slate. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to navigate the language the way you do in your native tongue. If you can, great. But if not, you shouldn’t worry. It’s not a reflection of your competency, but perhaps an error in your approach. Just keep on your toes, and switch up your strategies not just to keep things interesting, but to make sure that you find the best way to learn a language for yourself.

Coming Back from Hiatus: Meditating on Language Learning

Hello everyone! I realize it’s been a long time (nearly 3 months) since I posted last. I went on a somewhat unintentional hiatus, due to schoolwork as well as generally needing some time to think about my content. I will admit to having reached a bit of a plateau in my language learning, not being able to make significant progress in Korean and Hindi. I will be making a post on that later, but at the moment I just wanted to explain my lapse in posting.

This year was a turbulent one for people living in the United States, with the election season, and keeping up with that (as well as international happenings) took up a lot of my time. My major at NYU revolves around international relations, so naturally I needed to be in the know on those things. That’s not to say I was forsaking language learning, as I still kept up with Mandarin, since I was taking a class over this semester.

In the realm of language learning, I was having difficulty making time to study languages aside from Mandarin. I do want to make some more progress in Hindi and Korean, but I know that will take some time. I also had a lack of resources at NYU for Hindi and Korean, since I wasn’t taking a class in either one, and I didn’t have most of my language books with me.

While Hindi is an Indian language, it’s not my first language, and is unrelated to the languages that I do know. With a somewhat inconsistent grammar and a growing tendency among Hindi speakers to use anglicisms, or throwing in English words, it was difficult for me to gauge how to tailor my own learning. I am somewhat averse to using anglicisms because I feel like it makes more sense to use existing words for things that are reasonably short and/or practical.

As for Korean, it’s been a bit of a struggle due to inconsistencies on my part, since I haven’t properly committed time to learning it. My difficulty with Korean lies mostly in the fact that there are many, many ways to express the same thing in Korean, and operating along axes which I am not used to. Getting a feel for how native speakers express ideas in a practical and natural way is how I’m going to learn, but it’s slow going.

Anyway, I will try to write more posts in the coming weeks, and definitely improve my language learning strategies. I hope you all have had a wonderful New Year and holiday season. If you have any questions about language learning, just feel free to ask!