Kira Simon-Kennedy wrote to me from Beijing that she is chaperoning 30 French high school students on their first trip to China to learn Mandarin.
Yesterday afternoon, the French students were trying to decipher the following banner at a bus stop: "没有共产党, 没有新中国." Most of the students have already taken a couple years of lessons, so they could be classed as having reached intermediate level. They got as far in their interpretation of the sign on the banner as "There is no collective __, there is no new China." Not bad for intermediate level learners, but the banner remained a mystery to them, if only at the lexical level because they didn't know what 共产党 meant. However, when Kira told the students that 共产党 meant Communist Party, they were all the more puzzled. "Are they allowed to say that ('there is no Communist Party')?" one student asked. "Isn't that really dangerous to deny the existence of the Party in public?"
The students thought that someone had the nerve to buy a public ad to tell the world: "There is no Communist Party, there is no New China" — superficially that's what the sign on the banner seemed to be saying. The close grammatical parallelism of the two clauses only made such an interpretation seem all the more certain.
How to break through the impasse of a sentence that seems relatively easy to understand, but yet remains incomprehensible (i.e., it is at odds with patent reality, viz., "there is a Communist Party, there is a New China" — quite the opposite of what the sentence seems to be saying, grammatically speaking, viz., "there is no Communist Party, there is no New China")?
We have repeatedly been disappointed by translation software, but let's run this problematic sentence through Google Translate and Baidu Fanyi to see if they can do any better than the intermediate level students from France.
Méiyǒu Gòngchǎndǎng, méiyǒu xīn Zhōngguó 没有共产党，没有新中国 ("If there were no Communist Party, there would be no New China")
Google Translate: Without the Communist Party, No New China
Baidu Fanyi: Without the Communist Party, there'll be no new China
Let's see how they do with the comma removed: Méiyǒu Gòngchǎndǎng méiyǒu xīn Zhōngguó 没有共产党没有新中国 ("If there were no Communist Party, there would be no New China")
Google Translate: No new China without the Communist Party
Baidu Fanyi: There'll be no new China without the Communist Party
I'm really impressed!
I don't know how they did it, especially when they failed so miserably with sentences like these two in "Google me with a fire spoon":
Dì yīcì búmǎi yuàn nǐ 第一次不買怨你 ("If you don't buy one the first time, blame yourself")
Google Translate: Do not blame you first buy
Baidu Fanyi: The first not to buy because of you
Dì èr cì búmǎi yuàn wǒ 第二次不買怨我 ("If you don't buy one the second time, blame me")
Google Translate: Blame me not to buy second
Baidu Fanyi: Second do not buy blame me
In all three cases, it is necessary for the translator — be it machine or human — to recognize that the syntactic relationship between the first clause and the second clause is one of "if… then". Even though the syntax is not explicitly marked, the reader (and hence the translator) must be able to extrapolate it from the context. What is somewhat mystifying to me is how Google Translate and Baidu Fanyi both did a good enough job with "Méiyǒu Gòngchǎndǎng méiyǒu xīn Zhōngguó" 没有共产党没有新中国 for a monolingual English speaker to understand what the Chinese sentence is about, whereas they came up short on the latter two sentences, such that a monolingual English reader would have a very difficult time to make any sense of what the original Chinese sentences meant if they were relying solely on the English translations provided by Google Translate and Baidu Fanyi. On the other hand, since both Google Translate and Baidu Fanyi adopted a different translation strategy for the first of these three sentences ("without…" instead of "if not… then"), I'm beginning to wonder whether it is possible to program translation software to recognize an "if… then" dependency structure when it is not explicitly marked.
[P.S.: After I had already written this blog, but just before posting it, I decided to Google "Méiyǒu Gòngchǎndǎng méiyǒu xīn Zhōngguó" 没有共产党没有新中国. Having done so, I discovered that this is the title (and the opening lines) of a song that was recently widely sung by various choruses to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). After watching several video recordings of performances of the song, something very strange became apparent to me. Namely, although the title of the song remained "Méiyǒu Gòngchǎndǎng méiyǒu xīn Zhōngguó" 没有共产党没有新中国, most of the performances made a tiny, but very significant, alteration in the opening lines by inserting jiù 就 ("then") between the two clauses, hence: "Méiyǒu Gòngchǎndǎng, jiù méiyǒu xīn Zhōngguó" 没有共产党, 就没有新中国. Thus the syntactical relationship that I had posited in the analysis given above was made explicit: "(If) there were no A, then there would be no B", where the "If", although still not explicit, is strongly implied by the "then" at the beginning of the second clause. However, the jiù 就 ("then") is manifestly arrhythmic, so all of the choruses I listened to slurred over it, making it almost inaudible, as though they were embarrassed to put it there, but perhaps (secretly / subconsciously) afraid if they didn't that someone might misinterpret the lines in the disastrous way that the French students did. Perry Link has a book coming out from Harvard University Press fairly soon that will emphasize the vital role of rhythm and meter in the construction of Chinese phrases and sentences. This little jiù 就 ("then") that gets sneaked into the middle of the otherwise perfectly symmetrical opening lines of the song would surely cause a strict prosodist to raise an eyebrow.]