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Saturday, February 23, 2002

The best way to get the words on the street






What 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 something else?

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 greatest challenge.

Before learning 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 punished.

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.

"Ordinary 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 possible."

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.

The translated 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.

Luckily, English 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 students).

Dictionaries are 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.

Jennifer 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 for details.



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