Chinese to English translator: Slip Carefully?

Chinese to English translator: Slip Carefully?This post continues our analysis on the Chinese to English translation of sign posts. The case in point today is “Slip Carefully”, as can be seen on this Chinese-English bilingual sign post.

I don’t know what’s your first reaction when you see it. I just can’t stop laughing. How could one “slip carefully”? It just doesn’t make any sense. But as Chinese to English translator myself, I can see that the translator is trying to do the job word by word, because “小心” can be translated as “carefully”, while “滑倒” can be converted to “slip”. But the real meaning of the four Chinese characters are actually “小心,不要滑倒”, or “Be careful, don’t slip over”. The translator has missed the implied negation and thus produced something that semantically contradicting.

A more appropriate and idiomatic expression can be “Wet floor!”, which describes the condition of the floor, rather than explaining all the possible consequences. Once again, the understanding of context is of great importance for English to Chinese translator in doing translation work. In addition, I think the sign post can be enhanced by adding some graphic illustrations, such as a person is slipping or falling down.

English to Chinese translator: 3 Criteria

Among the many criteria for judging translation criteria, “faithfulness, “expressiveness” and “elegance”, proposed by Chinese scholar, and well-known English to Chinese translator, YAN Fu, is probably best known.

The first criterion “faithfulness” requires translators to translate the meaning of source text as accurate as possible into target language. This is the most basic and fundamental rule. Without faithfulness, there is simply no point of discussing its expressiveness and elegance.

The second criterion states that the translation needs to be “expressive”. That is to say, the translated text needs to read naturally in the target language. This requires the translator to pay special attention to the linguistic, and especially sentential differences between two languages. Trying to stick to the English sentential structure in translation usually made translated text not easy to read. This is probably the most common mistakes that beginner to intermediate English to Chinese translators make.

The third and last criterion that YAN Fu proposed is “elegance”. This means that the translation not only needs to be accurate and readable in the target language, but also has to be read elegantly, or beautifully. This this very hard to achieve, and general business translation, it is most often not honored, because it is very hard to do, and even harder to do it under a deadline. With that said, the English to Chinese translation of many brand names, does requires this level of excellence.

English to Chinese Translator: How to translate “Four Freedoms”?

English to Chinese translator: how to translate "four freedoms"The well-known phrase “four freedoms”, first coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous State of the Union speech, has probably been translated to most languages to most nations (especially if democracy is valued). Here is the famous quote:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.

The English to Chinese translation of the “four freedoms”, however, are recently problematized by HUANG Fenbao, in an journal article appeared Chinese Science and Technology Translators Journal (2010, vol 23, issue 4). He pointed out that although many English to Chinese translators translate the “four freedoms” as “四项(个)自由”, a closer examination of President Roosevelt’s inspirational quote reveals that the meaning of the word “freedom” is actually polysemous, that is, it has more than one meaning.

Freedom, according to the New Oxford English-Chinese Dictionary, refers to “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restrain”. This layer of meaning aligns well with the first two “freedoms” mentioned by the president, and can be translated into Chinese as “自由”.  The last two “freedom”, however, means something quite different. Relying on American Heritage Dictionary, HUANG argues that these two “freedoms” in fact mean “exemption from unpleasant or onerous conditions”, and should NOT be translated as “自由”, but as “脱离,摆脱,免除”, or “豁免”. So translating the phrase “four freedoms” as “四项(个)自由” can be considered as inaccurate or unfaithful, if not misleading. A much better translation of the last two “freedom”, as put forward by HUANG, and we agree, is: 第三项是摆脱贫困。第四项是远离恐惧

This shows that, as English to Chinese translator, we should be aware that in English to Chinese translation or interpreting, there is more to it than simple conversion of words. We also need to put the context into perspective and really understand the subtle differences and shades of meaning in English, and try to put it in Chinese as authentic, reliable and appropriate as possible. This might also be true to translations in general. On the other hand, it also shows that machine translation, at least in this respect, still can’t compete with human English to Chinese translator, as discussed in an earlier post.

Interested readers are referred to HUANG’s full article for detailed discussion.

Chinese to English Translation of a Sign Post: A Linguistic Analysis

Continuing last post on dramatic Chinese to English translation on sign posts, I will do a little bit linguistic analysis on the inappropriateness and bad quality of machine translation on yet another sign.

As can be seen in the figure on the left, this sign post deals with dumpsters.  The Simplified Chinese direction “垃圾在此投放” was translated as “[t]he garbage throws in here”, which is not that terrible, as compared to the Chinese to English translation of  “烟头切勿投入” as “[t]he cigarette butt throws in absolutely not to”.

Although these two translations do make a little sense, especially considering its adjacent position to a very illustrative picture, but the quality of the Simplified Chinese to English translation is undoubtedly far from satisfactory. Put such sign in a public space is humiliating to anyone who has involved in producing this.

Now, let’s conduct a little bit of linguistic analysis on why the quality of the machine translation is less than satisfactory. Looking at the two translations, the first thing that jumps out at me is the verb phrase “throw in”, which was used in both places. The verb “throw” project an action which requires physical effort, and also denotes a path through which an object traverse through space. It usually goes with things like baseball, or basketball. We use throw because we want to highlight the path, to emphasize how beautiful or elegant someone throw a ball. So, it’s probably clear by now that the verb “throw” is not a good choice to describe the action for things like garbage or cigarette butt, no matter whom performed the Chinese to English translation, be it machine translator, such as Google Translate, or Microsoft Translator, or a human translator.

Secondly, the use of definite article “the” is no good. We don’t really know what specific garbage or cigarette butt the sign post is talking about, and those two things are not complex thing such as “the computer” or unique thing as “the sun”.  For “garbage”, since it’s mass noun, it will be okay to just use “garbage”. For “cigarette butt”, plural form will be appropriate.

Finally, the use of “absolutely” with negation sounds a little bit awkward. Probably we need to consult a large corpus for detailed pattern for the use of the word, but my general impression is that “absolutely”, more often than not, collocate with positive meaning, or to have a positive semantic prosody, in corpus linguistics parlance.

English or Chinese Translation Services by Machine Translation

English or Chinese translation services, if rendered by machine translation, many times produce very dramatic effect. Such translation usually does not make any sense at all, a point we discussed earlier.

The following picture shows a sign post for a Guiyang Police Department. Guiyang, capital city of Guizhou province, in southwestern China, has been literally translated as “the expensive sun”. This dramatic translation of such prominent city simply shows the low quality of the machine translation software it was employed. Even Google Translate or Microsoft Bing Translator could identify that Guiyang is a place. If, however, this was done by a human translator, I wonder what was the translator thinking when he or she did this. How on earth could the sun be expensive? Where was he or she exposed to such collocation?

The complete translation of goes like this: “The expensive sun multiplies by a day a police to pay a bridge”. Does this make sense to you? When it comes to quality English or Chinese translation services, machine translator can’t be trusted or even considered in the first place.



Quality English to Chinese translation affects Political Campaign

English to Chinese translation of voting postState College, PA. (June 6th, 2011). High quality English to Chinese translation really goes a long way, even in political campaign, as recently reported by this NPR news article.

The case NPR illustrated is about the English to Chinese translation of two prominent politicians running for Superior Court in in San Francisco. In this case, Chinese translation of their name on city election ballots is necessary, because one fifth San Francisco residents is Chinese-American, among them many do not read English. Michael Nava, one candidate for running for Superior Court Judge has his Chinese name read/translated as “Li Zheng Ping” (most likely as 李正平 in Simplified Chinese characters), which roughly translates as “correct and fair”, a huge advantage for an official running for such government post. His opponent, Richard Ulmer, however, is reported to have translated his last name into Chinese phonetically, as “Ao Ma” (most likely as 澳马 in Simplified Chinese characters). This literal translation back to English would be “Australia horse”. Now, if you’re the voters who can only read Chinese, who would you vote for as judge in Superior Court, the “correct and fair”, or “Australian horse”?

High quality English to Chinese translation, in this case, as NPR has pointed out, could affect success of a political campaign.

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