Honest but unhelpful

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From Victor Mair:

Translate Server Error

The Chinese characters are CAN1TING1 餐厅 ("dining hall")

[Source of photograph: Facebook; uploaded by Samuel Osouf; taken on the Beijing-Taiyuan expressway in June, 2008. Link sent to Victor by Ori Tavor.]


  1. blahedo said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

    Actually, this answers a question I've had about some of the crazy Chinese-English translations out there: even someone who knows essentially no English, and isn't checking their lookups in both directions, and so on, should do better than that, right? I mean, at least they'd see something in their dictionary lookup that might ring a warning bell.

    But no, and I probably should have thought of this: they have a translation server (and if the presumably hand-generated error message is referring to it as a "translate server", that is itself an indicator of its quality even when it's working…), which they're typing phrases into and then blindly trusting. It makes so much more sense now.

  2. James A. Crippen said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

    The error message was probably itself fed through the translation server and then hardcoded for speed/convenience/whatever. You have a translation server, why would you want to hand-translate anything?

    Most Mainland Chinese people that I’ve talked to are embarrassed about the terrible quality of English→Chinese translation, but balk at the suggestion to enter that field of employment. I’m under the impression that translation is not a very prestigious activity in the PRC.

  3. dr pepper said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

    Sure, who cares if the Outer Barbarians can't read something.

  4. gribley said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

    Wonderful. This is rather similar to the cake error message that was discussed before on LL. It's unbelievable to me that anyone would rely on machine translation with no human error checking at all, but…

  5. Kellen said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    most people i talk to here admit that despite 8+ years of studying english, most have crap english skills when it actually comes down to applying what they've learned.

    most don't even look at the english. ever. even if their english is great. my girlfriend is a prime example. i suppose it would be like someone who speaks a bit of basic french ignoring the french language part of the sign while in their home town in ontario.

  6. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    Is the similarity of CAN1TING1 to "canteen" a coincidence?

  7. Rachel said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    They probably used a zi4dian3 which does not necessarily translate two characters together and the dictionary came up with translate server error instead of actually translating it….

  8. goofy said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

    Adrian: yes. I think the CAN1 would not sound much like "can", it would begin with an affricate.

  9. a said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

    A blog recording examples of terrible misuses of Chinese characters/kanji would be a wonderful public service. Anybody know of one? Anybody inspired to take the project on?

    [(myl): Try Hanzi Smatter. For example, this.]

  10. a said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    BTW, I've wondered about 餐廳/canteen, too; I don't think it's a coincidence.

  11. Lugubert said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    a said, "BTW, I've wondered about 餐廳/canteen, too; I don't think it's a coincidence."
    What coincidence? [tsænting] and [kænti:n] don't sound very similar to me.

  12. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

    Initially I shared Adrian and a said's curiousity about canting/canteen, wondering whether canteen might have been one of those words coined by soldiers stationed in Asia after seeing "canting" over the door of a mess hall. Then I remembered that before the PRC was established, when most of these words were coined, the preferred spelling (Wade-Giles) for this word was "ts'an t'ing". Not everyone knows this, so we should be fair to those who see such an obvious resemblence and wonder about the etymology.

  13. Shi-Hsia said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    Sorry guys, it IS a coincidence. I just checked Oxford English and "canteen" is related to the French "cantine" and Italian "cantina" (in Mos Eisley?) but it doesn't say anything about Chinese.

    "c" in pinyin, as Neil pointed out, is equivalent to "ts" in the old-fashioned Wade-Giles system. It's a hissing sound, not like the "k" sound in "canteen". It would be VERY strange if the words were related.

  14. john riemann soong said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 12:39 am


    Eh? I don't recall the phoneme in "ng" being /ng/. ;-)

  15. Philip Newton said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 3:43 am

    Nor, for that matter, do I remember Pinyin "a" being /æ/ :)

  16. a said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    If "canteen" and 餐廳 are related, then the Chinese word is borrowed from the English, which has cognates in European languages, as Shi-Hsia points out. I understand that they don't sound the same, and I wasn't suggesting that the similarity in the English and pinyin orthography was involved. Even beyond the differences in phonology, which can mangle borrowings pretty badly, Chinese is often resistant to purely phonetic borrowing; there are other examples of borrowings from European languages being "tweaked" a bit so that they can be written with semantically appropriate characters. The result combines (phonetic) borrowing and calquing. An example that springs to mind is 拖拉機 TUO1LA1JI1 "tractor"; literally "drag-pull-machine". What I'm wondering, then, is if CAN1TING1 is another example of this type. So far as I know, the compound isn't attested earlier than the twentieth century, but I haven't researched it very thoroughly.

  17. Lugubert said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

    john riemann soong,

    If the ng in ing isn't ng, what do you suggest?

    Philip Newton,

    Perhaps more Hangzhou than Beijing. Helps to distinguish between -an [æn] and -ang, for people who don't hear or use ng.

  18. john riemann soong said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

    Well, I was picking over a minor point — you didn't use the velar nasal /ŋ/. ;-)

  19. Carlos said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 12:51 am

    Chinese 'can ting' is the 'sound word' equivalent of canteen, borrowed from english. I teach here in China.
    ng is ng in both pinyin and putong hua.

  20. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:22 pm


    Could you direct us to a published or hyperlinked etymology of 餐厅【cāntīng】 dining room; restaurant from a reputable Chinese dictionary that shows its derivation from canteen? Because based on the fairly dissimilar pronunciantion of 'can' in English and putonghua ( though perhaps the pronunciation is closer in other regional languages), and the straightforward combination of 餐【cān】 eat; food; meal; regular meal and 厅【tīng】 hall; office into 餐厅, I am inclined to look at this relationship as a folk etymology.

    And yes 'ng' has the same pronunciation in Pinyin and Putonghua (not a coincidence, since the former is the official romanization method for the latter), it does not have the same pronunciation in IPA. That's the point I think JRS was trying to make.

  21. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    I really wish there was a spellcheck feature here 3>(

  22. David Marjanović said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    What I'm wondering, then, is if CAN1TING1 is another example of this type.

    Would really surprise me, given the pronunciation of c as [t͡sʰ].

    A real example is Coca Cola: kèkǒukèlè — can-mouth-can-joy — you can taste it, you can enjoy it — Coca Cola means "Taste and Enjoy"™.

  23. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

    Yeah, 可口可乐 kěkǒukělè is a pretty good example of a sound equivalent, though probably it was unavoidable given that it was a brand name and that Coke had to find some way of representing it in Putonghua.

    Two other more prosaic examples are 的士 déshì and 雪茄 xuējiā. Pronounced in putonghua, you would pe hard-pressed to guess what they mean in English. But pronounced in Cantonese, it's easy to understand that they are sound equivalents for "taxi" and "cigar".

  24. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

    I should add that déshì and xuējiā are nonsensical if translated literally.

  25. steven said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 3:07 am

    indeed, "can ting" could be a modern borrowing of 'canteen' (or perhaps the french, etc), in the same way that the chinese word for chocolate is the very similar sounding "qiao ke li" – 巧克力。

  26. rebekah said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 12:24 am

    Sorry didn't do a spell check.. i sure do wish they have a spell check here.

    Hehehe.. this is funny, we have chinese students who live with us but rarely talk to us. I guess the reason why their english doesn't improve as much as it could is because they don't talk to people.

    They don't practice what they've learned and they speak chinese to their fellow chinese people. Which i think they should be speaking english to practice the new language their trying to learn..

  27. T.C. Cheng said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    I'm a native mandarin speaker.

    I really doubt canteen has anything to do with can1ting1. I get there are clever translations like coca cola (chinese roughly "delightfully tasty to the mouth") or Yosemite (chinese roughly "superb scenery / beautiful place"), but I really doubt this is the case.

    I'm no linguist but here's my reason –

    Don't be too caught up with the similar spelling of "can1" "ting1" vs. "can" "teen" – that's purely an artifact of spelling.

    Can1 is really prounced ts-an1 (spare me any debate over romanization systems, please). It's with a "ts" not with "k".

    Ting1 is really pronounced … well, ting1.

    Can1 means meals, and Ting1 means generally a room or a hall or an enclosed place for some activity.

    I am not a word historian – so I can't exactly verify when the phrase tsan ting came about – but that phrase does not quite sound "contrived" in chinese. It's pretty natural and I grew up with it since 1973 – not that that's so old, but I would venture to guess there are not too many phrases for which clever translations were invented for back in 1973.

  28. jt said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    I'm a cantonese speaker and it would also be very similar. Romanized, it would be spelled something like "tsan teng." A direct translation of that is "meal room" and it is used in the same way as "dining room" in English. I do not believe it to be a borrowed word as it exists in both dialects. But, I'm no linguist.

  29. Nick said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

    Yeah, 餐厅 is definitely not a contrived translation. Or it is, but in very much a roundabout way. My qualifications are as a translator, Mandarin-English, and I've read a bit (although god knows where) about the language reform back in the 白话 revolution and the ensuing simplifications as the Communist government took the language even further into the realm of practicality. Essentially, back when they were slapping the beast known as Mandarin together in the old days, they took a very thorough approach to culling the wistfulness, redundancy, and general unscientific idiocy of the component pieces (I'm not trying to introduce Orwellian Newspeak accusations into the conversation here, I'm just saying that classical Chinese and the dialects of 100 years ago were, y'know, as messy as any natural language is, and those dudes didn't like messes), and that process included looking at contemporary modernizations in other languages. Well, 餐厅 literally means "dining hall", which in usage in English at the time was the most generic, connotation-free term for "big room where people eat".

    That's what I read at least. The word was listed as a classic example of 白话/普通话 usages of foreign terms. They were trying to build a simple a language as possible, and they were definitely not averse to foreign terms if better ones existed.

    Of course, these days it's reverted back to transliterations and vulgar coinage. I just walked past a 鸡翅吧, which, like…what? Some dude from 200 years ago would walk past and be like, "Yes, chicken wings…I gather you're for them?"

  30. Kevin said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 2:14 am

    的士 should be read dīshì in Mandarin.

    Also, 可口可樂 literally means ‘tasty cola'. 可口 is a construction along the same lines as 可身 and 可心, related to other 可 constructions but in the set of body part ones. It is much better than a closer sound transliteration (which is possible) or a closer meaning transliteration referring to coca.

    Foreign brands' Chinese trade names and chinese marketing slogans utilise many more puns and double-meanings than native mandarin (as native mandarin advertising copy, in turn, uses many more than regular speech). Currently my favourite brand translation has to be Logitech: 罗技. They managed to preserve the sound, and the meaning (combining "logic" and "technology").

  31. Shanghai Michael said,

    October 10, 2008 @ 7:20 am

    Hi, I was searching some of my old colleagues in Shanghai and Google took me here. I agree with Neil et al that canting and canteen look similar purely by accident. I do not think they are related in terms of etymology. They don't even sound alike, as some have pointed out above. To further illustrate this, there are quite a few other expressions starting with "can": canju for dishware, canzhuo for dining table, canjin for napkin, canche for dining car (of a train), etc.

    Incidentally, one of the colleagues I was googling about is Neil Dolinger. Neil, are you the one who worked in Shanghai JTU before? Hello if you are. Sorry for the confusion if you are not.

  32. Shanghai Michael said,

    October 10, 2008 @ 7:34 am

    Oops, I guess I should have said "searching for", instead of just "searching".

  33. Charles Peng said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:58 pm

    why they use a online dictionary, and even didn't know they had lost their internet connection, so stupid.

  34. Richard Sharpe said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

    Someone said:

    most don't even look at the english. ever. even if their english is great. my girlfriend is a prime example. i suppose it would be like someone who speaks a bit of basic french ignoring the french language part of the sign while in their home town in ontario.

    This is not really so surprising, it seems to me, so you should cut them some slack. One of the big problems I now have in learning Chinese is that any material that includes both Pinyin and characters causes me problems, because my eyes are immediately drawn to the Pinyin! In one instance I covered up the Pinyin with white labels to force me to read the characters.

  35. Christopher Poon said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    餐 means "meal"
    廳 means "living room"
    The two words combined into a noun 餐廳 which means "canteen"
    餐廳 is traditional chinese being used in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

  36. Christopher Poon said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    餐廳 usually means "restaurant(s)" while 飯堂 specifically means "canteen(s)" in Hong Kong.
    but in Mainland China, canteen is usually presented as 餐廳.

    The pronunciation of 餐廳 is totally different to canteen. In Mainland China, 餐廳 is pronounced as "tsaan teeng". When you pronunce "c" of "can", you need to put your tongue tip onto the back of your upper teeth and let the air flow through the little gap between the tongue tip and the teeth. It is like "s" but there should be much more friction of air. In Hong Kong, the vocabulary is even harder to be pronunced (Cantonese).

  37. The Dolmar said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    You have to take into equation the fact that a lot of English to Chinese and Chinese to English borrowings are done via Cantonese. Can1Ting1 餐厅/餐廳 in Cantonese is actually pronounced Chaan1Teng1. Another example of Cantonese is 美利加 which is pronounced Mei5Lei6Ga1 but in Mandarin is Mei3Li4Jia1 which of course is a way to say America. See how the 'c' /k/ sound is transliterated more closely in Cantonese? Then again, it could just be a coincidence or like in the case of Coca Cola where they used a phoneticisation giving a similar meaning to the actual word itself.

  38. Bryna said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    Hi, all,

    After several hours of research (plus a background in linguistics), I'm pretty convinced that canting is, in fact, from the French cantine.

    The main arguments on this page against this theory, nanmely that 1) the pronunciation of the first phoneme in Chinese is /ts/ not /k/, as in the French, and 2) the meanings of the individual words "can" and "ting" in Chinese are just too perfect a match to the meaning of canteen are tantalizing. But…

    Oddly enough, there is much fluidity between the sounds /ts/ and /k/, both historically and geographically. The transformation is bidirectional, often, but not always, passing through "ch."

    Chinese, though pictorial, borrows words, just like every other language and does so in two ways: 1) it transliterates 2) it translates the concept. Sometimes these two methods overlap.

    Even though the odds of such an amazing spot-on match seem next to nil, there are other compelling reasons that, taken with the two I've just mentioned, make for a more solid case, I think than just the, admittedly
    intriguing, coincidence of "can" + "ting" being such a perfect match.

    The French, the users of the latinate "cantine," occupied what was formerly known as Indonchina for around three hundred years. It was during this time that the Vietnamese borrowed many French words, changing them either slightly, as in the case of bo for beurre (butter) or more dramatically (at least in appearance), as in phec mo tua for fermeture (zipper). This included can ting for canteen. Incidentally, you can see an example of shifting /k/ through "ch" in the Vietnamese version of soutien as su chien.

    To further support my theory, there is an overwhelming tendency for latin and non-latin languages alike, covering a great geographical area to use a form of "cantine" to mean "canteen."

    As I've already mentioned, the jump from /k/ to /ts/ is a plausible one, especially given the fact the canting had already been adopted by the Vietnamese. If the Chinese had to alter the pronunciation a bit to be able to stick with the initial "c" in the spelling and make the meaning work, I can see little reason why they would not have done this.

  39. John H said,

    October 18, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    The Dolmar:
    Cantonese preserves older sounds, so previously 加 was also pronounced something like KA in Mandarin. This is why Beijing used to be called Peking, because it was actually pronounced like that when it was first written in the Latin alphabet.

    Bryna: Better than the Onion!

    I always thought that 口可口樂 would be a better match for the sounds, and would have the same connotations as the actual 可口可樂. In Cantonese, it doesn't work so well sound-wise as it HOR HOW HOR LOCK. This is usually (always) shortened to HOR LOCK or even just LOCK, as in LING LOCK, lemon coke, but that sounds more like Horlicks (HOE LUP HUCK in Cantonese) to me.

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