Difficult to find the translation

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The following sign is posted in the Sanqing Shan district of Shangrao prefectural city (northeast Jiangxi province in southeast central China):

Since a monlingual English speaker in distress who reads this sign will only end up deeper in despair, we need to unpack the Chinese and English to see what went wrong.

The key sentence reads:

有困难找警察
Yǒu kùnnán zhǎo jǐngchá
have difficulty find police
“If you have difficulty, find the police”; “If you are in trouble, call the police”

Google Translate renders this as “Difficult to find the police”, just as the sign does. This seems to be additional evidence that Chinese sign-translators are now relying on Google, as we saw in “Google me with a fire spoon“, 7/28/2011.

Baidu Fanyi gives us “You can enlist help of the police”. This is a bit more positive, though it doesn’t indicate that one can contact the police by calling the number that is given. And the suspicious lack of any translation for the 有困难 “have difficulty” gives a hint that perhaps Baidu’s training corpus happened to contain some (loosely translated) instances of the whole six-character phrase.

In both systems, if you add a comma after kùnnán, the translation remains the same.

In the case of “There is no Communist Party, there is no New China” (really “Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China”), Google Translate appeared to recognize the implicit “if… then” construction. The failure to recognize the analogous construction here confirms Mark Liberman’s opinion that the previous success was due to the presence of (multiple copies) of the famous slogan and song title in the parallel text collections used to train the translation system. 有困难找警察 = “If you are in trouble, call the police” apparently got no similar help.

In the case of “No Communist Party, No New China”, it’s hard to distinguish the implicit conditional from conjoined negative existentials. In the case of “Have difficulty find police”, it’s hard to distinguish the implicit conditional from a complement construction.  Since implicit periphrastic conditionals also exist in English and (most?) other languages, this is a ubiquitous problem for any human or non-human language-analysis algorithm, whether the goal is translating into another language or into “mentalese”. The fact that a bare sequence of protasis and apodosis phrases is such a common way to frame a conditional in Chinese, even in formal contexts, is one of the things that makes Chinese such a difficult source language for machine translation.

One wonders whether the Korean translation for Yǒu kùnnán zhǎo jǐngchá 有困难找警察 was also done by machine or whether it was done by a person.

[A tip of the hat to Jiajia Wang]



29 Comments

  1. Sam said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

    The Korean translation (“어려운 일 있으면 경찰을 찾으세요”) was almost certainly done by a human IMO, since it is both accurate and fairly idiomatic.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

    Is there a large Korean population in Sanqing Shan district of Shangrao prefectural city?

  3. Nick said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

    Underlying conceptual translation problem: if you don’t speak Chinese, are in northeast Jiangxi, and get into some kind of trouble, should you really waste your time calling the police? I’m guessing if they don’t have an English speaker to translate the sign, they don’t have one manning the phones…

  4. komfo,amonan said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    I would like to second Bathrobe in puzzlement at the choice of Korean as the second foreign language on this particular sign.

  5. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 1:09 am

    One suspects that if a monolingual English speaker calls that number, he or she may indeed have difficulties.

  6. Ambrose said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 2:10 am

    Actually, “有困难找警察” does indeed mean “difficult to find the police”. However, “有困难 找警察” (which is what it says on the sign) is not the same sentence as “有困难找警察”. In effect, the original Chinese sentence contains a full-width space, which in this context indicates a pause and essentially has the value of a comma. What is highlighted here is that punctuation is important and that respect for punctuation is essential for a correct translation.

    That said, even if the person who fed the sentence to Google Translate did the right thing (replacing the full-width space with a comma) it wouldn’t have helped: Apparently, Google Translate is not aware that adding a comma will completely change the meaning of the sentence.

  7. Dhananjay said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 2:54 am

    On-topic: I imagine implicit periphrastic conditionals are more common in analytic languages like Chinese and English where word order tends to pack a bigger semantic punch.

    Off-topic: I think you, Professor Mair, may have mislearned the blogospheric convention of hat-tipping. The expression is ‘hat-tip’, not ‘a tip of the hat to’, which sounds to me nearly as odd as if one were to say ‘the goodness of the morning to you’ rather than ‘good morning’.

    [(myl) Wow, blogospheric prescriptivism. And a curious rule, too — it’s OK to write “a hat-tip to X”, but not the semantically equivalent “a tip of the hat to X”? But a quick web search turns up

    A tip of the hat to reader Larry for reminding me of something from the L.A. riots in ’92.
    A big tip of the hat to Merv Benson of PrairiePundit for sharing this MNF-I photo.
    (A tip of the hat to my best friend and irritating pun user…Dave “The Tequila Kid” Johnson)
    A tip of the hat to @politikoz.
    Tip of the hat to Robert Slade for turning my attention to the issue (not for the first time, of course) .
    Oh, and tip of the hat to Language Log for leading me here.

    And so on.]

  8. Jayarava said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 3:40 am

    If you know what it says you can tweak Google translator to get the right result. Put the two phrases on different lines (a space or punctuation won’t do it) and juggle the translation a bit. I got “have difficulties / look for The police”.

    The problem seems to be that GT is interpreting 找 as belonging with 有困难 (don’t know any Chinese btw). If they had approached it as two phrases, like the sign seems to suggest it should be, they would have got a better result.

    If you go the other way and ask for a translation of “have difficulties, find the police” you get: 有困难,找警察. Which is pretty good is it not?

    I note you can now tell Google the translation was/wasn’t helpful, is it heuristic?

  9. Eric said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 4:50 am

    I’d initially misread Dr. Mair’s words, thinking this was in northeast China, where it’s hella Koreans.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_Koreans_in_China

    I guess it is a bit surprising to see it in the central southeastern part of the country.

  10. Nick Lamb said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 6:24 am

    Actually, I think if there’s one telephone number that would be useful without you knowing the language spoken by people at the far end, it’s the police or a general “emergency services” number staffed by police.

    After all, what are the police going to do when someone calls and they’re unable to understand what is said? They will determine the origin of the call, and send an officer to investigate.

    And if you have some type of genuine emergency the arrival of a police officer, even one who doesn’t understand a word you say, is almost certain to be helpful. I can’t think of a situation where this would be worse than the alternative of no-one coming at all.

  11. michael farris said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    “what are the police going to do when someone calls and they’re unable to understand what is said? They will determine the origin of the call, and send an officer to investigate”

    unless they assume it’s a crank call and just hang up….

    I think of English signs like this as totems, local authorities want public signs to have English translations to signal how modern they are and since they aren’t actually intended for random non-Chinese-reading foreigners the actual content is not so important. Are there some words in English on the sign? Check. We’re good to go!

    The Polish city I live in recently added a few english words to public transport schedules though I can’t imagine they would actually help anyone (if you’re too dumb to figure out the very transparent schedules with no Polish then a few English words aren’t going to help).

  12. Boris said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    I think the mistranslation is not a problem for English speakers. As long as they recognize that the number supplied is a phone number, there is enough context to know that it’s the police. On the other hand there is no real connection between “find the police” and the number, even if it were correctly translated. Would “call the police” be better? Is that what the Chinese text implies? Or is “find the police” mean literally looking for police officers/vehicles instead of calling?

  13. Ellen K. said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    Or, Dhananjay, it could be that Professor Mair hasn’t learned the “the blogospheric convention of hat-tipping” at all. It’s not the like notion was invented by bloggers. And, unless he got his PhD before he was born, he’s old enough to very likely have heard the expression before he ever saw a blog.

    Google counts suggest that outside of blogs, “a tip of the hat” is by far the more common form. In blogs, it’s much more even, though “a tip of the hat” still gets more hits.

    (And, yes, I know this is off topic, but it seems worth saying.)

  14. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    Despite Dr. Liberman’s and Ellen K.’s excellent points, I somewhat agree with Dhananjay. While “a tip of the hat to [name]” is a common formula, it is not usually used as a complete sentence with Dr. Mair’s meaning. The blogospheric convention of writing “Hat-tip to [name]” in brackets or parentheses at the end of a post is almost an idiom, short for “A tip of the hat to [name] for making me aware of the subject of this post.” Bare “a tip of the hat to [name]” seems to lack this idiomatic force; it does not make clear what is being acknowledged, except insofar as we can mentally correct it to “hat-tip to [name]”. But had Dr. Mair written “[A tip of the hat to Jiajia Wang for pointing this out, and for sending me the photo]”, I suspect that Dhananjay wouldn’t have noticed anything odd.

    (This is just my own impression, based on personal experience and reinforced by a cursory skimming of a few pages of Google Blog Search results; nothing scientific.)

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur

    “While “a tip of the hat to [name]” is a common formula, it is not usually used as a complete sentence with Dr. Mair’s meaning.”

    I do not wish to defend myself against such petty cavils as whether “hat-tip” or “tip of the hat” is to be preferred, but it is worth pointing out that neither is “a complete sentence”. If one needs to have a phrase at the end specifying precisely what is being acknowledged, then the other does too. Otherwise, they are both just expressing gratitude “for making me aware of the subject of this post” or helping me out in some other kind and generous way related to the post.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    “Hat-tip” yields the useful abbreviation “h/t” though.

  17. Dan C said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    How about t(h) to abbreviate tip of {the} hat? The abbrev. h/t looks like division to me.

  18. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    @Victor Mair: You certainly don’t need to defend yourself from me! Admittedly, Dhananjay’s comment was rather rude, saying that you “mislearned” a convention; and I’m not supporting that rudeness. I merely think that your phrasing was unusual, and that I for one had understood it more or less by mentally “correcting” it to the more usual phrasing (or at least, to the phrasing I’m more familiar with). There’s really nothing wrong with that.

    Your point about “a complete sentence” is quite right, since that phrase has a specific meaning, and that specific meaning is not what I meant. I guess I meant “a sentence unto itself”, or “a complete utterance”, or something. Choose a synonym for “complete” and/or a synonym for “sentence”, and that’s what I mean.

    But I don’t understand why you say that “If one needs to have a phrase at the end specifying precisely what is being acknowledged, then the other does too.” How can you tell?

  19. J. Goard said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    The Korean is okay.

    안내처 seemed really unidiomatic to me~~안내소 with 所 rather than 處 is normal for an information desk/office/booth. -처 appears in other forms, like 접수처 ‘reception desk’. Google search bears me out:

    “안내소” >3,600,000
    “안내처” 33,400
    “접수처” >7,100,000

    Strikingly, though, the source character is 点, which corresponds neither to Korean 처 or 소, but rather 점. It seems to me, then, that this translation was done by a fluent Korean speaker with a Korean-Chinese variant word form. Anybody more knowledgeable to confirm?

  20. Jiajia said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 10:32 pm

    To Ambrose:
    “有困难找警察”cannot be interpreted as “difficult to find the police” in any sense. Chinese equivalent of “difficult to find the police” shoud be: 很难找到警察 or 找警察很困难(or 找警察,很困难). “有困难找警察” and “有困难,找警察” or “有困难?找警察。”are considered same in meaning by Chinese readers.

  21. DW said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 11:57 pm

    I suppose the sign includes Korean because there are many Korean tourists in the area? Or perhaps there is a big Korean-Chinese joint-venture factory or something like that nearby?

  22. maidhc said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 1:50 am

    Cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo created a strip called They’ll Do It Every Time which he drew from 1929 until his death in 1963 (it was continued until a few years ago).

    Each strip was based on suggestions sent in by readers, who were credited by “A tip of the Hatlo hat to …”

    He may not have originated the phrase, but its use over such a long period in a popular comic strip certainly embedded it in popular usage.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    @maidhc

    Thank you very much for that historical perspective.

    @Ran Ari-Gur

    “I guess I meant ‘a sentence unto itself’, or ‘a complete utterance’, or something. Choose a synonym for ‘complete’ and/or a synonym for ‘sentence’, and that’s what I mean.”

    That’s too vague for me to figure out what you mean.

    “But I don’t understand why you say that ‘If one needs to have a phrase at the end specifying precisely what is being acknowledged, then the other does too.’ How can you tell?”

    Well, it was *your* idea in the first place, so it should be easier for you to answer that question than for me to attempt to do so.

  24. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    Sorry, I think we’re miscommunicating, and you’re clearly too annoyed for this to be worth clarifying.

    If you were offended by either of my comments, then — I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.

    I’ll leave it at that.

  25. Dhananjay said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    Prescriptivism? No! There is, I think, a fact of the matter about the convention. I wasn’t criticizing Professor Mair or even suggesting that he was _wrong_, only that his usage was marked and perhaps unintentionally so.

    I spend too much of my time reading blogs, and I’ve never come across what we could call Professor Mair’s “expanded form” of hat-tipping. On the other hand, I’ve often come across what I hope, unproblematically, I can call the “usual form”. (Obviously, as Professor Liberman has shown, other examples exist, but this need not disturb the tendency.) Now of course my sample size is not enormous – maybe one or two hundred at most – and idiosyncratic. All the same, with Ran Ari-Gur, I find that I have to mentally translate the expanded form into the usual form, indicating that the latter has become fossilized, at least in our lexicons.

    The linguistic (and admittedly off-topic!) point I was trying to make was that idiomaticity and semantic equivalence come apart. In roughly the same way, if I were to say, “I would like to hire a taximeter cabriolet to go to the zoological garden”, you would have no problem understanding me, but you would shoot me a funny look. There’s nothing technically wrong or more-than-momentarily confusing about these expressions, they’re just unidiomatic.

    I wasn’t trying to be rude, and I apologize if you took umbrage, Professor Mair. As you must know, tone is notoriously difficult to convey in this medium. I had hoped (1) my relativizing my sense of the oddness (“to me”), (2) my conscious use of hedging (“I think”, “may”), and (3) my use of your title and name rather than a bare pronoun (“Professor Mair”) would have been sufficient to indicate my respectful intent. Of course you might care not at all about being unidiomatic in your usage, or what often comes to the same thing, being creative. In which case, disregard the whole issue. I proceeded on the assumption that you meant nothing marked or significant by using the expanded form, and I was trying to be helpful.

    Some links of possible interest:
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hat%20tip
    http://www.blogossary.com/define/hat-tip/
    http://microsyntax.pbworks.com/w/page/20869387/hat-tip

  26. Dhananjay said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    Apologies for over-commenting. To Ellen K – Thanks for your analysis. Did you manage to confine your results to the sense of hat-tipping which identifies the source of the idea behind a post? I had difficulty with this and gave up in favour of my intuitions, which I’m more than willing to admit are just totally wrong. Did you include the very common abbreviations ‘ht’ and ‘h/t’, which can, to my mind, only abbreviate the expression ‘[a] hat-tip [to]’?

  27. Dhananjay said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    Apologies for over-commenting. To Ellen K – Thanks for your analysis. Did you manage to confine your results to the sense of hat-tipping which identifies the source of the idea behind a post? I had difficulty with this and gave up in favour of my intuitions, which I’m more than willing to admit are just totally wrong. Did you include the very common abbreviations ‘ht’ and ‘h/t’, which can, to my mind, only abbreviate the expression ‘[a] hat-tip [to]’?

  28. Ellen K. said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    @Dhananjay

    I’m not aware that there are multiple senses of this phrase, and nothing in the comments to this post suggests multiple meanings. If you are interested in such an analysis, do it yourself. Same for abbreviated forms.

  29. Bathrobe said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    Ugh. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the narrow conventions and abbreviations of the blogosphere. It seems you can’t even have a self-respecting blog any more unless you walk the walk and talk the talk. Is it really as dire as all that?

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