Archive for February, 2023

Uh-oh! DeepL in the classroom; it's already here

Yesterday in my Classical Chinese class, we were reading Ouyang Xiu's (1007-1072) "Discussion on 'Biographies of Eunuchs'" in the New History of the Five Dynasties (written 1036-1039, published 1072).  Here's the relevant passage:

Móu zhī ér bùkě wéi. Wéi zhī ér bùkě chéng. Zhì qí shén zé jù shāng ér liǎng bài. ——“Xīn wǔdài shǐ huàn zhě chuán lùn”

謀之而不可為。為之而不可成。至其甚則俱傷而兩敗。 ——《新五代史宦者傳論》 

[Because of the special circumstances of this post, I will not adhere to my usual custom of providing Pinyin Romanization, Hanzi transcription, and English translation all three together.]

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Baozi: The stuffed, steamed bun becomes a meme

So everybody knows what we're talking about:

Baozi (Chinese: 包子), Pao-tsih or bao, is a type of yeast-leavened filled bun in various Chinese cuisines. There are many variations in fillings (meat or vegetarian) and preparations, though the buns are most often steamed. They are a variation of mantou from Northern China.


Early on in his presidency, Xi Jinping picked this up as one of his nicknames, like Winnie the Pooh, both from his puffy shape.  Both fall under the category of "rǔ bāo 辱包" ("disgracing the dumpling").

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ChatGPT: Theme and Variations

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce]

Here I’ll recount some recent exchanges I had with ChatGPT. Given the scope of ChatGPT, and the fact that it’s in a self‑described intermediate state, our various impressions of it as of February 2023 must be like those of the three blind men examining an elephant — except the elephant is running. In the heart of the professional programmer, ChatGPT creates existential dread since it can spit out in a few seconds a page of code which would have required hours or days for him/her to write and debug — and that only after a lifetime of coding. For the rest of us, for the moment at least, it just provokes curiosity perhaps.

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How to use "Six Skins" in a slogan to solicit business in the PRC

From the Twitter account of the famous popular science writer and muckraker, Fang Zhouzi / Fang Shimin:

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Closestools, crappers, and horse buckets

Big news from China yesterday:

"2,200-year-old flush toilet — oldest ever found — unearthed at palace ruins in China"

Aspen Pflughoeft, Miami Herald / Yahoo
Thu, February 16, 2023 at 5:37 PM EST

What a gift to humanity!

All the terms in the title of this post mean one or another kind of toilet, but function differently and date from different times and places.  We've talked about many types of toilets on Language Log before (for a few see "Selected readings" below).  Here I want to focus on two Chinese models, one dating to two millennia ago that was recently discovered archeologically, so we don't have a proper name for it yet, and an archaic-sounding one, mǎtǒng 馬桶 ("horse bucket"), that is the current, conventional, common term for the toilet across China.

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Ivan Enraged

A Russian friend of mine told me that "Terrible" is a common, well nigh universal, mistranslation for the nickname of Ivan IV Vasilyevich (Russian: Иван Васильевич; 25 August 1530 – 28 March [O.S. 18 March] 1584).  He says that a closer translation would be "Enraged".

The English word terrible is usually used to translate the Russian word Грозный (grozny) in Ivan's nickname, but this is a somewhat archaic translation. The Russian word Грозный reflects the older English usage of terrible as in "inspiring fear or terror; dangerous; powerful" (i.e., similar to modern English terrifying). It does not convey the more modern connotations of English terrible such as "defective" or "evil". Vladimir Dal defines grozny specifically in archaic usage and as an epithet for tsars: "courageous, magnificent, magisterial and keeping enemies in fear, but people in obedience". Other translations have also been suggested by modern scholars, including formidable.


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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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Vocalizations of wolves and justices

Tessa Koumoundouros, "Adorable Study Tests How Dogs Respond to Wild Wolf Calls – And, Yes, There's Footage", ScienceAlert 2/12/2023:

Without convenient access to phones for pens for letter-writing, wolves must rely on howls to communicate long distances. These woeful wails allow the social mammals to maintain their territories as well as keep track of and stay in synchrony with other pack members. […]

A new study exposes family dogs to wolf howls to better understand why some of our canine companions no longer seem to bother with this seemingly important form of dog communication.

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Bing gets weird — and (maybe) why

For weeks, everyone was talking about how great the Large Language Model (LLM) ChatGPT is, or else showing that it can make serious mistakes of fact or logic. But since the alliance between OpenAI and Microsoft added (a version of) this LLM to (a version of) Bing, people have been encountering weirder issues. As Mark Frauenfelder pointed out a couple of days ago at BoingBoing, "Bing is having bizarre emotional breakdowns and there's a subreddit with examples". The cited subreddit, r/bing,  has examples going back to the start of the alliance. And today, Kevin Roose posted a long series of strikingly strange passages from his own interactions with the chatbot , "Bing's A.I. Chat: 'I Want to Be Alive", NYT 2/16/2023.

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More phony Chinese wisdom

I've never heard of this "Chinese" proverb, but some American friends are asking if I can tell them the original proverb in Chinese.  I can't tell them the original proverb in Chinese, but I can tell them about its origins in Japanese.

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"May your satisfaction sincerely aroused by me"

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BYD — the look and the sound

Yesterday, Charlie Munger, the 99-year-old billionaire Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, declared that the Chinese company, BYD, was beating Tesla in the electric vehicle (EV) market.  I had never heard of BYD, so I asked my students from mainland China what "BYD" meant.

They all seemed to consider the apparent initialism as though it were an English word, pronouncing it Beeyah'di, making the second syllable long and stressed.  I pursued by asking, "But what does it mean?  What does it stand for?"

They said, "It doesn't mean anything and it doesn't stand for anything.  It's just the name of a car company:  Beeyah'di."

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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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