Shanghai’s Mobile Library

I was surprised to see a library-on-wheels in Shanghai’s Jing’an Park the other day. The vehicle is called “Reader No. 1″ in English, “读者1号” in Chinese.

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

Shanghai's Mobile Library

The mobile library visits various spots in Jing’an District three times per week, for two hours each time. According to the sign, this has been going on since 2010? I had no idea.

I wonder how many foreigners are using this service?

FluentU: a Developing Video-based Platform for Learning Chinese (1)

FluentU has quickly become the most talked-about video service for learning Chinese online. The site sports a clean, modern feel, and the team have been very responsive over the past year, as user feedback has informed a number of nice changes. Although I’ve been following FluentU’s development (and even met with the founder a while back), I haven’t reviewed the service myself until recently. It’s not a coincidence; I’m actually a bit skeptical of video-based learning (it’s really hard to get right), and I wanted to wait until FluentU got a few more features out before I reviewed the service.

For the most part, I’m going to assume that most of my readers have already heard about FluentU (it’s certainly not new anymore!), and I won’t provide an in-depth introduction to how the service works. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

Why video?

Why video? This is a really important question. Working at ChinesePod, we were often confronted with the “why don’t you guys do video?” question. The logic seemed to be: “if audio is good, video is better.” ChinesePod has done a few experiments in video over the years, but never fully committed to it. The reasons are:

  1. Professional video is much more labor-intensive than audio (by a factor of 5-10)
  2. Users often say they want video, but don’t really want to pay extra for it (poor ROI)
  3. Many users use audio material in a way that doesn’t work with video (e.g. listening while working out, or while driving)

What conclusions can I draw from this? Not a whole lot. Maybe video is just not a good fit for the ChinesePod brand. Building up a big fanbase over years and years, all centered on audio, probably doesn’t naturally lead to demand for video. If ChinesePod were to really commit to doing video, it would have to be a concerted, long-term effort, and more than just a few experimental videos.

FluentU, on the other hand, has focused on video from the start. In its early days, it utilized tons of clips from YouTube, which meant its resources could go into translation, vocab management, and other tools (rather than video production). More recently, FluentU has started producing its own professional video content.

Video is great for providing the full visual context of language, including both cultural elements and body language. This is especially powerful for learners not in China (learners which can also take advantage of the unblocked internet and faster speeds for viewing FluentU videos).

FluentU: the Video Player

FluentU does a great job of presenting video. The player is great, right down to all sorts of tiny details. If you know FluentU at all, you know this, so I won’t say too much here.

FluentU - Video - The Four Tones in Use

Some specific details I like:

  1. Being able to loop a specific clip within a video.
  2. Color coding in the video timeline so you can see where the dialog happens in the videos and where there’s no speaking going on.
  3. Hovering on the subtitles automatically pauses the video, so you can check the meanings or pinyin of the words you’re hearing.
  4. When you first select a video, you’re presented with the entire video transcript up front (which you can also download). This is especially useful for intermediate and above; if you can read enough to get the gist of the transcript, you don’t have to suffer through 5 minutes of a video before discovering it’s not what you want.

But there’s a catch… because FluentU makes extensive use of YouTube, it doesn’t work flawlessly in China. I have a VPN, of course, but it’s still a little slow. It’s usable, but the lag is quite annoying, I must admit. I imagine using FluentU on a fast (unfiltered) internet connection would be pretty awesome, though.

FluentU: Learn Mode

The is one of the key features I want to focus on. It wasn’t around in FluentU’s early free/beta days, and it has a lot of potential. Basically, “Learn Mode” is FluentU’s take on SRS, an idea which isn’t so great all by itself, but holds a lot of promise for enhancing other methods of learning.

When you choose a FluentU video at your level that you’re interested in, you can choose between “Watch” and “Learn.” “Watch” is just watching the video, as expected. “Learn” takes you to a new interface which is focused on figuring out which words in the video you actually know, and familiarizing you with the ones you don’t know. This process should feel very familiar to anyone who’s used Anki or other SRS vocabulary review software, but FluentU has done its own take on SRS.


When you don’t “know” a word, you have the option of watching one or more short video clips which include the word. It’s a very cool cross-section of the word in action across all kinds of video content and contexts. Imagine that all those sample sentences you love so much in your favorite dictionary (or Chinese Grammar Wiki) were all mini video clips. That’s what it does, complete with transcript for each individual sentence.

After you “learn” the word and continue, the system will cycle back and test you on the words you should have “learned.” There are multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank, and straight-up translation mini-quizzes for each word.

FluentU FluentU FluentU

So I’m totally on board with the idea of extending SRS into something more interesting, and I like seeing innovation around the boring SRS model, but there are a few issues (which I’m sure FluentU is working on). First, if you’re in China using a VPN, the lag issue is even worse for these tiny clips than for the full videos.

Second, the “Learn this word” vs. “Already Know” dichotomy may be a little hard for some types of learners to deal with. There are just so many words we learners are working on in learning, which fall in that fuzzy region somewhere between “Learn this word” (as if it were new) and “Already Know,” that being forced to choose may be just a little agonizing.

If you choose “Already Know,” then BAM, that word is forever (?) on your “known” list, which might make you feel like you damn well better know it before clicking “Already Know.” Perhaps that’s the idea: getting you to browse clips more, and make fuller use of FluentU’s archive of annotated video. Fair enough. I just think it will be hard for some users (read: super-serious learners with perfectionist tendencies, like I used to be) to confidently click on “Already Know.”

FluentU - The Four Tones in Use

One thing is for sure: the “Learn” mode offers a much more focused way to “study” FluentU’s video content, rather than just casually browsing. It really is a very different experience from the site’s main video-watching experience, more similar to a quiz than enjoying a TV show. I can see how this might attract some users and turn off others.

If FluentU can get “Learn” mode right and get more users actually using it, it has huge potential. Any learning service that can accurately determine what its users “know” is very well poised to offer an amazing, personalized learning experience. Right now, FluentU offers a little green strip next to every video displaying what is “known” (based on feedback from “Learn” mode). There’s a lot of potential here.


Mini-Interview with FluentU’s Founder, Alan Park


Me: The FluentU video player is fantastic! How did you design/develop it?

Alan: Thanks for the kind words! We designed/developed it through the same way that we develop the rest of the site: by going back and forth with our users and adjusting based on feedback, until they loved it. And then adjusting it some more.

FluentU has some great video content, but it seems to also be branching out into audio too. Are you having second thoughts about a “pure video” approach?

Alan: Our team doesn’t have many “sacred cows.” We experiment a lot and are always trying new things to make the best language learning site possible. We started with real-world videos because video has many advantages. Video is exciting, and it opens your eyes to a whole new world and culture. People talk naturally on video. It’s memorable and helps words stick. And most of all it’s fun. On the other hand, audio has 2 huge benefits: it’s cheaper to create than video, and it doesn’t require as much active engagement for the user as video. We’ve found that there is definitely a place for audio alongside video.

Is FluentU primarily aimed at individual self-study learners, or at schools and other institutions?

Alan: Our focus is individual learners, but many schools and institutions tell us that their students are loving FluentU.

You’ve launched other languages on the FluentU platform. What does this mean for Chinese? Will Chinese get any “special treatment” going forward, or are new features now “all or nothing”?

Alan: Chinese is our first language, so it will always get “special treatment.” And by virtue of the fact that there is pinyin and Chinese characters there is no way around it. Besides, it’s my favorite foreign language.

The “Learn” feature on FluentU is a unique take on spaced repetition. Is it popular with your users?

Alan: Yes, they love it. Instead of saying that it is a take on spaced repetition, I would say that spaced repetition is just one small part of it.

The “Learn” feature is really a personalized quiz for learning vocab through video contexts. Instead of learning vocab through flashcards, why not learn them through short video clips which are handpicked for you?

What’s next for the “Learn” feature?

Alan: We’re making it mobile friendly. Right now, it involves a lot of typing, which wouldn’t translate well for smartphone. Stay tuned!


Just a few takeaway points:

  • FluentU has a great, learner-centric video player with awesome features and real attention to detail
  • FluentU may not work well in China, even if you have a VPN
  • FluentU has “Learn” mode, which may not be for all users, but it definitely takes FluentU well beyond “a site with a bunch of videos,” and looks very promising

In part 2 I’ll be looking at the FluentU-produced video series, with a more in-depth interview with Content Director Jason Schuurman.

A Realistic Look at the Challenges of Reading Chinese

The following is a guest article written by a Sinosplice reader, Julian Suddaby. I have followed it with some commentary of my own.

Warning: if you’re a member of the “Chinese is super easy” faction, this article might annoy you a little, but be sure to read through to the end!

How Many Characters?

by Julian Suddaby, 2014-02-13


I asked Google “how many chinese characters do I need to learn” and the best sites I found pointed to linguist Jun Da’s website and used his data to argue that 3,500 characters should be enough for most people, being that you’ll know around 99.5% of the characters in general circulation. [1] Is that really enough?

Well, if you’ve got to that point, congratulations. It’s an achievement. But you may not want to stop accumulating characters just yet. Indeed, sad to say, at 3,500 you won’t even be able to read Jun Da’s name, being that 笪 is way down at frequency #5,231. [2] So how many, then, do you need to learn? Well, that depends on one question that you should ask yourself: what exactly do you want to read?

A Newspaper

Students often want to read Chinese newspapers. The Southern Weekly 南方周末 being a popular choice, I took the ten most popular articles over the previous thirty days and ran them through a computer program that checked them against Jun Da’s most frequent 3,500 characters. The results are fairly encouraging for the Chinese student, I think: if you knew the 3,500 you’d only encounter forty-four new characters over the course of those ten articles, and twenty-nine of those you’d only see once and so would probably just take a guess at from context and move on. But you’d possibly want to look up 甄, a pseudonymous surname given to the subject of one of the articles (and thus appearing thirty-five times); 闰, used in the name of a Zhejiang corporation which appears to have buried five hundred tons of poisonous chemicals in their backyard (seven appearances); and 驿, used in the name of a company involved in a online security breach (also seven appearances). [3]

So, while you probably shouldn’t throw out your dictionary just yet, it does seem that trying to read a newspaper won’t be a disheartening experience.

A Children’s Book

Children’s novels are another popular choice of reading material for language students. Shen Shixi is a well-regarded children’s novelist, whose Jackal and Wolf has recently been translated into English by Helen Wang. I ran an analysis on another of Shen’s novels, 《鸟奴》(lit. “Bird Slave”). This is, character-wise, much more difficult than the newspaper articles, with two hundred and one characters not in the top 3,500. Ninety of those are used more than once. As you’d expect from Shen, the “king of animal fiction”, animal-related vocabulary is one particular problem here, and you’ll probably end up very confused if you don’t look up 鹩, used two hundred and eighty-four times; 喙, used thirty-six times; and 獾, used twenty-two times. [4]

The novel is about two hundred and forty pages long, and so you should expect to find a character you don’t recognize on most pages.

A wuxia novel

Jin Yong’s novels remain firm favorites. Rather than starting with the four volumes and 1,300 pages of The Legend of the Condor Heroes 《射雕英雄传》, students might perhaps try A Deadly Secret《连城诀》, which is just four hundred pages or so. In those four hundred pages you’ll encounter two hundred and ninety-six characters not in the top 3,500.The most frequently used are from the protagonists’ names (水笙, 水岱, and 万圭), but there are plenty of new common nouns and verbs used multiple times as well. [5]

On a page-by-page basis, you should recognize more characters than in the Shen Shixi novel above. In terms of total characters, however, A Deadly Secret is more of a challenge.

A modern classic

Lu Xun’s A Call to Arms 《呐喊》, despite collecting stories he wrote at a very early stage of modern Chinese literary vernacularization, should not be much more difficult than the two novels above—at least in terms of basic character recognition. Two hundred and thirty unseen characters in total, with 闰 (remember that one from above?), 珂 (used in a name) and 锵 (a sound) taking the top three spots. [6]


Even from this very cursory analysis, it appears that if your goal is to read Chinese fiction comfortably without a dictionary, you’re going to need to recognize more than 3,500 characters. Chinese writers use characters well into the four or five thousand frequency range very regularly.

So although reaching 3,500 is worth celebrating, I wouldn’t stop trying to acquire characters just yet. Keep reading and dictionary-checking, and don’t abandon memorizing/spaced repetition if that’s something you find helpful. [7] You’ll still be coming across new characters for a long, long time…. [8]

  1. See
  2. 笪 Dà (a surname here, but means “a coarse mat of rushes or bamboo”, with 旦 dān providing the phonetic). Here and later I’m using Wenlin as my main reference for character glosses.
  3. 甄 Zhēn (a surname here, but originally meaning “to make pottery” and thus composed of 垔 and 瓦, but with no phonetic clue), 闰 rùn (used in a name here, but means “intercalary”; the much more common 润 shares the same pronunciation), 驿 yì (used together with 站 to mean “post/courier station”; right-hand side is the phonetic, as in 译).
  4. 鹩 liáo (“wren”, with the left-hand side providing the phonetic), 喙 huì (“snout; mouth; beak”, with both 口 and 彖 radicals semantic; no phonetic clue), 獾 huān (“badger”, with the right-hand side phonetic).
  5. 笙 shēng (“reed-pipe instrument”, bottom is the phonetic), 岱 Dài (“Taishan mountain”, top is the phonetic), 圭 guī (“jade tablet”, cf. 挂 or 桂 for the pronunciation).
  6. 珂 (“a jade-like stone”, right-hand side is the phonetic), 锵 qiāng (“clang”, right-hand side is the phonetic).
  7. For the more technologically-oriented student, another option may be available: thanks to the increasing availability of texts in machine-readable formats students could run their own frequency analysis on a text they wanted to read and pre-learn characters they don’t already know. It’s a pity there don’t seem to be any easy-to-use programs or websites that offer this functionality.
  8. It should also be noted that single character recognition is only part of reading Chinese, and is not on its own a good measure of reading proficiency. That said, the relative ease of measuring character recognition and frequency may justify its limited use as a self-diagnostic and motivational tool for learners of Chinese.

The following is my response:

Interesting! This sort of helps make a case for the importance of graded readers. (Have you seen Mandarin Companion?)

While I know your intent is to SEEK THE TRUTH, the overall tone of the article is, unfortunately, a little discouraging for struggling learners. For me, this totally highlights the need for materials that give the learner a sense of accomplishment for having reached 300, 500, 1000 characters, rather than an incessant message saying, “STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”

His response:

You’re quite right, I suppose I am a little too rigidly 实事求是 in the piece! I completely agree with you about the need to avoid the demotivating “still not good enough” feeling and message that permeates most Chinese teaching materials (how I remember my exasperation when the 高级 textbook still required fifty plus new vocabulary items per short text!). There’s really a huge need for more good reading materials with limited character/vocabulary ranges, and your graded readers look fantastic.

The Laziest Animated Movie Title Translations Ever

I remember when I first moved to China, I used animated films to practice Chinese quite a bit. I quickly discovered that Disney did an especially good jobs with translating (my favorite was the Chinese version of The Emperor’s New Groove). But I also started noticing something strange about a lot of these animated films’ Chinese titles… the word 总动员 appeared, somewhat inexplicably, way too often.

What is 总动员?


It was almost like a formula. In one word, what’s the movie about? That’s the main theme. Then just apply this formula:

[main theme] + 总动员

What was going on? I asked a number of native speakers abut this phenomenon, and none of them had paid the issue much notice. One bit of helpful information they did give, however, was that the word 总动员, in mainland China, is tied in the minds of many to some popular variety shows that came out around the year 2000. Specifically, they were 欢乐总动员 (“Joyous Zongdongyuan“) and 全家总动员 (“Whole Family Zongdongyuan“). Both were loud, fun, programs with lots of active people.

Pleco‘s dictionaries give the following definitions for 总动员:

  1. General/total mobilization
  2. General (or total) mobilization
  3. general mobilization (for war etc)

OK, obviously those aren’t the meanings they’re shooting for in the titles of cartoon movies.

Native speakers seems to have trouble giving an exact definition of this use of 总动员, but the feeling is clear: exciting, happy, lively, 热闹, with lots of people.

The Rise of 总动员

Not appearing in dictionaries did not stop this word from popping up in animated feature titles all over the place, starting shortly before 2000. Many were Disney films, but not all:


  • Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 (1995, 1999, 2010) 玩具总动员: “Toy Zongdongyuan
  • Joe’s Apartment (1996) 蟑螂总动员: “Cockroach Zongdongyuan
  • Finding Nemo (2003) 海底总动员: “Bottom of the Sea Zongdongyuan
  • Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) 巨星总动员: “Megastar Zongdongyuan
  • The Incredibles (2004) 超人总动员: “Superman Zongdongyuan
  • Cars, Cars 2 (2006, 2011) 赛车总动员: “Race Car Zongdongyuan
  • Ratatouille (2007) 美食总动员: “Gourmet Zongdongyuan
  • Bee Movie (2007) 蜜蜂总动员: “Bee Zongdongyuan
  • WALL·E (2008) 机器人总动员: “Robot Zongdongyuan
  • Planes (2013) 飞机总动员: “Airplane Zongdongyuan
  • Free Birds (2013) 火鸡总动员: “Turkey Zongdongyuan
  • Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2014) 昆虫总动员: “Ant Zongdongyuan

This is not a complete list; rather, it’s an attempt to try to capture some of the biggest titles and the range that “zongdongyuan” covers.


OK, some of these seem to work OK… Specifically, Cars seems to deserve the treatment. I can’t help but feel that “Gourmet Zongdongyuan” (Ratatouille) could have been a much better title, though, as could have “Robot Zongdongyuan” (WALL·E).

To be fair, most of these movies actually do have multiple titles, and a casual check seems to indicate that the translators over in Taiwan are putting a bit more thought into the translations of animated feature film titles. Still, I’ve been seeing these zongdongyuan translations for years, and it especially stands out for Disney films, which tend to have excellent translations for the actual movies themselves, despite the total cop-out titles.

The Fall of 总动员

I was thinking the linguistics nerds like me were the only ones that gave this kind of issue any consideration, but fortunately at least some Chinese movie fans are also getting fed up:


A rough translation:

I’m so annoyed by the Chinese translations of animated films. It’s just this zongdongyuan, that zongdongyuan… screw zongdongyuan! Can’t you have just a bit of skill? If you don’t know how to translate, directly using the English title is better than this. You’ve all got culture, but now why so crude? In recent years all movies have been zongdongyuan-ized: cars, toys, bottom of the sea, gourmet food, robots… Do you even know what a zongdongyuan is? Bloody hell! When I see a shoddy translation like this it sets me off. How can such a good move have such a lame translation? I’m so pissed off! I get mad just thinking about it…

Anyway, the good news (for us translation purists) is that in recent years zongdongyuan seems to have worn out its welcome, and quite a few animated movies (including Disney/Pixar films) that almost certainly would have gotten zongdongyuan-ized 5 or 10 years ago did not: Brave, Tangled, A Bug’s Life, Madagascar, Rio, Up, Happy Feet (not 企鹅总动员!), Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Despicable Me, The Croods (疯狂原始人, “crazy primitive men” rather than 原始人总动员!)… all escaped zongdongyuan-ization. (Whether or not those films’ titles have good Chinese translations, though, is another question… but at least they’re not quite so lazy.)

So did anyone else notice this lazy translation trend, or was it just me?

Sun Moon Eyeglasses


I recently noticed an eyeware shop called 日月眼镜 (literally, “Sun Moon” Eyeglasses”). This is a good example of a name that plays on common knowledge of characters and character components. The glasses themselves, of course, are unrelated to celestial bodies, but when you put the characters for sun () and moon () together, you get , a character which means “bright.”

Why “bright”? There are two reasons:

  1. The word 明亮 (“bright”), is frequently used to describe attractive, alert, healthy young eyes. So it’s a good association.
  2. Another association, although less direct, is that can refer to eyesight itself. There’s a word 失明 (literally, “lose brightness”) which means “to lose one’s eyesight.” Logically, then, can refer to eyesight, but there’s no word (of which I am aware) other than 失明 which uses to mean “eyesight.”

Have you noticed any other Chinese shop or brand names that use “deconstructed characters” in their names?

Don’t Let the Air In

I saw this sign on the door of the AllSet Learning office building that leads out to the patio:


Here’s a closeup:


It reads:



Please, everyone, when going out on the balcony
close the door behind you
to prevent smog from entering the building

A young Chinese guy (presumably the one who put up the sign) came by our office to call our attention to the sign and ask for our cooperation. It was a little awkward because our window was open at the time (oops).

It’s weird… there’s a very traditional Chinese belief in a need for “fresh air” (even in the depths of winter). This air pollution problem is now quite visibly butting heads with that belief.

What Makes Bad Characters Readable?

I recently stumbled upon an interesting blog post titled The persistence of comprehension, which focuses on this handwritten Chinese note:


Now before you go too crazy trying to read it, know this:

Some time ago, Instagram user jumppingjack posted the above image of a note she left to her mum. She said that her brother secretly added extra strokes to the characters in the note. The result is interesting though: even though extra strokes were added, the note is still readable to most competent Chinese speakers.


That brother is kind of awesome. That is the kind of mischief I would have been all over as a kid, if only I had had Chinese characters at my disposal. The character substitutions are pictured at the right. (Note: not all of them are real characters.)

(Also, I totally sympathize with jumpingjack for writing the character wrong, with the two sides swapped. I have done that way too many times myself.)

Try having a Chinese friend read the note and take note what gives them the most trouble. Read the original post for the note’s original content (in electronic text) and the author’s analysis and conclusions.

Ad to “Save More”

means “save” (as in “save money,” 省钱) or “conserve” (as in “conserve electricity,” 省电).

I feel like I’ve been seeing this particular in-store advertisement in Carrefour forever, but it’s time I pointed it out, because it’s a nice simple example of characterplay:


The text reads:


Which means, “save even more” (or “saving more”). (Check out this Chinese Grammar Wiki article on 更 if it’s new to you.)

Obviously, the clever part is sneaking the ¥ sign (representing money) into the character.

Interview with Kathleen of

I recently discovered gotCharacters, the personal project of Kathleen Ferguson. I was impressed by the logical organization of the character components, and the clean, attractive design of the site. It was clear that a lot of work went into the site, and it’s all available for free! The following is my interview with her.

What made you decide to create a new resource for learning Chinese characters?

I came to Chinese in 2006 as an adult learner and struggled to remember even the simplest of characters and pinyin. There were few resources that suited my learning style, so early on I started developing my own mnemonics. I’m sharing them on with the hope that it will make someone else’s learning experience easier.

How is your work on gotCharacters different from that of “Chineasy” (of TED Talks fame)?

Based on ShaoLan Hsueh’s TED Talk and a quick look at the Chineasy website, I think we share the same goal: offering ways, like visual aids and other mnemonics, to make characters stick and to make learning Chinese less intimidating.

In developing gotCharacters, however, my perspective is different. English is my first language, and I’m a Chinese language learner (an adult learner at that); to me, my content represents material I would have liked to have had earlier in my learning curve. As an example, gotCharacters includes lookalikes—characters that look similar (like and , or and ). To the experienced eye the differences are clear, but for a newbie these characters can be indistinguishable (as they were for me).

How did you create all the content on gotCharacters? Do you have a team? Do you have Chinese teachers involved?

Most of the content started out as reams of handwritten notes accumulated over the years. With the benefit of time and mulling, an idea evolves and it’s sketched on a yellow pad. Then I use a variety of tools like graphics, Flash animations, audio recording, and eLearning software to develop the online content. Cecilia Lindqvist’s book China: Empire of Living Symbols and Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar are my two bibles.


I’m a visual learner, and animating characters brought them to life for me. My first animations were in 2010; in my mind’s eye, I could visualize (person) walking, flying, and rearing back on its hind legs and neighing. Every time I would come across these characters, as part of another character or as a stand-alone, I remembered the animation and thus the character.

Some ideas take time to come to fruition. I created the “Radical View” map ( in 2011 as an independent project for class. Two years later I presented a more fully formed version at a World Language Teachers conference (my topic was “Overcoming the Challenges of Learning Mandarin: An American Student’s Perspective”), and the Chinese teachers’ enthusiastic response inspired me to make a color-coded, interactive version for the website, which was launched just this month.

As far as a “team” goes, I’m it. My family is supportive of my passion for Chinese and my desire to share that with others. My first Chinese professor, Wu 老师 at Central Connecticut State University, and several Hanban and StarTalk teachers, including Wang 老师, who currently teaches Mandarin at our Newtown High School, have been strong supporters as well.

How far have you come with your Chinese studies?

I’ve come a long way since 2006 when learning everything was a struggle and remembering how to count to ten was elusive. I’ve taken four college classes and continue to self-study using podcasts, books, Chinese movies, and anything else that helps me to learn and remember Chinese.

My reading proficiency is good, and I can carry on a basic conversation with a native speaker as long as they speak slowly and deliberately. My goal is to become fluent in Chinese, and though I have a long way to go, I’m enjoying the journey a great deal.

Did some of the characters you learned at a more advanced level influence how you designed the material for beginners to learn characters?

Technology has actually had the greatest influence on how I designed the material. With the evolution and easy availability of software and web tools, I can do more today than just a few years ago to extend the functionality and versatility of the content.

What’s next? Is this a growing business, or a side project?

It is my passion and avocation (I’m doing what I love), and I hope that I can make a living with it at some point. There is much more content coming to gotCharacters, and I look forward to opportunities to collaborate with others, to develop course curriculum, and maybe someday to teach characters. My mother always told us “Your goal should be just out of your reach” so my goal is for to become for Chinese what Kahn Academy is for math.

Translation Challenges: Roof Repair

I recently spotted this sign on the stairs leading to the roof of the AllSet Learning office building:


Here’s the Chinese text:


Literally, that’s:

rooftop / examine and repair / in the middle of,
temporarily stop / use; usage,
thank you!

The translation offered:

The roof is during maintenance. Stop using temporarily. Thank you!

The translation, while not great, is understandable. What stood out to me, though, were two issues frequently encountered in Chinese signs which can give translators a hard time:

  1. Use of after a verb
  2. Signage etiquette

First let’s look at the first part: 屋顶检修中. The translator was on the right track with “during” for , and in adding “to be” into the English (its absence in Chinese is key to the difficulty of the translation), and also in converting the Chinese 检修 verb to a noun form for the English. But it still came out weird, because the translation demands a certain amount of linguistic flexibility with the concept behind . It’s hard to come up with a stock translation for this that’s going to work in most cases. “During,” “in the middle of,” “in progress,” “underway,” “undergoing,” “in the midst of,” “currently” are all possibilities, but they’re certainly not easy for a non-native speaker to choose between, and not all are prepositions or prepositional phrases, either.

For the second part, 暂停使用, although the English is correct, it doesn’t contain the necessary degree of politeness we expect and demand from our signage in the English-speaking world. Chinese signs, while formal, just don’t feel as polite, and everyone is cool with that.

I have to give the translator props for converting the Chinese commas into periods in English, though. The Chinese “legal run-on” sentence being translated into an (unacceptable) run-on sentence in English is one of the most common mistakes made by beginner Chinese-English translators.

Anyway, a better translation would be something like:

The rooftop is currently undergoing repairs. Please do not use it at this time. Thank you!

Obviously, that can be polished more.

It’s easy to laugh at bad Engrish, but in this case there’s nothing funny, and difficulties translating from Chinese to English (that go beyond simple word choice) can be indicative of difficulties that learners of Chinese will face with Chinese.

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