Ask Language Log: "with their ears"

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Alex Baumans sent in this quote from a press release about a Chinese Exhibition on solar energy:

3rd 2008 Asia Solar PV Exhibition attracted many companies come from more than 20 countries and regions, such as Germany, France, Switzerland, the United States, Hungary, with their ears, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea,China Taiwan,and so on. [emphasis added]

This is probably an error of machine translation or machine-assisted translation. The Chinese practice is to represent foreign names, including country names, using characters whose pronunciation approximates that of the target word. But like all Chinese characters, these are logograms, which (perhaps ambiguously) represent morphemes as well as sounds. The English equivalent, more or less, would be to represent Shanghainese as "shank high knees". The trouble arises when a Chinese name is not recognized as such, and instead is translated into English rather than (un)transliterated.

The same thing can happen with native Chinese names, or for that matter in translations of other languages. I posted a few days ago about a case where "双流"机场 came out as "'double' at the airport" instead of "at Shuangliu airport".

There's a discussion of the foreign-name transliteration issue here, which says that

There have been over the years complaints about the transliteration of foreign names into English. One famous example was Kennedy, which was originally transliterated as 啃泥的 (kěnníde), meaning "gnaw mud person". It was then changed, for obvious reasons, to 肯尼迪 (kěnnídí), meaning "willing Buddhist nun enlighten".

(Note that Google Translate now renders the first option as "chew on the mud", but the second one as "Kennedy".)

However, in the end I don't know what country's name has been transliterated and then translated to create "with their ears", because I don't know Chinese. No doubt some reader can tell us in the comments.


  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 8:45 am

    My guess would be Turkey–Tu3 er3 qi2 土耳其, which character-by-character means earth-ear-their/its. Though where the earth went I don't know.

  2. Tablesaw said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 9:11 am

    In an earlier press release, that space seems to be taken up by "as well as." Maybe the phrase wasn't intended to be a country.

  3. zhwj said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:22 am

    Ha! This is a doozy. It's actually due to two distinct problems. (1) There's a typo in the source text: instead of 耳其, the Chinese press release has 耳其 (probably a bad OCR job). (2) This was then fed through Google Translate, which somehow determined that "with their ears" was the most probable rendering (screenshot for when they fix it).

  4. Gavin Mac said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    Or possibly Malta at 马耳他.

  5. John Cowan said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    Morphosyllabic writing systems aren't alone with this problem, of course: Systran's Russian->English can't tell the difference between Чад 'Chad' and Чад 'Fumes', generating the latter instead of the former in a list of African countries. But doubtless the problem is worst in Chinese, which has no widely accepted purely syllabic backup for its morphosyllabics.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    If the wrong character was the fault of OCR, it's hard to blame the program, at least on the single-character level, since the difference between 士 shi4 and 土 tu3 is subtle.

  7. Dan Milton said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    How can I read something more than ????? for the Chinese in these postings? Unicode UTF-8 and Chinese Simplified GB18030 don't seem to work.

    [(myl) The character set is just UTF-8. The problem must be in the font that you're using.]

  8. Amy said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

    This reminds me of a hilarious online game played by fans of the discontinued sci-fi Firefly series. It's set in a future galaxy where Chinese has become the lingua franca, although the lower-class characters all speak English. (They use Chinese for swearing.)

    The fans have pretty much memorized every line from the entire series' run (written by Joss Whedon, it's very quotable). The game is to use online translators to take lines from the dialog, translate them into Chinese, then take the Chinese characters, and re-translate them back into English. You post your result on the bulletin board and people have to guess what the original quote was.

    "Well, my days of takin' you seriously are certainly coming to a middle."


    And my days, Takin 'Do you seriously to one China, of course,

    [Actually, Google translator generally does pretty well, takes the fun out of this game.]

  9. Sili said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

    I have a Chinese font installed (one of the Lucida ones that Johnathan Wells recommends, I think), and I had to look very hard to see the difference between " 士 shi4 and 土 tu3" (I don't read Chinese, of course). It's just the length and height of the top bar, right?

    People who like Firefly (and can handle being made fun of) might like Zillion from Kris Straub's Starslip Crisis

  10. Dan T. said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    When translating "Chad" from English, how is one to know whether it is referring to the country, a guy's name, or the stuff that is punched out of punch cards or 2000 Florida election ballots?

  11. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

    Turkey in Portuguese is Perú. Go figure.

  12. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

    I'd never have guessed there was a problem, which exemplifies why I'm grateful for Language Log. I'd have understood some nations to be relegated to a passive role as listeners or note-takers. Whether this was an objective observation or a sarcastic complaint would be the stirring question :)

  13. Martin said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 2:38 am

    No, "turkey" in Portuguese is "peru". ("Turkey" is "Turquia")

  14. Matt said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 3:41 am

    @Sili: The radicals in the two forms distinguish them, so 士 shi4 is a numeral "ten" 十radical on top of the a numeral "one" 一 radical while 土 tu3 is in itself a radical "earth". Anyway, what distinguishes them is the length of the bottom (not the top) horizontal line…

  15. Carl said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 3:52 am

    Translating Turkey from English to Japanese one encounters the problem of トルコ (country) versus 七面鳥 (bird) versus ばか (a jive-sucker) versus 失敗作 (of a movie) versus ターキー (in bowling). Machine translation is strictly for turkeys!

    Incidentally, the difference between 士 and 土 is notoriously slight. The first is (primordially) an ancient Chinese professional class (hence derivatively any professional), and the second is earth/dirt. Don't think though that most Chinese derived characters are quite so subtle! It's an exceptionally tough one to spot the difference in, not an ordinary one.

  16. cnick said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    The difference for non-Chinese readers: the top horizontal and bottom horizontal strokes 士 (shi) are respectively longer and shorter than those of 土 (tu).

  17. Ellen K. said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    I find it easier to see the difference in the two characters, and easier to see the details of the Chinese characters in general, if I make the font size larger for reading the page.

  18. Dan T. said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

    Of course, English orthography has to deal with the similarity in appearance between lowercase "l", uppercase "I", and the number "1", which, depending on fonts, might look identical or similar. There's also the letter "O" and the number "0". These can get annoying when you're trying to type in things from CAPTCHAs, randomly-generated passwords, or promotional codes on products, where you're not sure which character is intended.

  19. dr pepper said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    That's how we separate teh N00BZ from teh L337!!!

  20. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 9:25 pm

    Martin, that was the joke….

    The animal that in English also is the name of a country also is the same in Portuguese, just a different country (same animal). I capitalized turkey because it was the first word in the sentence…

  21. Shahar Evron said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 5:09 am

    Oddly enough, the Hebrew translation for turkey (the animal) is תרנגול הודו which literally means "India chicken". Frequently this is simply shortened to הודו – "Ho-du" which just means India (yeah, just like the country).

    So it seems that something with the turkey bird makes different languages call it in different names of countries?!?

  22. John Cowan said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 4:01 am

    The issue with the turkey (Meleagris gallopovo, that is) is, where did people think it came from? Its English name reflects the belief that it was a sort of guinea-fowl (Numida meleagris), called a "Turkey bird" in English because it arrived in Europe via Turkey in a domesticated state from its original home in sub-Saharan Africa.

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