"Spelling" errors in Chinese

« previous post | next post »

A smart and generally careful graduate student from China recently handed in an English –> Chinese translation.  In checking over his work, I noticed several mistakes, from which I select here a couple of examples.  Except in two cases, I won't point out the problems with inappropriate word choice and grammar, but will focus on a particular category of error associated with contemporary Chinese writing.

1.

*nǐ yīnggāi xiàn bā shùzì zhuǎnhuà chéng shēngdiào fúhào 你应该线吧数字转化成声调符号 ("you should thread bar transform the numbers into tonal diacritics")

should be

nǐ yīnggāi xiān bǎ shùzì zhuǎnhuàn chéng shēngdiào fúhào 你应该先把数字转换成声调符号 ("you should first convert the numbers into tonal diacritics")

2.

*tèdìng míngcí xūyào dàxiē 特定名词需要大 ("specific noun phrases must be a bit bigger")

should be

zhuānyǒu míngcí xūyào dàxiě 专有名词需要大 ("proper nouns must be capitalized")

It is obvious that, in composing the Chinese text on his computer, the student had the sounds of the words (without even paying much attention to the tones) uppermost in mind rather than the shapes of the characters.  Lest we think that this category of error is strictly due to the modern technology of character entry on electronic devices, the same type of phonological substitution is also quite common in premodern texts, going all the way back to the beginning of the script on the oracle bones.  That is why, when I teach advanced courses in Literary Sinitic, if my students cannot make sense of a passage no matter how hard they try, I encourage them to think of possible homophonic or other types of phonological errors in the text.

Among our Sinological predecessors, the very best in cracking difficult early texts were acutely aware of this type of miswriting.  From reading vast amounts of material and having a keen sense of the sounds of the language at various stages in its evolution, they developed a high level of intuition in surmising what early authors wanted to say, even though they made occasional mistakes in what they wrote.  Of course, our Sinological forefathers were also sensitive to orthographical errors as well, but that's a different kettle of fish than the topic of today's post.



17 Comments

  1. languagehat said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    Maybe I'm missing something obvious, but tèdìng doesn't sound at all like zhuānyǒu.

  2. Rachel said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 9:40 am

    I have a coworker who regularly makes this type of mistake in our IMs at work. I've gotten pretty good at figuring out what the coworker meant to say, but occasionally I have to ask for clarification.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 9:55 am

    @languagehat: I think what you are pointing at is a mistranslation, not a misspelling. Victor?

  4. languagehat said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 10:13 am

    Cory: That would make sense, but the phrase is bolded as though it's part of what he's talking about ("the student had the sounds of the words … uppermost in mind rather than the shapes of the characters").

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    "Except in two cases, I won't point out the problems with inappropriate word choice…."

  6. Neil Kubler said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    I agree completely that these are misspellings and not mistranslations; xian1 ba3 "first take" was misspelled as xian4 ba0 "thread suggestion/supposition," and da4xie3 "capitalize" was misspelled as da4 xie1 "bigger by a little." I see these sorts of mistakes in emails and text messages (and sometimes documents) by Chinese native speakers (or writers) all the time. In my opinion, they do not bode well for the long-term future of the current Chinese writing system.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 3:31 pm

    How much of an error is using 转化 zhuǎnhuà "transform" for 转换 zhuǎnhuàn "transform"? I show an example sentence along the lines of 把科研成果转化为生产力 "convert a research achievement into productivity" in two different dictionaries.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 4:23 pm

    zhuǎnhuà 转化 ("transform") and zhuǎnhuàn 转换 ("convert" — as with currencies, weights and measures) do not mean exactly the same thing.

  9. John said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 5:11 pm

    If the student did not catch 线吧 and 大些 when he proofread his work (does anyone do this anymore?) then he may be generally careful but he certainly wasn't careful this time.

    If as Neil Kubler says, "they do not bode well for the long-term future of the current Chinese writing system", then the same could be said about the current English spelling system, where the prevalent view outside universities is that "as long as you are understood, who cares about spelling correctly"?

  10. maidhc said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 5:30 pm

    John: The problem with incorrect spelling is that you may not be understood. One of the purposes of a spelling system is to distinguish among words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings.

    "It's not that I mind going to school so much, but I hate the principal of the thing."

  11. Jim Breen said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    In Japanese the phenomenon of choosing the wrong kanji homophone when using word-processing is called a 変換ミス (henkan missu – conversion mis[take]), and has been in the lexicon for a couple of decades. I get the impression they are less common these days, possibly as software systems get more sophisticated in selecting and ranking candidate compounds. It can be a challenge – for something like こうじょう/kôjô my input system offers me 8 alternatives (向上, 工場, 口上, 恒常, 攻城, 荒城, etc.), but my dictionary has at least as many more possibilities.

  12. Dave Cragin said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

    Some like to criticize Googletranslate, but I find it invaluable to helping me avoid the kinds of "spelling" mistakes illustrated above, that is, I'm poor at proof-reading things I've written in Chinese.

    Before hitting "send" with wechat or email, I typically copy the message into google and translate it into English. If the text looks weird, I may have picked the wrong character, forgot a word, etc.

    In this way, googletranslate is a superb teaching tool. Rather than just typing something wrong (and not realizing it), google gives me the chance to review what I wrote and see if I can fix it. Obviously, google isn't a perfect translation tool, so it needs to be used with judgment, but that's exactly why it's good; it forces me to think.

    I always need to ask myself, does the text read strangely:
    1) due to poor translation by google (and my text is actually correct)
    2) because I selected the wrong characters
    and/or
    3) because my grammar/word use was wrong?

    "It is obvious that, in composing the Chinese text on his computer, the student had the sounds of the words (without even paying much attention to the tones) uppermost in mind rather than the shapes of the characters." This describes me exactly. For me, characters are purely something to be used in messages. In contrast, when I think about a Chinese word, I think about its sounds. However until Victor's note, I assumed this was because I'm a native English speaker.

  13. JS said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

    The real danger is hyperautocorrect- or hyperautocompleting your secrets away. In this case, why is the individual typing 线吧 on a semiregular basis? We have to know…

  14. Chris said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

    Neil Kubler: "they do not bode well for the long-term future of the current Chinese writing system"

    I think your forebodings are probably misplaced, on the whole: Recall what Victor said about these errors going all the way back to the oracle bones. If this problem hasn't killed off the script in all that time, it's probably never going to – not by itself, anyway.

  15. Ellen Kozisek said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 10:17 pm

    maidhc: One of the purposes of a spelling system is to distinguish among words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings.

    I don't see that as a purpose. It's an effect of language change causing homophones to be spelled differently. Spelling systems work fine not differentiating homophones. But when two homophones have different spellings, experienced readers do get thrown off. I often wind up not sure if a person meant what they spelled or if they meant the other differently spelled word that's pronounced the same and makes more sense in the context. But it's the spelling difference that causes the issue. In the principal/principle example, if the words were spelled the same, I, and I think most all readers, would read it with the meaning we spell principle. Someone wanting to refer to a school's principal would word it differently, unless they are purposely trying to be obtuse or punful.

  16. Simon P said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 2:40 am

    @Prof. Mair: Can you give some examples of these kinds of errors in Literary Sinitic? Because some of these (线吧, 大些 and 转化) really look like typos.

    It'd be one thing if these substitutions were homophonic (as with the common English mistakes of "their, they're, there", but these are different pronunciations which, it seems to me, would be obvious to a speaker but not to the computer (since the text is written without tones), except for the "zhuanhua(n)", where my guess would have been that the writer missed a key.

  17. Guy_H said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 6:37 am

    Aren't these particular errors a function of the input system though?
    These look like errors related to pinyin input, which obviously doesn't take into account tones or character strokes at all. If he was typing using say cangjie or sucheng, it's likely entirely different sorts of errors would have resulted. Mixing 自己 and 自已 for example (sorry, its the first example that came to me!)

RSS feed for comments on this post