Fortunately not

A Facebook friend posted some stunning photos of herself and friends hiking in Jirisan National Park. Facebook’s auto-translation of the post included the rather worrying “Cancer is not an option to postpone”. Reading the Korean original and some research allayed my concerns, fortunately. The Korean original is 사성암은 미룰 수 없어요. I know that 암 is used in the names of usually smaller Buddhist monastic establishments, usually translated as hermitage, by far the most famous being 석굴암, Seokguram. But 암 by itself doesn’t mean hermitage any more than 사 by itself means temple

So how did the translator get to cancer? The Korean word for cancer is 암, which I previously didn’t know because it’s not included in Korean for beginners or travellers books. The translator encountered a word it didn’t recognise and instead of simply transliterating it (which it did with several other proper nouns in the post), it guessed that the 암 on the end was the relevant part of the word.

Online translators don’t do much better. Google and Bing offer Sandstone cannot/can’t be postponed and Papago (which I have found to be the more accurate overall) the meaningless I can’t delay tetragonal cancer. But sandstone is 사암; 사성암, if it means anything at all, is four star cancer, compare 삼성, three stars. Even though it was the worst translation overall, Papago at least attempted to translate the whole of 사성암. [PS the next day: I commented on my friend’s post and she replied that 사성암 is ‘four saints hermitage’.]

The bigger issues here are how translators deal with proper nouns, and how they recognise that they are proper nouns. Do they transliterate them (eg 경복궁 as Gyeongbokgung) or (attempt to) translate them (eg as Brilliant Fortune Palace or Greatly Blessed by Heaven Palace, just the first two meanings I found)? I suspect that the more famous a place is, the more it is transliterated rather than translated. (There is a map of world countries giving the literal meaning of their name. I am typing this in Southern Land.)

A related issue is the use of common nouns as names. Two Korean-Australian friends named their first daughter 사랑, so once a year I see photos of “Love’s birthday party”. A Korean friend and his wife named their son 우주, so one post included the startling “I put the universe in the car”. 



Friday was a traditional festival in China and Korea (and other East and South-East Asian countries). By coincidence, the first two students to arrive yesterday (Saturday) were from those two countries, so I asked them if they’d done anything special. Neither had. 

I asked the Chinese student what he would call the festival in English, and he just couldn’t say. I told him that it’s usually called ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’, and he seemed surprised at that. The Chinese name is 中秋節 (zhōngqiū jié), literally middle-autumn-festival. Other possible names in English are ‘Chinese Traditional Thanksgiving’ or ‘Harvest Moon Festival’, though with increasingly urbanised life, the link to the moon and harvest is being lost. Maybe in country areas it’s stronger.

The Korean name is 추석 (chu-soek), which might mean ‘Autumn Eve’ Google Translate simply translates it as ‘Chuseok’, and Bing Translator as ‘Thanksgiving’. Google doesn’t translate ‘chu’ and ‘seok’ by themselves as anything relevant. Bing translates ‘chu’ as ‘autumn’ , but it certainly isn’t the standard word for autumn, which is 가을, but ‘seok’ as nothing relevant.

Wikipedia also calls Chuseok by the hanja (Chinese characters traditionally used in Korea) 秋夕, qiū xī, which translates as ‘autumn eve’ (or ‘autumn evening’) (which Google and Bing both agree with). (The first character of that is the same as the second character of the Chinese festival’s name.)

For what it’s worth, Wikipedia’s article on the Chinese festival is named ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’ and the one on the Korean festival is named ‘Chuseok’. 

When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

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Conspiracy theorems

I have written before about students choosing the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. Sometimes two words in their language correspond to one word in English, or one word corresponds to two.

The class was practicing ‘first conditional’. The first half of sentences were given, and the students had to write a suitable second half. One was “I’ll do the washing up if …”. The expected answer was “you cook”, but I can imagine a number of other answers which would be suitable (eg, “if you do it tomorrow”). One Korean student wrote “I theorem”. This is obviously wrong and he’d obviously chosen the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. But I wanted to find out what he’d meant, he showed me his translator and there were no other obvious words in sight, but I couldn’t guide him toward telling me anything else about this mysterious household activity. Another student from Korea was there, so I got them to talk about it briefly in Korean, but the other student couldn’t explain either.

When I got home I asked my wife about it, she said that 정리 (jeong-ni) can mean either ‘theorem’ or ‘tidy up’. Google Translate gives ‘theorem’ and ‘arrangement’, so 정리하다 means ‘arrange’. I thought about ‘theory’, which Google Translate gives as 이론, but my wife said “That’s a completely different word”. She couldn’t tell me what the difference was (explaining Korean words (her first language) in English (her second language)), but I’m not sure that I could explain the difference on the spot, either (explaining English words (my first language) and English (my first language).

I know that Pythagoras had a theorem and Darwin had a theory. Hercule Poirot might have a theory about whodunnit, but not a theorem.

‘The Bells’

In 1849, the American poet Edgar Allan Poe died and his poem ‘The Bells’ was published.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, the Russian poet and translator Konstantin Balmont “very freely” translated it into Russian.

In 1913, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a setting for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra, originally titled (in Russian) Колокола, Kolokola (Russian WikipediaEnglish Wikipedia).

Some years ago (first guess 2001-2003) I bought a CD of this work. The booklet calls Balmont’s translation “more precisely, a re-interpretation” and includes his text transliterated into the Latin/‘English’ alphabet and translated into German, English and French. Whether the unnamed translator was equally free in translating Balmont’s Russian back into English or not, the result is very different from Poe’s original. Continue reading

화장: makeup, cremation

Students were writing dialogues or speeches to present for their midterm speaking exams. I briefly checked as many as I could, but couldn’t check every detail of every one. As the students were leaving, one pair put their dialogues in front of me and said ‘Is this right?’. I glanced over it and one sentence jumped out at me: “I used to be cremated.” All I could say was “That’s just wrong. Check it very carefully.”

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