"Be careful of the truth"

« previous post | next post »


How did it happen?

There's no problem with "xiǎoxīn 小心"; it just means "be careful [of]; pay heed to".

The problem comes with the second half of the warning, where luòshí 落石 ("falling rocks") is a perfect homophone of luòshí 落實 ("implement; fulfill; carry out; put into effect" — which character by character means "fall; drop; alight" and "real; actual; solid; true").  The translator typed "xiǎoxīn luòshí" into the software and mistakenly chose 小心落實, plus its accompanying translation instead of 小心落石 and its accompanying translation.

To tell the truth, however, "xiǎoxīn 小心" ("be careful [of]; pay heed to"), which would seem to be a simple and routine task, whether for a machine or a human translator, often gets mangled in surprising ways, for which see the "Selected readings" below.


Selected readings

[h.t. Vito Acosta]


  1. Mat Bettinson said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 9:33 pm

    That's funny. I saw 小心落石 translated on a sign as "beware the missing rock" in Taiwan's MiaoLi region. I mean that's fair enough, when the rock falls it must be missing somewhere right? :)

  2. Jim Breen said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 10:27 pm

    The French equivalent is "chute de pierres", which one often encounters on signs when hiking in France. Occasionally wags have annotated them with comments such as "Pierre! Ça va?".

  3. Tom said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 1:11 am

    Reminded me of the expression shuǐluò shíchū 水落石出 (water subsides, rocks emerge —> the truth will out), at first to the point that I thought it might’ve been the source of the mistranslation!

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 6:53 am

    Tom's welcome note is so learnedly terse that only the cognoscenti will know the background of this set phrase.

    It is derived from lines in an essay by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) and in a rhapsody by Su Dongpo (1037-1101), for which see this article in Baidu (in Chinese).

  5. BobT said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 12:01 pm

    For once Google Translate gets it right. When I point my phone (running Google Translate) at my desktop screen, it does indeed occasionally overlay 'Be careful of falling rocks' onto the Chinese text…

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 12:48 pm

    Does Google Translate behave more reliably with a 3D-rotated (and enhanced) version of the image, Bob ? Below if the infrastructure permits, otherwise here

  7. BobT said,

    May 7, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

    Phillip, Not really. It seems to be picking up partial words much more often that the complete 'Be careful of falling rocks' . 'Be Careful' is common and 'Rockfall' appeared once or twice.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2020 @ 4:01 am

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Some good humor there. I just read a quote by Warren Buffett:

    "Only when the tide goes out, do you discover who's been swimming

    I doubt that he was paraphrasing Song poetry, as you have referenced

  9. Anthea Fleming said,

    May 11, 2020 @ 6:24 am

    En route to Canberra in 1977, we were delighted by a warning notice in a deep cutting which read: FALLING ROCKS
    Absolutely accurate, they don't. Of course what was really meant was, Don't stop here, rocks might land on you. These days they provide a graphic of the falling rocks, which is apparently easier for dyslectics to understand.

RSS feed for comments on this post