Not so lost in Translation

You might have seen hilarious translation fails from Chinese to English on signs and menus, and had some good laughs. However, you may want to consider the fact that translation between Chinese and any other phonetic languages is by nature a complex task. Culture and grammar aside, to start off, unlike other alphabets-based phonetic languages, in Chinese each character that represents a syllable carries its own meaning too. As you can imagine, this creates extra challenges– not only does the translation represent a pronunciation; the characters chosen is also embedded with an additional layer of meaning. At the same time, translation is especially significant for ancient languages such as Chinese, as it needs to continuously include new and imported objects and concepts from other languages. In Chinese, this is done in a variety of ways. For example, we were talking about trains last time. The Chinese name for train 火车 (huŏ chē)does not resemble the pronunciation of train at all, but it means literally “Fire Vehicle”. It is because when train was first introduced it was run on steam.

This method of creating a new terms based on the original meaning is often used in new technology, such as computer is 电脑 (dian nao), the “electric brain”; hard disk is 硬盘 “yìng pán”, literally, the hard disk; areoplane 飞机 fēi jī means the machine the flies. Not all imported terms are translated by meaning only. Many brilliant translations from English to Chinese manage to keep the pronunciation, but at same time use carefully chosen characters that give additional meanings such that they also “look” like the original term. Great examples include Ballet, 芭蕾 bā lěi , where both characters are related to flowers and thus convey an elegant feeling to the term. The translation for Hackers is 黑客,hēi kè or the guest from the dark; vitamin, 维他命wéi tā mìng the substance life relies on; radar 雷达léi dá , which means where the thunder reaches; or gene 基因jī yīn which means fundamental factors. One classic example is the word for Humour, 幽默yōu mò which is a concept that did not exactly exist in the language until the great linguist 林语堂Lin Yu Tang (1895-1976) gave it the translation. Both characters carry the meaning of quietness, and the word relate to how humour is often understood with few words. These are just few of the brilliant – almost poetic – translations that represent both the sounds and the meanings of their original terms, and are so commonly used now few would think of them as loaned words.

Another way of importing words is to have a combination of both the sound and meanings, or to add a suffix to the term. Examples include café 咖啡厅 kā fēi tīng the living room for coffee, or bowling 保龄球, bǎo líng qiú literally bowling-ball. Nowadays, as globalization brings in new concepts at a dizzying pace, it becomes almost a luxury to create a crafty translation. Especially for terms that come with catchy acronyms, such as MBA, GDP, WiFi, are mostly used as they are without any translation at all. Does this trend reflect a certain degree of laziness, or simply a more efficient way of importing ideas and communicating with the rest of the world? It would be up to individuals to decide, but one could always admire the thoughtfulness and elegance that went into the translations made in earlier days, and ponder on the nature of cultural exchange at its very essence.