June 1, 2010


Five months down, seven to go… ALREADY!!

Seems like yesterday, or the other week, I was dressed up in a Santa suit, handing out candy canes and present to little Chinese bushiban students!! Not just one bushiban, but four this year. That Santa suit is sure getting it’s moneys worth!

As I’ve mentioned over and over, I make it ‘personal’ policy not to respond to comments on my blog. Look back and you’ll see that I’ve explained why. Nonetheless, and this is probably going to get me in hot water again, but yesterday, I had to respond. I didn’t respond to make fun of or ridicule the Chinese language or Taiwanese people. I had written at the end of the my blog yesterday, a rhetorical question: “Now, how do you say ‘plumber’ in Chinese…”

My friend Cliff, in all the goodness of his heart, wrote back. However, he wrote something in Chinese. Just to clarify what he had written, and considering that most of the readers of my blog are in Canada, I had used ‘http://worldlingo.com’ to translate what he had written. What ‘worldlingo’ had translated was the word-for-word translation of what HE had written.

Now, the situation that I’m in, and I’m sure by many other foreign teachers in Taiwan, is that we come here to teach English. I, myself, have done just that. I have come to Taiwan to teach English, not learn Chinese. I could have done that back in Vancouver, had I wanted. There is a demand in Taiwan for English teachers, especially those of us from English speaking countries, and I responded to that demand.

Unlike some of my fellow colleagues, I did not immediately enroll in a Chinese language course at the university. Again, I’m sure most of the people teaching here haven’t either. Some do, granted, but from the onset, I seemed to have been busy enough with classes, that enrolling in a course to learn Mandarin Chinese just wasn’t at the top of my list. Sure, after almost nine years, osmosis has taken over. I have learned the basics – numbers, how to order a food item or two, drinks – but my experience has shown me that most people want to ‘practice’ their English, so Chinese has not been a big deal for me.

Yes, there are times when knowing the language would come in handy. Especially when dealing with my ‘…stupid, little woman…’ of a neighbour, or trying to explain to the contractor how I want the stairs built up to the roof. However, after a bit of my Chinese, their English, picture-drawing, and hand signals, the message gets across to both involved – me and the other person.

However, there are other times when hand motions and explanations just don’t cut it. That is when I turn to electronic translators.

The largest supplier, from what I can gather, is a company called BESTA. They have created numerous translators for those of us ‘foreigners’ who haven’t learned the Chinese language. I had an older version given to me by a friend’s brother, and later on got one as a ‘free gift’ for subscribing to an English language magazine here in Taiwan. Now, I have my iPhone. I have got about 4 or 5 different apps on the iPhone that will do translations for me. Well, not now. After the accident and replacement of the iPhone, I only have one. Nonetheless, there are times that I need to use an electronic translator to help my students – and me!

Electronic translators though, are only as smart as the information fed into it by a human. It does not understand idioms. It does not understand syntax. It simply translates word-for-word what is fed into it by the human requesting the translation.

It cannot look at a sentence, and see the ‘hidden meaning’ behind the words. It looks at each word, say in English, and literally translates that word into Chinese. The same, the other way around.

When explaining to students that translators are not 100% accurate, I use the following example. In English, for instance, when summer begins to turn to fall, we may say, “The weather is growing colder.”

Now, since I am unable to ‘cut and paste’ from my iPhone app to this blog entry, I have another tool I can use: ‘http://worldlingo.com’. Sure, there are other sites out there amongst the cyber community, but this is the one that I happen to use. Yahoo.com.tw has an online translator, but since I can’t read Chinese, I don’t know how to access it.

Okay, so I go into ‘worldlingo’. I type in the phrase, “The weather is growing colder.” This is what I get back: “天氣增長更冷。 ” Now, I’m not sure if this makes sense to my Taiwanese friends. From what I’ve been told, the way that it is translated, the word ‘growing’ means the way a plant would grow. So, as an English speaker, when I hear students saying that ‘weather’ cannot ‘grow’ like a flower, tells me that the translation is not perfect. The translator, whether it be a BESTA translator, and iPhone app, or an online translation system, cannot translate the ‘idiomatic’ meaning of ‘… the weather is growing colder… ‘

Now, why I am I saying this. Well, part of my ‘learning Chinese’ has been accepting that there are other ways of saying certain things. For instance, in English, we have several ways of saying ‘two’. “Two” and “couple”. Well, the Chinese do the same thing. They use the word, “er” to mean the number “2”, and “lien ge” to mean “a couple”, such as, “… a couple of hours …” Why we use these two terms or why the Chinese uses two different ways, I don’t know. That is simply how the language has evolved.

Going back to yesterday’s blog. I jokingly asked how to say ‘plumber’ in Chinese. Honestly, being a rhetorical question, and not one needing an answer, my friend Cliff wrote back with the Chinese word(s) for ‘plumber’. Now, I should add here, that Cliff’s grasp of the English language is, in my opinion, incredible. He may not think so, but since we can communicate, that is talk, discuss, and watch T.V., he is a hell of a lot better in English than I am in Chinese. I have no problem admitting that. Hell, my kindergarteners are better in English than I am in Chinese!

So, when he wrote back with the Chinese translation for plumber, I responded by showing my ENGLISH speaking readers what he had written. Going to my ‘free online translator’, “http://worldlingo.com”, it translated back “water electrician”. This was not meant as an insult to the Chinese language or people. This was simply what was translated back to what he had written.

Now, when you stop giggling about the translation, look at it logically. Yes, when I first started to get translations, the seemed silly sometimes. But when you stop and think, it actually makes sense. “Dictionary.com” defines an electrician as, “a person who installs, operates, maintains, or repairs electric devices or electrical wiring”. When you add the word for water, “水 “, in front, it changes the meaning to, “a person who installs, operates, maintains, or repairs water devices or water wiring”. Okay, so water and electricity don’t mix well together, but you can ‘get’ what the translation means. And isn’t that the real part of ‘communicating’??

The thing is, learning a second, third, fourth…, language, is not easy. It takes a long time to understand the idiomatic structure of the language. We, as English speakers, may say one thing, but another of the ancient languages may use a different term. Who’s language is the CORRECT language? Who knows. Understanding what is meant is the idea of communication.

Even in French, there are several ways to say ‘goodbye’. You could say, “bonjour”, “salut”, “au revoir”, “bon soir”, and they all kind of mean the same thing. In English we could say, “goodbye”, “so long”, “see you later”, “take care”, “good night”, and a host of other phrases from other languages that we ‘adopt’ into the language.

Electronic translators and translation services, can only translate word-for-word. They cannot add the syntax or ‘hidden’ meaning to the word or words.

When you need to translate from one language to another, listen or read what is given, and interpret it. Don’t take it as an offensive remark. Remember that we all, no matter what language we grew up with, speak differently. Understanding these differences and overcoming them, make us a better world.

Adios, amigos.

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