Soup of the day

shoot-to-translateNew Scientist reports that Nokia are going to launch a new phone which will be able to translate menus from Chinese to English.

IF YOU think you are ordering ice cream from a foreign menu, you don't want to end up asking for a plate of sheep's eyes by mistake. A cameraphone Nokia plans to launch next year will set you straight.

Snap a picture of, say, a dessert menu and the phone will recognise the characters and translate the words within a few seconds . The prototype shown to New Scientist can translate 9000 Chinese and 600 Japanese food-related words into English, with more language versions to follow.

However, if you closely at the photograph you can see that it may not be all that helpful - the English translation manages only one word - soup (湯).

Beware of your belongings

The BBC reports (China dishes up menu translations) that the Beijing Tourism Bureau is trying to improve the English translations of restaurant menus in preparation for next year's Olympics.

Translations such as "virgin chicken" for a young chicken dish and "burnt lion's head" for pork meatballs are confusing for foreigners, it says.

[..] The names of many Chinese dishes have historical, cultural, regional and political connotations that would not necessarily be understood by foreigners, Xinhua reports.

Not just Chinese, of course.  What do foreigners make of menus with items such as Yorkshire Pudding, Hors d’œuvre (which I once saw translated as "mixed outworks"), Peach Melba, Hash Browns, Bombay Duck etc. 

But the poor English translations "either scare or embarrass foreign customers and may cause misunderstanding of China's diet habits".

The tourism bureau is seeking opinions on the translations of 2,753 dishes and drinks. The final, approved list of translated names will then be rolled out to restaurants across the country, Xinhua says.

One of the many problems with translations is that there are subtle differences in meaning in both English and Chinese.  For example, I recently saw a sign with a series of warnings in both Chinese and English.  One of them was 'Beware of your belongings', which might be apt if you have a Nokia phone with an exploding battery, but clearly it wasn't what they really meant.

The Chinese version started with a very familiar phrase - 小心 (siu sam in Yale romanization), which means "take care".  In some cases, "beware" is a good translation, such as "beware of the slippery floor", but here it isn't and the normal translation would be correct. 

Of course the meaning is clear enough, and frankly I don't need to be to be reminded to look after my belongings, but you have to wonder why someone didn't take the trouble to ask a native English speaker whether the translation was correct.

Good intentions

Via DGNYHK, an interesting site for learning Chinese characters.  You can download a small application that displays Chinese characters - just set it to display a new character every few seconds and be amazed at how many you (kinda, almost) recognize.

Two more free sites:

Cantonese lessons


Or for a laugh, paste Chinese text into the Babel Fish translator and marvel at the Pidgin English that comes out the other end.


XiaoxindihuaWe are all used to seeing signs in China with weird English translations from Chinese, but this one is a bit different.

For this one (in a railway station) rather than attempting to translate into English, they have provided the Pinyin.  Very helpful if you are trying to learn Chinese, I guess.. 

(Sorry about the poor quality of the picture - the text says "Xiao Xin Di Hua")

But it's much easier than Cantonese

Have to agree with Paul over at The Valley on this one.

A typical conversation between a Gweilo and a local in Hong Kong goes something like this: "yes, Cantonese is not easy.  You should learn Mandarin - the tones are easier, and it's much more useful".

Say you were living in Hong Kong and you were surrounded by Cantonese speakers, your wife was a Cantonese speaker, the Radio and TV blared at you in Cantonese, the only way you could order local food was if you spoke Cantonese, and to scratch your ass you needed to ask permission in Cantonese, but Mandarin was considered to be slightly easier to learn, which one would you choose to learn.

The only argument I can thing of for learning Mandarin is that an improved Chinese vocabulary would help with Cantonese, but it might actually leave me more confused, and it cannot possibly be an efficient way to improve my pathetically limited Cantonese.

Of course, In the unlikely event that I were to move to the Mainland (or have to spend an extended amount of time there), then it might make sense to learn Mandarin, but as long as I am here in Hong Kong I don't think it matters how "easy" it may be, I won't be learning Mandarin.

Language barrier

Spike over at Hongkie Town has an amusing story of the problems of trying to speak Cantonese. Not that it's difficult to learn (though it is) but that most locals don't expects a gweilo to be speaking it. So they are straining to understand what they think is English rather than listening to some imperfect Cantonese.

I even adapt to this stereotype myself - although I can say "Joh Sun" I feel that English speakers expect me to speak in English, and that is what I do.

The end result of this is that I don't use my basic Cantonese enough, and so I find it hard to improve.

Yes, you're right it probably is just an excuse.

I say Guangzhou, you say Canton

I expressed some surprise that a UK journalist wrote about Canton rather than Guangzhou, but someone has posted a comment defending that usage, saying that Guangzhou is too Mandarin. Well, maybe it is, but to a cloth-eared gweilo it doesn't sound much different from Gwong Jau, which is the Cantonese version (I think). Either is surely preferable to "Canton", which is a real dog's dinner - it appears to be derived from the English interpretation of the Cantonese name for the province, Gwong Dung, romanized as 'Kwang Tung' and then mis-pronounced.

I remember when the BBC switched from calling the Chinese capital 'Peking' to calling it 'Beijing'. I suppose that this was when the Chinese government was pushing to get Putonghua adopted as the national language. I'm not totally sure how the earlier pronounciation came about, but I guess it is a mis-pronounciation of the Cantonese name, Bak-ging, so it is understandable that a correct pronounciation of the Putonghua version was preferred.

I suppose it's unusual to make a change like this, but reasonable when the original was basically a mistake. Other changes have come when colonies gained independence and adopted names in their local language (Ceylon became Sri Lanka, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Salisbury became Harare, etc.), or where the old regime was overthrown (Persia/Iran, Burma/Myanamar), though these tend to be more controversial - The Daily Telegraph stubbornly carried on calling the country Iran Persia, long after the downfall of the Shah, and many people still refuse to use the name Myanamar because they disapprove of the regime. However, I can't think of any other examples where the name of a city has stayed the same in the local language but the official English version has changed.

Why do I feel happy to say 'Cantonese' for the language but baulk at calling the city 'Canton'? I suppose it just doesn't sound right to mix the Chinese name with the English suffix (-ese). By the same token, I wouldn't say 'I speak Francais' - well, probably I shouldn't claim to speak French, full stop, but that's another matter.

Actually, there is very little consistency worldwide when it comes to how to pronounce foreign cities, and I suspect that again it often comes down to little more than what sounds right. For example, I think most Brits would pronounce Paris as an English word (rather than saying 'Paree' as the French do) but Lyon in the French way (not 'Lions' as per the English spelling, Lyons). When Ajax Amsterdam were one of the leading European football teams, some people pronounced it as it spelt, but others thought that sounded odd - perhaps because there was a well-known brand of cleaning liquid with that name - and used the Dutch pronounciation ("Aye-yaks") instead. Is it pretentious to use the local pronounciation? Maybe it is if you are not consistent, just picking and choosing a few foreign names and sticking with English most of the time.

Pretentious, moi?

Leih Hou Mah

The letters page of the SCMP is currently running a debate about the pronounciation of the Cantonese word for "year", following on from the way that it was written in English in SCMP's centenary edition.

Natasha Rogai ("Linguistic tide", November 17) and Hugh Tyrwhitt-Drake ("Linguistic tyranny", November 19) are wrong to have claimed that no one nowadays in Hong Kong would pronounce the word "year" in Cantonese as nin. Such a pronunciation is, as far as I can observe, still very much prevalent in the local Cantonese-speaking community.

The difference between "n" and "l" in the pronunciation of certain Cantonese words is actually one of the salient features of the language, being used to differentiate between many different words.

If these two have really never encountered the word "year" spoken correctly in Cantonese as nin, I suggest that they tune into the local television and radio stations during Chinese New Year. They will hear it said hundreds of times during the festive period.

One of the many challenges facing foreigners who try to learn Cantonese is how to remember the pronounciation of the various Chinese characters. There are many different systems for Romanization (as it's called) and none of them are foolproof, in part because many of the distinctive sounds from Cantonese are impossible to represent accurately. In fact, the initial consonant in many of these "words" is virtually silent, meaning that it hardly matters whether it is represented by an 'l' or an 'n'.

For example, the Chinese word for "you" is traditionally represented as 'neih', but these days it is common to hear it pronounced as 'leih'. However, many Cantonese speakers will not acknowledge that there is any difference between 'leih' and 'neih' and may even switch between the two pronounciations!!

Try using the romanized form of most Hong Kong place names and a Cantonese speaker won't understand what you're saying. We also have the absurdity of announcements on the MTR and KCR in English and Cantonese even when the place names are Chinese - so the English version is Wan Chai, and the English is something more like "Wan Ji". On the KCR the last station before the China border is Sheung Shui in English and "Song Soy" in Cantonese.

Listening to visitors trying to say "Tsim Sha Tsui" can be excruciating, but that's because they are trying to pronounce it as if it were an English word. If you listen to a local, it's more like "Jim Sa Joy", but you'd be unlikely to guess that from the 'English' name.

Then there is Mong Kok. Apparently the first part of the Chinese name was changed from Mong (busy) to Wong (prosperous) but they left the English name the same, so a Cantonese speaker calls it something like "Wong Gok".

There's more - when I first took Cantonese lessons, I had the misfortune to have a very old-fashioned teacher who insisted on speaking the language "correctly" rather than following common usage. This included teached us that 3.15 was "saam dim yat go gwat" (literally one quarter past three) whereas today almost everyone would say "saam dim saam".

And I haven't even mentioned tones...

I'm afraid I'm still a long, long, way from being fluent in Cantonese.