Happy cat → I'm cute

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In several recent posts ("Difficult to find the translation," "Google me with a fire spoon"), we've seen evidence that Google Translate has become the preferred automatic translation tool from Chinese to English, sometimes with rather peculiar results.

Now reader Mike Wasson has discovered a quirky translation going the other direction (from English to Chinese).

Entering "happy [animal]" for the most part yields "kuàilè de [dòngwù] 快乐的[动物]", e.g., entering "happy dog" correctly yields "kuàilè de gǒu 快乐的狗."

The result for "happy cat," however, is different. If you enter "happy cat," the result (with the output set to simplified characters) is

我很 cute
Wǒ hěn cute
"I'm cute"

Oddly enough, if you set the character output to traditional characters, the translation is correct: "kuàilè de māo 快樂的貓." This is the first evidence I've seen of such a gross disparity in the output of a translation into simplified characters versus one into traditional characters — it suggests that Google Translate is using separate training collections for the two character types.

Before closing, it is also worth remarking that the English word "cute" appears in the Chinese translation. This may seem strange, since it doesn't appear in the English input. But for many speakers of Mandarin — there is no completely satisfactory translation of "cute" into their language. There are, of course, plenty of candidates (kě'ài 可爱, guāiqiǎo 乖巧, piàoliang 漂亮, huàn 睆, luó 㑩, huán 嬛), but none of them convey the precise nuances of "cute" as, for example when we say, "That German shepherd puppy is really cute." Hence, many of my Chinese friends always use "Q" to stand for "cute." Q is not only used as a stand-in for the borrowed English word "cute" by many Chinese speakers, it also represents a Taiwanese morpheme meaning "chewy" (the consistency of a gummy bear, I've been told). And then there's QQ, which has a variety of functions, including serving as the name of the most popular free instant messaging network in mainland China.

But I'd better QUIT while I'm ahead, or I'll end up with EYES FULL OF TEARS.



21 Comments

  1. Nick D. said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

    I don't know if this has anything to do with the popular internet meme of Happy Cat but I thought it might be worth bringing up.

    http://icanhascheezburger.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/i-can-has-cheezburger.jpg

    If my internet history serves me right, this was the beginning of the "lolcat" phenomenon.

  2. Outis said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    I'm surprised by the statement that "for many speakers of Mandarin — there is no completely satisfactory translation of "cute" into their language."

    I've always thought 可爱 to be a very good equivalent of "cute", in most of its common meanings, if with a slight difference in nuance. I suspect that 可爱 meant something more narrow originally, and has since expanded to accomodate the different meanings of "cute". Is this a regional thing?

  3. Bitoku said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    I just thought it might be of interest, but the QQ is generally used in pejoratives because of its origin in online games, where QQ was used as a quit shortcut. So QQ was used tell unskilled players that they are just better off quitting. (Unfortunately I can't find a better citation than Urban Dictionary… QQ)

    [(myl) Try "A new morpheme in Mandarin", 4/26/2011.]

  4. Kevin Li said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

    Hard to translate. While watching the movie trailer for "Blitz," the tag line caught my eyes: To catch a cop killer, you need a killer cop.

    I wonder how will one translate those two in Chinese–cop killer & killer cop?

    Both Google and Bing gave pretty nonsense answers.

    cop killer 缔约方会议杀手 (contract meeting assassin)
    killer cop 杀手缔约方会议 (assassin contract meeting)

    I think "cop killer" is actually easy enough. You can go with literal translation: 警察杀手. But what about the "killer cop?"

  5. Mundaneity said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

    My Mandarin is not very good, but I've been brought up using 可爱 as a direct translation of 'cute'. Perhaps you mean mainland Chinese rather than other speakers? (I'm Singaporean Chinese.)

  6. Richard Futrell said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

    There's another mystery to be had when you hit the "Listen" button for the Chinese translation. You get something that sounds like "wǒ hěn [kUts@]".

  7. DW said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

    Googling this …

    "我很cute" "happy cat"

    … I get (1) this LL page, (2) a Chinese game page with a happy-cat game (and with "我很cute" in the title), (3) forum pages from Singapore on which (although there is a cat avatar) I cannot find text "happy cat" (so why do they appear?).

    What does it all mean?

  8. ahkow said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 12:54 am

    I'm a native speaker of (non-Mainland Chinese) Mandarin and like Outis I find 可爱 a completely acceptable translation of "cute" (when used to describe baby animals/humans).

    The happy cat game that DW found also refers to a "可爱的小猫" (cute kitten) in its caption.

  9. Starr said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 1:11 am

    As observed above, 可爱 is a totally acceptable translation for cute. This is not filling some mysterious gap in Chinese — Japanese and Korean speakers like using English "cute" as well, and they've certainly got their own boatload of words for cute. Cute is a word that relates to style, and people always like adding words to their style inventory. Using English "cute" carries a Western, modern connotation that helps convey the type of cute you are talking about. This is why English speakers sometimes will use "kawaii" to talk about certain types of cuteness — doesn't mean we're missing a word for cute!

  10. Greg said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    I've see 可爱 (kě'ài) as a Mandarin translation of "cute" before, and I know that in Japanese 可愛い (kawaii) is a good translation. Does anyone know the history of these two words (the Mandarin & Japanese ones)? I would guess that 可爱 was borrowed into Japanese at some point and then morphed into an -i adjective, but how long ago? And was it originally treated as a -na adjective? For some strange reason (and I have no idea why), the concept of "cute" seems like it should be relatively recent in the grand scheme of things. I'm too lazy to log in to the actual OED, but Online Etymology Dictionary tells me that "cute" didn't appear until the 18th century, and that the sense of "pretty" has only been around since 1834. Maybe this has something to do with my feeling about the concept in general?

  11. joh said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    killer cop — maybe 警察神手

  12. Joe said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    Rather than a gross disparity of output, could it be that this is just an easter egg? Just like the search results for "recursion"?: http://www.google.com/search?q=recursion

  13. Joseph said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    @Greg (Re: Chn/Jpn 可愛い)
    This link should answer your question: http://gogen-allguide.com/ka/kawaii.html

  14. jwinchina said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 3:36 am

    For fun, I tried a bunch of other "happy…" phrases, and found an interesting variation in the choices of terms for happy – the vast majority of phrases used "快乐“ (kaui le), including all the animals I tried except for cat, as above, and elephant, which for some reason came out as "幸福” (xing fu), along with girl, woman and people (boy and man were "kuai le"). Only one phrase I tried came out as ”高兴“ (gao xing) – the phrase I first learned in class for "happy" – and that was "happy dragon." Functionally there's probably not a lot of difference between the three choices, but it did make me wonder what was special about elephants and dragons…

  15. Dan Hemmens said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 7:50 am

    Rather than a gross disparity of output, could it be that this is just an easter egg? Just like the search results for "recursion"?: http://www.google.com/search?q=recursion

    It could be, but I suspect it isn't, since it actually gets in the way of useful content. When you search for "once in a blue moon" for example, you get the calculator result: "once in a blue moon = 1.16699016 × 10-8 hertz" but you *also* get full search results for "once in a blue moon" (same with "recursion" the humorous "did you mean recursion" link at the top doesn't stop you finding what you're looking for).

  16. JHH said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    @ Joseph: Nice site you've refered us to! :) :) :) Thanks!

  17. Alan Chin said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    Cantonese for "cute" is:

    得意 Jyutping: dak1 ji3 Pinyin: de2 yi4

  18. F said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    Greg: I believe 可爱 is actually a back-borrowing from Japanese 可愛い, for which Wiktionary has an etymology, although I can't find a reference at the moment.

  19. Mat Bettinson said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    You don't think it's merely an extension of the fairly common place construct of sticking 可 in front of a verb like… 可讲的 (worth talking about) 可看的 (worth seeing). Maybe 可笑的 is an example where it moves a little more towards being a unique word sense than a construction.

  20. Joseph said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    @F: Check the link below (click on the second tab). The cited examples comfortably predate any contact with Japan. If anything, the Japanese ateji for /kawaii/ is a happy coincidence.
    http://www.zdic.net/cd/ci/5/ZdicE5Zdic8FZdicAF287963.htm

  21. ~flow said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    @Richard Futrell—to all readers who experience difficulties in decypheryngen thy cute "wǒ hěn [kUts@]" transcript:

    went there, did it, got the results; to me that sounds like [kʰɤʦ] (with no final [ɿ] as would be required by that language's phonology). i doubled-checked setting both input and output to simplified chinese (thus forcing google translate to render what i want, not what they think is cute) and listening to the (very professional, female) voice several times.

    in case you find this boring, i also did the following: leaving the input/output settings to simplified chinese, i entered 'cute', and the reading remains [kʰɤʦ], in the same cute voice. You are so cute! thought i, and made this phrase my next bait—which came out as something like [i au ai wi sa kʰɤʦ], not quite sure.

    i wanted to make it easier for both of us Qties, so i threw in an isolated 'are', and got surprised by an almost in- or unhuman acoustic, ehrm, incident, along the lines of [a joi], but with a sharp tonal drop in the middle, not easily reproducible for me, sounding almost as if listening to several samples overlapping each other. weird. are there any songs composed from google translation snippets on 'youtube' [''ya:o ˥ 'tju˦ pʲ], yet? sure the fad to come! what a 're' [ʤoi]! yeah [imagine f-word here] (to hear more rare click-like sounds).

    a last experiment: 'Q'. try for yourselves. some capital letters come out in a somewhat recognizable fashion, 'W', however, sounds like pinyin 'dedeliu', no idea what that could mean.

    +++BREAKING NEWS+++

    when inspecting the inner workings of the modern miracle that google translate is, i discovered that the button image that you click on to in order to listen is labelled as 'jfk-button-img' in the html.

    JFK, we're still missing you (hailing from the german capital here)!

    so that's where the jar with his soul is kept, it's with google! they altered his voice (or maybe that's what you get when your brains get sucked up by gazongtrillions of transistors) but this is unmistakenly the old 'Ish bin ein Bearleener' (he also was given 'kiwis Romanus sum' on his crib, which enabled him to utter understandable german and latin phrases on the west berlin city hall balcony in 1963. he did credit his interpreter for the german right when the cheering had somewhat subsided, only to cause even louder laughing and cheering).

    proof this is _really_ JFK and not some stupid electrons: make that cute voice read out 'Ish bin ein Bearleener', and it does sound quite understandable!! much better than 'ich bin ein berliner' when you compare it!

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