language


22

Jun 2009

How to Pronounce nciku

The online Chinese dictionary everyone is using these days is nciku. Newbies and veterans alike all seem to dig it. The quality of the dictionary entries is a refreshing change from the deluge of unimpressive CEDICT clones. One common difficulty among nciku users of all levels, however, is that they can’t figure out how the hell to pronounce the name! Is it N-C-I-K-U, each letter pronounced like its name, or maybe N-C-I-koo, or something like In-see-koo? Just how do you really pronounce nciku, anyway??

By clicking on 简体 (or 繁體) in the footer to switch to the Chinese version of the site, you can see the nciku’s Chinese name: n词酷. So this should answer the original question: the “n” is pronounced like the name of the letter N, and the “ciku” part is pinyin cíkù.

nciku-name

But why?? What’s up with the name? Well, I have to say, it’s a pretty horrible name if your target market is foreigners. No one knows how to pronounce it when they see it. The name does make sense from a Chinese perspective, though.

First, the n. That’s the mathematical n, as in an unspecified number that could be really high. It might seem strange to bring mathematical variables into everyday conversation, but in modern Chinese it happens on a regular basis. In Mandarin when you do something n (n times), you did it so many times you don’t even know how many. Like we say “a million” in English, or, perhaps more appropriate in its ambiguity, “a zillion.” Rather than n, you can also say n, which also means a zillion times, but sounds quite similar to the beginning of the name n词酷.

词酷 is a concocted homophone for 词库, a somewhat technical word meaning “lexicon” or “word bank.” You can talk about a lexicon in terms of all the words of an entire language, or in terms of an individual’s own vocabulary.

So why for ? Well, is the popular transliteration for “cool,” and the character , appearing in such words as 数据库 (database), 语料库 (linguistic corpus), 车库 (garage), 仓库 (warehouse), quite frankly, isn’t very cool.

So there you have it: n词酷, a zillion word banks (but cool).


16

Jun 2009

10 Vegetables China Taught Me to Love

I’ve always been good about eating my vegetables, but coming to China was a total game-changer for me, vegetable-wise. Here were veggies I’d long since written off as “nasty,” forcing me to reevaluate them in their new oriental guise. And reevaluate I did! In the end, I found myself growing to love the Chinese version of many of the vegetables I thought I didn’t like. (It’s probably more than just the effect of MSG.)

Of course, then there are also the ones I’d never heard of or seen before coming to China. One of them even made it all the way to #1 on my list. Definitely noteworthy!

The pictures below all come from Flickr, and each photo was taken by someone other than me. Please click through to see the photo on Flickr, and comment there if you would like to praise the photographers. Anyway, in reverse order, here are the top ten vegetables China taught me to love:

10. Cauliflower (花菜)

This one was always disgusting to me in the US, unless it was drowned in cheese. Good old Chinese MSG and spices seems to take care of the issue, though!

(more…)


08

Jun 2009

Translating Mispronunciations

I was recently watching an episode of the once-popular TV series Everybody Loves Raymond where the plot involved the main character’s mispronunciations of a few words. Naturally, I was curious how these slips of the tongue were translated into Chinese. The Chinese subtitles are tiny and pixelated, but if you strain a little you can see for yourself in the video below (10:28-13:08):

So what’s interesting about this translation is that tricky sequences of consonants in English, mispronounced, are being represented by wrong tones in Chinese. Here’s exactly how it plays out:

1. ask / *ax, 问 (wèn) / *刎 (wěn)

2. asterisk / *asterix, 星号 (xīnghào) / *星蚝 (xīngháo)

3. cinnamon / *cinnamum, 肉桂 (ròuguì) / *肉鬼 (ròuguǐ)

Originally I spotted this translation on DVD, but I went looking for it online to save time. Turns out that the video on Youku is a different translation, but exactly the same trick is used. In the version I first saw, 问 (wèn) was mispronounced as 闻 (wén).

So how is the translation? Would native Chinese speakers actually routinely make slip-ups of a tonal variety the way Ray does with “ax” and “asterix?” Actually, yes, but likely only if the speaker’s Mandarin is heavily influenced by another dialect. For example, my father-in-law is from the mountains of Hubei, and his Mandarin is pretty normal, but there are a few words whose tones he routinely mispronounces.


07

Jun 2009

RJ's Reasons for Learning Chinese

ChinesePod recently published an elemntary lesson called Why are You Studying Chinese? The lesson content itself was quite simple, but it led to an outpouring of thoughtful responses from the community. I especially enjoyed star user RJBerki’s response:

> Why? Work took me to China, and my first trip opened my eyes to a whole new world. I found China to be a fascinating surreal collision of Old and new, rich and poor, east and west, tradition and modernity, capitalism and communism, ancient wisdom and modern foolishness etc etc.

> The language is beautiful, clever, compressed and elegant like a good math problem. The characters are not only a challenge but also elegant and beautiful, an art form in their own right, but also just systematic enough to appeal to the analyst in me.

> I found myself wanting to travel China and learn more and more. The people are wonderfully friendly, selfless and caring, generous to a fault, and just great hosts with hospitality second to none. As I sit at dinner with these folks, I want to “hear” what they are saying, feel what they are feeling” I want to participate in the conversation, I want to gather as well as share new ideas. I want to read, write, listen, and speak. I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of China. I want to be a part of the Chinese family. I want to be able to separate the old lies and prejudices from the modern truth.

> This is why I am learning Chinese, which has now become a wonderful and fascinating hobby. A bottomless pit from which I pluck new information, ideas, and unexpected “joys” on a daily basis. No end in site, and for that I am grateful. And then there is Cpod and the community that comes with. Priceless.

I liked RJ’s response partly because I could really identify with it. He echoed many of the reasons I was so attracted to Chinese in the beginning. (Of course, living in China, you find new reasons as well…)


23

May 2009

Learn English with Obama

At the book store last night this book caught my eye:

Follow Barack Obama to Learn English

The book [link on DangDang] claims to teach English using nine of Obama’s famous speeches, teaching you how to speak English like Obama. It even comes with an MP3 CD of audio content. Interesting!

Here’s another one [link on DangDang] that simply takes Obama’s speeches and translates them on the opposing page:

Selected Speeches by Barack Obama (English-Chinese)

Without even trying, Obama has already begun to do his part to add to the glut of English-learning materials in China.


13

May 2009

Many Eyes on Language

The “Language Speakers” bubble chart image below was created as part of IBM’s Many Eyes project:

Speakers

It’s a really cool project which enables the creation of various types of visualizations given certain data sets. Language lovers will also be interested in the Phrase Net on the Many Eyes blog.


09

May 2009

Jiong Permutations

The 囧 (jiǒng) phenomenon has been around for a while now, and I’m starting to see more and more permutations of it. Here are a few examples.

From an online Chinese ad:

Online 囧 ad

From TofuBrain‘s Flickr page:

jiong mutations

From a local shop:

冏 variation

What have you seen?


Flickr updates:

This photo by 强悍的兔子.Rabbit has many permutations:

Also, these two examples of showing up in the character

…are explained by this comic [large size]:

The comic says that the character actually derives, not from and as is commonly taught, but from and . This etymology seems to confirm it. So one of the earliest character etymologies we learn (sun + moon = bright) is either a lie, or actually just a bit more ambiguous than we were led to believe? Interesting!


26

Apr 2009

Shanghainese Stand-up Comedian Zhou Libo

Zhou Libo

Zhou Libo: Xiaokan 30 Nian

I haven’t noticed any online English language mentions of Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) yet, but he clearly deserves a bit more attention. His DVD, 笑侃三十年, has been selling like hotcakes in DVD shops across Shanghai for weeks, and I hear his upcoming live performances are selling out.

You could say his act is “comedy with Shanghainese characteristics” because 笑侃三十年 is Zhou’s humorous take on the changes Shanghai has experienced in the past 30 years. For many Shanghainese, the act is equal parts nostalgia and comedy. (Well, maybe not equal… my wife was laughing so hard she was crying at certain parts, and she’s not old enough to be nostalgic about everything he was talking about. Her parents loved the act too, though.)

Of course, the most obvious “Shanghainese characteristic” of Zhou’s act is the language it’s delivered in. Being mostly in Shanghainese, Zhou Libo’s humor remains somewhat inaccessible to both foreigners and most Chinese alike. Sure, there are video clips online with Chinese subtitles, but when he starts with the Shanghainese wordplay, subtitles are of little use.


Chinese media comentator David Moser has lamented the death of xiangsheng as an art form in China. So what’s filling the void? To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Zhou Libo phenomenon is that he seems to be a part of a larger development: as two-man “Chinese stand-up” xiangsheng is waning, a new brand of home-grown Chinese solo stand-up comedy may be emerging. Furthermore, it seems to be happening through quirky regional acts like Xiao Shenyang from northeast China (the act linked to can only be described as stand-up comedy), and Zhou Libo, whose act is so “regional” that it can only be directly appreciated by the Shanghainese.

I’m certainly no expert on stand-up comedy, but I’m interested in seeing where this is going. Perhaps sites like Danwei will do some more in-depth reporting on the phenomenon, even if a Shanghainese act is of little interest to Beijingers.


11

Apr 2009

A Hostel for Punsters

Red Donkey Hostel (驴馆)

There’s a hotel on Shanghai’s West Zhongshan Road (中山西路) that I pass pretty often. Its Chinese name is 驴馆, or, literally, “Donkey Hostel.” Its English name is Red Donkey Hostel [website]. (Unsurprisingly, they passed on the opportunity for the similarly puntastic “Ass Hostel” English Translation.)

The Chinese name 驴馆 is a pun on the word 旅馆 (hostel). (donkey) and the in 旅馆 (hostel) are both pronounced . Even though is second tone (lǘ) and is third tone (lǚ), tone sandhi rules render their pronunciations identical in this case.

Here’s a (semi-fictional) image of what the hostel looks like:

Red Donkey Hostel (驴馆)


See also: other articles on Chinese puns


03

Apr 2009

Translator Interview: Benjamin Ross

Ben Ross

Benjamin Ross is a translator, interpreter, and adjunct ethnographer living in Chicago. Previously, he has lived in Fuzhou, China, where his blog became well known for his account of thirty days in a Fuzhou barber shop. This is the fifth interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.


1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

I have never done any formal Chinese studying. Instead I studied French for 5 years in high school/college, which was a colossal waste of time due to both the limitations of learning a language in a classroom setting, and the dearth of opportunities to speak with native French speakers in Kansas.

Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” and this has always been the philosophy I have used for learning languages. If I had to say how I studied Chinese, I did it by conversing with old people in the park, traveling around China by train, chatting daily on QQ, learning songs for KTV, carrying around notebooks wherever I went, and asking an endless amount questions to any one of the 1.3 billion Chinese people who were within my immediate vicinity.

2. How has living in China helped prepare you to become a translator?

Living in China has been absolutely integral in preparing to become a translator in that it gave me both the desire and the necessity to master the Chinese language. To further expound on the original question, I would like to modify the question to read “How has living IN A SMALL TOWN in China helped prepare you to become a translator?” My first fifteen months in China were spent in Fuqing, a small town about an hour away from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province. I was one of only two Westerners in the entire town, and this more than anything fueled my desire to master Chinese. I honestly think that had I spent those first fifteen months in Beijing, Shanghai, or even Fuzhou, I probably wouldn’t have the appropriate skills to be a translator today.

(more…)


02

Apr 2009

Translator Interview: John Biesnecker

John and Son

John Biesnecker has worked in Shanghai as a translator for several years, both as a salaried translator and as a freelance translator. He is a language-learning enthusiast, and writes a blog called Never Stop Moving. This is the fourth interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.


1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

I took two semesters of Chinese at university, the year before I came moved to China, in classes full of Chinese American kids that already spoke the language. Upon moving to China I discovered that I had learned effectively nothing. 🙂 In 2004 I spent a semester at Jilin University, but mostly didn’t go to class because I was broke and had to work. Everything else has been self-taught.

2. How has living in China helped prepare you to become a translator?

Living in China has made massive input a lot more practical. I don’t think you have to live in China (or Taiwan, or any other Chinese-speaking place) to develop your Chinese skills to the point that you can do translation, but if you don’t you have to be a lot more disciplined. Personally, had I not been surrounded by the language every single day, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I just didn’t have the “Chinese acquisition drive” to do it in any other way, especially in the beginning.

(more…)


01

Apr 2009

Translator Interview: Joel Martinsen

Joel

Joel Martinsen is a well-respected regular contributor to Danwei.org, where his frequent translations are a staple. Joel spends a ton of time immersed in Chinese texts, and according to Brendan, “he never forgets anything he ever reads.” This is the third interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.


1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

My high school offered Chinese as a foreign language, which turned out to be somewhat less effective than other high school language programs because all levels were tossed together in one class. I took Chinese as my foreign language in college, reaching a third-year level, and then came to China after graduation. After three years living in Jilin, I enrolled in a graduate program in the modern literature department of Beijing Normal University, where I left after three years without actually completing a degree.

2. How has living in China helped prepare you to become a translator?

Access to books and other materials, particularly print journalism, was one of the great benefits of living in China. Being able to take a short walk and pick up an interesting used book from a street vendor or the latest issue of a news magazine probably got me to read more at a time when slogging through classics or being bored to tears by children’s fables would have driven me to put down the books in favor of something less helpful to my language learning. And the sentimental, overacted TV dramas that play at all hours are a great way to get a sense for how
colloquial language is actually put to use. Most of this is probably available on the Internet these days, though. It was after I started doing translation work that other advantages became apparent. The community of translators in Beijing has helped me find work, tackle sticky problems, and figure out standard rates and typical client expectations so that I’m not underselling my efforts too badly. This is doable over the Internet too, but it would require more motivation than I possess. It’s great to be able to call someone up a native-speaker friend with a translation issue and then meet face to face to hash it out in a conversation that could go on for several confusing rounds over email. For some work, such as film subtitling, living in China (or at least being able to fly over for the
duration of the job) is essential.

(more…)


31

Mar 2009

Translator Interview: Peter Braden

Pete

Peter Braden is ChinesePod‘s translator, as well as host of Poems with Pete, a podcast which introduces Chinese poetry to a general audience. He is a voracious reader, Elvis impersonator, karaoke king, and proud couchsurfer. This is the second interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.


1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

I studied for two years at the State University of New York, Albany and one year at the International Cultural Exchange School (国际文化交流学院) at Fudan University here in Shanghai. I didn’t learn very much in the first year at SUNY. This was partly because the teacher emphasized atonal pinyin above all else, and partly because I hadn’t “caught the bug” and didn’t apply myself completely. Everything changed in the second year when I got an outstanding teacher who put the “fun” in fundamentals. He was much more aggressive about radicals and tones. I got very interested, and knew I needed to learn more.

In addition to the pure language courses, I took a lot of other courses on Chinese history for my double majors, Asian History and East Asian Studies. This included research trips to Tibet and Xinjiang. I also lived in a Buddhist monastery in Kaohsiung (ROC) for a month. These courses got me even more excited to learn Chinese, so that I could read historical documents, interview people, and do research. You can’t learn (or at least you won’t really enjoy learning) Chinese in a vacuum. You need a motivation, or the language will grind you into powder and blow you away.

(more…)


30

Mar 2009

Translator Interview: Brendan O'Kane

Brendan

Brendan O’Kane is a talented young writer, much beloved in the China blogosphere scene for his pieces on Bokane.org. He has also earned much praise for his amazing spoken Chinese and understanding of Chinese poetry and classics. This is the first interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.


1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

My study history has been kind of a patchwork. I began learning Chinese with evening classes at the Community College of Philadelphia in September 1999, and continued there until December 2000 when they didn’t get sufficient enrollment for the spring 2001 semester. After that, I got private lessons with my old professor’s husband for a semester, then joined the Stanford/Beijing University summer program from June-August 2001. When I started at Temple University in fall ’01, I went into third-year Chinese with Louis Mangione (who is worth his weight in gold as far as I’m concerned) and took a semester of independent study classes in Classical Chinese in spring ’02.

After that it gets a bit messy: I spent a year teaching in Harbin from 2002-2003, which was just wonderful for my Chinese — though I doubt it was much help for my students’ English. After a year of teaching little kids, I decided I’d rather be a student than a teacher, at least for a while, and went back to Beijing University through its 对外汉语学院 [College of Chinese as a Foreign Language] from fall 2003 to spring 2004. I found that the advanced classes there were not really much help, so after a semester of language classes, I switched to regular undergraduate classes in the Chinese department. I don’t think I made the most of that opportunity, and still regret being basically a slacker during that time — but I did manage to get a fair amount out of it with courses in 文字学 [graphology]、《》《导读 [guided readings in Laozi and Zhuangzi]、and 现代汉语语言学 [modern Chinese linguistics].

And that’s pretty much the end of my formal training. When I went back to the States to finish my degree at Temple, I took a couple of independent study classes in which I decided to focus on my written Chinese (a topic that i don’t think any program really addresses in any kind of serious way), and after a year of that, I came back to Beijing, where I’ve been ever since.

I wouldn’t want to downplay the help I’ve gotten from my teachers, but I think I also got a lot out of studying and reading up on things on my own. I’ve been raiding second-hand bookstores (and first-hand bookstores, when I’ve got the money) pretty much since the beginning of my study of Chinese, and I think my extracurricular reading has been a huge help in my studies. Being in China for a lot of it has also helped a lot, obviously, but I’m not sure I would have gotten the same benefit if I’d been here from the start of my studies — but that takes us to:

(more…)


29

Mar 2009

The Many Paths to Translation Work

I succumbed to the lure of translation work just as I was about to start grad school in 2005. Although I had long avoided “real translation work,” I figured if my Chinese was good enough to get into grad school in China, then I should be able to handle a few translation jobs. The truth is, even after 4+ years of living in China studying the language, I was terrified of putting my language skills to such a tangible, transparent trial, subject to judgment and criticism. Well… all the more reason to give it a shot, right?

So I did. I tried translation for a while, and it went smoothly enough, but I realized I hated it. Most of the jobs I got made me feel like a machine. (Perhaps this was because I expected the kind of work I was doing to be replaced by a Google service in the near future, my hours of mental anguish reduced to the click of a button.) Still, there were things I enjoyed translating… bad subtitles, maybe, or an interesting name. But those are the kinds of translations I could only do strictly for fun.

These days I rarely stray too far from translation, because my academic work at ChinesePod is inherently tied to translation for pedagogical purposes. It really is a whole new game, and one whose challenges I find rewarding. Fortunately, translation nowadays is accomplished with a slew of digital tools, ranging from online dictionaries and databases to desktop reference tools (I’m looking at you, Wenlin!). It seems like the translator’s biggest headache these days is non-digital source text.

Despite all the technological advances, the issues a translator faces are, at their core, very human, and so human minds are obviously our best weapon for this task. What’s not obvious is where these translators are coming from. Proper translation from Chinese to English requires a native speaker of English, but the translators I meet aren’t typically the graduates of some kind of translation academy, and the translators out there now precede the new wave of China-focused graduates. They’re a mixed lot with completely different backgrounds, and they share a peculiar passion for translation that I certainly was never able to muster.

Translator Interview Series

This is why I did a series of interviews with translators in China that I know personally. I asked what I was curious about, and received a surprisingly diverse set of answers. Over the next five days I’ll be publishing one new interview every day. As I publish new interviews, the links will appear below, making this page an index for the series.

The interview lineup:

1. Brendan O’Kane (Bokane.org writer, freelance translator)
2. Peter Braden (ChinesePod translator and host)
3. Joel Martinsen (Danwei.org contributor/translator)
4. John Biesnecker (blogger, freelance translator, Qingxi Labs founder)
5. Ben Ross (barber shop anthropologist, translator/interpreter)
6. Megan Shank (blogger and freelance translator and journalist)

Specifically, I ask them about what kind of training/preparation they had to become translators, the role of technology in their trade, and the challenges and joys that translation work brings. Whether you aspire to become a translator, or you just have an interest in language, be sure to catch what these guys have to say on the topic.

[Apr. 8 Update: An interview with Megan Shank, originally planned for this interview, has been added to the lineup.]

26

Mar 2009

Beatles Songs with Chinese Characteristics

My coworker Pete has just started using Twitter under the name @pearltowerpete, and he’s begun a great series of Chinese puns involving Beatles song titles. Here’s what he’s got so far:

– Hey Zhu De
– The Long and Winding March
– So you say you want a Cultural Revolution
– Twist and Denounce
– Here Comes the Sun Yat-sen

More are sure to follow. Pete is ChinesePod‘s translator. (The funny hashtags (e.g. #cpod5) relate to ChinesePod’s new Activity Stream Twitter integration.)


19

Mar 2009

Korean Update

I while back I announced I was studying Korean, and since then I’ve had quite a few inquiries as to how it’s going. So let me make an official update: it’s not going. Yeah, that whole Korean study didn’t last too long.

Why not? Well, it turns out my reasons for studying Korean weren’t very good in the first place. A quick recap of why I decided to study Korean:

1. Korean looks cool.
2. Korean writing is phonetic.
3. I’ve already got a good foundation in 2 of 3 major East Asian languages down (might as well go for the East Asian Linguistic Trilogy).
4. It’s easy to do in China.

Just in case these reasons don’t strike you as entirely stupid, I’ll add a few incisive questions into the mix:

1. Do you need to learn Korean? Not at all.

2. Do you have plans to go to Korea? No, not really. Been there once, and it was nice, but I’m not itching to go back.

3. Do you have a love of Korean culture? TV dramas, maybe? No, not really.

4. Do you have many Korean friends that you could practice with? No.

5. Is learning Korean related to any other long-term goals you might have? No, not at all.

Hmmm, OK, I think that’s probably enough. So I basically had no compelling reason to learn Korean, and I gave it a shot anyway. It lasted 2-3 months, I learned a bit about the language, and it was fun. No regrets.

But I did learn a thing or two about motivation for language learning. Having a need or a use for the language you’re learning is important. This doesn’t mean that you should choose only super practical languages (Spanish, anyone?), but it does mean that trying to pick up a random language just because it’s kind of interesting probably won’t work. You need stronger motivation.

Aside from motivation, you need occasion to practice the new language. The opportunities for practice and the motivation for learning feed on each other. When you have both, they nurture each other. When you’re missing one, the other easily withers.

As it turns out, I had neither for Korean. I have both for Shanghai sign language, and it’s going really well. I’ll be writing more about that soon.


03

Mar 2009

Flawed Plan

From Twitter, ajatt says:

> Another problem with going to the country to learn the language is that by design, just as your skill is peaking, it’s time to leave.

I can attest to that. It’s one of the big reasons I never left China.

I once did have a plan to stay in various countries for relatively short periods of time, just long enough to gain fluency. It does make me wonder… who is heartless enough to leapfrog across the globe, mastering one language after another, gaining precious insight into those cultures, only to leave each one behind?



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