is that special tea called that is sold in Taiwanese tea shops around
town? Pearl milk tea, pellet milk tea, tea with milk and pearls, or
Some may think the
difference is not important, but to those who compile bilingual
dictionaries, it is crucial. And it is translating Chinese
culture-specific words and phrases like this that provides their
Chinese I never gave dictionaries much thought, little realising that I
would one day work with people who made them.
Few can say that
they have read a Chinese dictionary from ah (an expression of
appreciation) to zuo (irrefutable), but it is not as dull as it
sounds. In a culture with a history as long as China's, it is
fascinating to learn about its long and turbulent past through its
language. It is easy to get a feel for a stern Confucian society where
learning was valued, women knew their place and crimes were severely
My personal experience
editing dictionaries began with A Chinese-English Dictionary for
Translators, the brainchild of Professor Chan Sin-wai of the
translation department of the Chinese University. There are many
dictionaries on the market catering to students, language learners,
business people and computer specialists - to mention just a few.
Seeing the need for one exclusively for translators, Professor Chan
began this project over 10 years ago.
bilingual dictionaries only list a few alternate forms of a word.
However, a translator has to deal with many different kinds of
material. For example sha si would be kill, murder or slay in
most dictionaries, but it could also mean 'bump off', 'knock off', or
'terminate' if one was subtitling a kung fu movie. So, in this
dictionary, I have tried to give as many alternatives as
How was material
collected for this dictionary? Since our emphasis was on contemporary
language usage, we selected material from various Chinese-language
journals, magazines and other media over many years. A special computer
program was written enabling selected words to be easily formatted.
Many dictionary-makers today also use special "electronic filing
cabinets" called corpora. Filled with millions of words taken from
fiction, non-fiction and journalistic writings, words can be accessed
by computer, classified into groups to discover their different
meanings or "senses".
Deciding on how to
translate words and expressions are the nuts-and-bolts challenges of
bilingual dictionary-making projects like ours. An expression should be
described, but not explained in great detail. For example, la mian
are noodles made by pulling dough, which we describe as
"hand-pulled noodles" in our dictionary.
expression should be easy to understand and keep the flavour of the
original where possible. "We have to seek the common ground while
preserving some cultural difference," Professor Chan says.
To keep the
language sounding natural, we try to transfer the same image from
Chinese into English. The Chinese expression "speak of Cao Cao and
he is sure to appear" refers to a fierce, martial king who
appeared when his enemies least expected him. This easily becomes
"speak of the Devil" in English. But we can only list the
significance of the story rather than the story itself.
co-opts expressions from other languages. The Cantonese-derived cheongsam
is so familiar that we easily get a picture of "a close-fitting
Chinese women's dress with slits up the sides". We can also use
the words dim sum, sampan, typhoon, kumquat and fung shui: their
meaning is apparent. This makes our work easier.
New words are
constantly coming into existence, particularly from scientific fields.
This makes compiling a dictionary somewhat like painting a bridge: you
never really finish it.
There is vigorous
debate in the dictionary world about the best way to translate new
words. The lack of standard terms in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong makes
it difficult for "one dictionary to fit all". Politically
sensitive terms, and the use of complex and simplified characters, also
cause headaches for compilers of Chinese-English dictionary (most of
which are produced on the mainland due to its vast numbers of English
also changing to reflect the hi-tech communication revolution. Printed
dictionaries, due to limited space and slow presentation, are giving
ground to their electronic counterparts, which will store vast
quantities of information and can be accessed by multimedia technology.
Online, searchable dictionaries are good for finding cross-references,
linked grammar tips, style guides, thesauri, and word games. In the
near future we may have 3-D virtual reality versions that will
"place" us in a situation where we will have to use the word.
But the dictionary wordsmiths will continue to ply their
"trade" in one form or another.
Hong Kong is
ideally positioned to have a role in this trade. In announcing the
SAR's language policy in October 1997, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa
stated that Hong Kong should become a trilingual and biliterate
society. With both English and Chinese enjoying equal status under the
law, and this city's position as an international business hub,
government bodies and university translation departments are busily
preparing bilingual databases across various genres. There is renewed
interest in producing Hong Kong-specific dictionaries of Cantonese, new
terms and computer terminology. The potential in this area is great.
Eagleton is a research assistant in the Chinese University of Hong
Kong's department of translation, which has organised a conference on
translation and bilingual dictionaries this weekend at the university
and the Hong Kong Central Library. See www.cuhk.edu.hk/tra