Archive for Translation

Clean Up After Your Dog

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Laowai (the Old Furriner) trolls the CCP

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The Sutradhar and the Ringgit: A Study of Terms Related to the Early Puppet Theatres

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-thirty-second issue:

The Sutradhar and the Ringgit: A Study of Terms Related to the Early Puppet Theatres,” by Keith Rawlings.


Certain words in Sanskrit, Old Javanese, and Ancient Greek that appear in centuries-old texts are thought by many scholars to be early references to puppetry, leading to certain theories about the history of that art. These particular words from antiquity and the Middle Ages and their interpretations and translations underpin currently received views about the antiquity of puppetry. This paper discusses the history of the related scholarship, examines varying interpretations of the words, and suggests other possible meanings, leading to questions about their interpretation. I hope to show that, because words in earlier eras of a language may have different interpretations from those accepted later, texts and the scholarship that relies on them should be re-examined in the light of current knowledge.

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Mixed Thai, English, and Chinese sign

Photograph taken at a park in Chiang Mai, Thailand:

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Please, please, please, please, please

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A Day in the Life of Ancient China (in Japanese)

In November, 2021, a small paperback published in Japan was selling well and causing a buzz among the twitterati. Here's the listing on Amazon (note the cover illustration).  The author acknowledges that he followed the style of (the Japanese translation of) A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Italian paleontologist, writer, and journalist, Alberto Angela, but the book is obviously the result of decades of data collection from the Chinese classics, as the endnotes (about 900 of them), ranging from Shǐjì 史記 (The Grand Scribe's Records; ca. 91 BC), Hàn shū 漢書 (Book of Han; 111 AD), Zhuāng Zǐ 荘子 (Wandering on the Way; 4th c. BC), Hán Fēi Zǐ 韓非子 (Master Han Fei; d. 233 BC) to Tàipíng Yùlǎn 太平御覧 (Imperial Reader of the Taiping Era; 977-983), show, supporting every bit of the statement in the text, a feature not found in Angela's above work (as far as I see in the French translation at hand). It is no wonder that the author reportedly received an immediate offer of Chinese translation from a Chinese publisher.

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Transcription vs. transliteration vs. translation in cartography

In this post, I wanted to do something that I thought would be fairly simple, viz., address the question of the "rectification" of Russian place names in areas proximate to populations speaking Sinitic languages.  This sort of rectification is also a hot topic where Russia borders on Ukraine.  There, however, the task is simpler, because Russian and Ukrainian are both written in Cyrillic, whereas, in the Russo-Sinitic case, the former is written in the phonetic Cyrillic alphabet, while the latter is written in morphosyllabic Sinoglyphs, a completely different type of writing system.

Everywhere we encounter references to the transliteration of Chinese characters into alphabetic scripts (or vice versa), whereas I maintain that cannot be done because the Sinitic writing system doesn't have any letters that can be transferred over into the letters of an alphabetic script.  Consequently, when talking about the conversion of Sinoglyphic writing to alphabetic scripts, I always speak of it as transcription.

Technically, transliteration is concerned primarily with accurately representing the graphemes of another script, whilst transcription is concerned primarily with representing its phonemes.


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Chutzpah in Mandarin

Klaus Nuber stumbled upon this opinion piece in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard:

"Shoot 'em down – Ooops, einige Ballons waren doch keine chinesischen Spionageballons"

10 hours ago

Klaus says "It's about the downed balloons over Alaska. At the end the author asks a question":

"Ggibt es einen Ausdruck in Mandarin für "Chuzpe"?

Is there an expression In Mandarin for chutzpah?

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DeepL Translator

I have often sung the praises of Google Translate (see "Selected readings" below for a few sample posts), but now I've learned about an online translator that, for many languages, may be even better.  Since we've been discussing phenomenal developments in AI quite a bit lately (see also under "Selected readings" below), now seems as good a time as any to introduce DeepL to the collective Language Log readership.

In truth, we've barely mentioned DeepL before (see comments here, here, here, and here), so I really didn't notice it until this past week when my students and auditors from East Asia told me about it.  Seeing what DeepL could do, I was simply overwhelmed.  Let me explain how that happened.

Most of the participants in my Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS) seminar (all attendees are from China, Japan, and Korea), said that they've been using it regularly for years.  They also mentioned that they use OCR apps on their phones.  The scanned texts they use can then be fed into various applications for translation.  Many of them also use Grammarly to improve the quality of their writing.  Lately I myself have noticed that when I write papers, essays, and letters in word processing programs (e.g., Microsoft Word), the processor gives me mostly good suggestions for getting rid of superfluous, redundant, awkward suggestions.

Specifically, what impressed me so much about DeepL in this instance is that we were faced with a Dutch translation of a rare, medieval Chinese text with a lot of esoteric vocabulary.  The Dutch translator had done a commendable job of getting from the difficult Chinese to Dutch, but then we had to use OCR on his limited circulation Dutch publication to produce a document to feed into DeepL.  When I read the resulting English translation, I was amazed at how faithfully the English conveyed the sense and the feeling of the extremely recondite medieval Chinese text.  Of course, the English wasn't  perfect, but it made a tremendous contribution toward getting a handle on what was happening in the medieval Chinese text that had seldom been read by anyone (it was lost for more than a thousand years) and had never been translated into any other language beside Dutch.

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Chinese wéiqí, Japanese go, and English go

Some funny things happen when one tries to straighten out the relationships among these three names for one of the world's most challenging board games.

First of all, if I put wéiqí 圍棋 / 围棋, the Chinese name of the game, into Google Translate (GT) and ask it to translate that into Japanese, out comes Iku 行く ("to go"), but if I ask GT to translate wéiqí 圍棋 directly into English, out comes "go", the English name of the game.

So that we don't get sucked more deeply into a quagmire of nomenclatural confusion, I will put some basic linguistic facts about these names here.  It would be good for other Language Log readers to inform us how the name of the game is handled in other languages.

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The Great Translation Movement, part 2

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The value and validity of translation for learning classical languages

Two years ago, during the middle of lockdown when we had to teach all of our courses via zoom, one student was conspicuously superior to all the other dozen or so students in my first-year Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS/CC) class.  She was clearly an innately smart student, but in addition she seemed to possess a special knack for grasping the grammar, structure, and meaning of the texts we read day after day.  When it came to parsing a particularly difficult passage, she was consistently the one who could figure it out fastest and most accurately.  I had no idea to what particular talent or prior training her excellence could be attributed.

I should mention that this student was from China, as were two-thirds of the others.  Only one-third of the class were from other countries.  I should note, parenthetically, that by and large the more languages a student knows well when he or she takes LS/CC, the better she or he tends to perform in my class.  For example, one of the best students in recent years was a Mexican whose native tongue is Spanish and who is advanced in Korean.  I let him pronounce the texts in Korean.

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Startling discrepancies in translations of the Lao Zi (Daode jing)

The Daoist / Taoist classic, Daode jing / Tao-te ching (The Classic of the Way and Integrity / Power / Virtue), a brief text consisting of approximately 5,000 characters in 81 brief chapters, is one of the most frequently translated books in the world.  Even people who don't know Classical Chinese, such as the first translator quoted below, somehow feel that they are qualified to try their hand at it, and are sometimes paid enormous sums to do so by distinguished publishing houses. 

In this post, I will focus only on a single chapter, number 13.  Out of the hundreds of versions I could cite, I will give here only half a dozen by way of example of what can be done with the same text.

Stephen Mitchell's version of chapter #13 is so different from Derek Liu's that it's mind-boggling.

Success is as dangerous as failure.

Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?

Whether you go up the ladder or down it,

your position is shaky.

When you stand with your two feet on the ground,

you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?

Hope and fear are both phantoms

that arise from thinking of the self.

When we don’t see the self as self,

what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.

Have faith in the way things are.

Love the world as your self;

then you can care for all things.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

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