In the spring of 2001, I spent a few months living in Rome studying Italian. Upon coming across the word ghiro, I opened my handy dictionary and was given the translation “a great tit”. My jaw hit the floor. Only after further searching through other dictionaries and even English dictionaries, was I finally able to determine that a ghiro is actually just a titmouse — a small field rodent. Move ahead a few years where Mandarin Chinese now takes up most of my time, and a good dictionary is more critical than ever. Fortunately, in today’s world of online dictionaries and powerful Internet applications, there is a lot of help available. But the question is: with such a wide selection of resources, which dictionary should one use?
I conducted a 2-3 week long experiment, where every single time I needed to look up a Chinese-English or English-Chinese translation, I would actually look it up four times. I used the following dictionaries:
I then took notes of all the terms I looked up, which dictionary gave the best results, and how easy it was to get the results from each of them. In addition to the quality of results, I was interested in the “URL programmability” of the individual sites — would I have to load each site up, wait until it’s done, and then type in the search term, or could I directly type in the term to search for in the address bar along with the URL. I was also interested in translations that are more than just translations, but indeed proper localisations of terms. For example, a dictionary that tells me 绿帽 is a green hat is only a partial winner. A dictionary that mentions that this refers to being cuckolded gets full points.
URL Programmability (otherwise known as API)
Iciba and dict.cn lead in the ease of use category hands down. If you are looking for a translation for the word gardening, you can just type the following into the address bar of your browser:
Nciku and youdao are both weaker here in that they have more complicated URL schemes and require you to keep these in your history so you can come back and just replace the term to search for. Both can be remembered, but just take too long to type:
User Interface Notes
Iciba has a pretty unattractive user interface, with dated looking interface elements and the most annoying flash-y ads of all the sites. It does have a good catalogue of sentences and corpora in which it searches for words, often coming with the exact context you were looking for. There are also some neat UI elements to hear the words and sounds that you looked for (when looking up English words, it will give these to you in both British and American English). Finally, the site always shows you a search history, so if you’re like me and forget a word 20 seconds after you looked it up, you can just click to go right back there.
Dict.cn has a much cleaner and more pleasant looking interface, with the content well presented in the middle and colours that aren’t jarring to the eye. It also has audio playback of words, although only in what seems to be American English, and implemented in a manner that makes it slower than _Iciba_’s audio playback. Dict.cn does have one extremely cool feature that none of the others have, and that is a small mouth next to the word. Hover over this and click on it, and you’ll see a mouth showing movement of the teeth, lips, tongue, and jaw as the word is pronounced. As a former student of linguistics, I find this unbelievably cool. There is also a word search history.
Nciku definitely has the best user interface. It is clean, well thought out, and really quite pleasant to look at, with lots of blank space punctuated by content in a way to make everything easy to find. They want you to sign up to their site, and then give you vocab lists you can build and store, and they have a great details view when you hover the mouse over a Chinese character. There is audio playback of words, although again not in multiple dialects of English, and there are also playbacks of stroking through characters and hover-for-detail views of words and characters, although I’ve had problems getting all of these to reliably work on non-Internet Explorer browsers. Nciku also has reliability problems. Their website can become unbearably slow or unresponsive for a while, which is annoying.
Youdao wins the prize for most spartan interface. There are only the results of your search in the middle, and a few menu items and history items on the left. It’s simple, not unattractive, and with very little in the way of distraction. The downside to this is that, apart from single-dialect playback of words, there are no bells and whistles on this site, at all.
As I wrap up this section, it is worth noting that I use a browser plug-in for Firefox that lets me hover the mouse over any Chinese or Japanese character to see its pronunciation and meaning(s), so I never actually used any of the forementioned bells and whistles. I came to the sites to find translations and that was it.
Over the course of a few weeks sitting at my desk at work, I searched for about 75 different terms, in English and Chinese. Sometimes these were simple words (fish), sometimes grammatical structures (If I were …, I would …), and other times sayings or phrases (there is no hope for mankind). Here is a summary of my results:
Youdao rocks. It consistently has the best translations — from both English to Chinese and Chinese to English — and these translations almost always have the appropriate contexts as well. Searching for function in one of the other dicitionaries might return something similar to a gala or important dinner, but Youdao would definitely also be sure to give you the meaning in a programming context. Iciba would frequently have this as well, but it would be so buried in depths of characters and messy text that it would be hard to find (in its defense, Iciba is targeted at local English learners).
Nciku is unparalleled for simple lookups. If you want to know what a pretty common character or Chinese word means, or a reasonably common and unambiguous English word, Nciku does extremely well in this. One nice touch that made me smile and for which it deserves mad props was that it even will include Getty images tagged with what you’re looking for. When I search for 灯箱 (dengxiang), all the other dictionaries floundered, whereas not only did Nciku tell me what it was, but also gave me some sweet pictures of it too.
Nciku also had the neat feature of being very actively maintained. I found on multiple occasions that a word that Nciku completely failed to find on my first search would suddenly have a translation and full description when I came back a week later and looked for the same thing. Nciku’s ultimate undoing, however, is that it falls pretty flat as you get beyond simple searches. It struggled with things in particular contexts, and would come up empty for some not-too complicated words.
Dict.cn was one of my early favourites before finding Youdao, but looking back at the results, there’s very little reason to go to it any more. The Youdao results are consistently much better, and the user interface doesn’t offer significant bells and whistles that would compel me to com back to it. It fails surprisinly on some simple results, but then does exceedingly well for some complicated searches. I attribute a lot of this to it having a large corpus of text from which it can draw results, but not having a huge investment in simple use for beginners. This to me suggests a company run by few people, but with clever brains and lots of computing power.
Iciba was my first — we had some good times together, and I’ll never forget it for that, but sadly… it simply doesn’t compete. Hands down the most difficult to find results for most of the things I searched for among the clutter of the user interface, and just generally mediocre generic results. Now, it’s fair to say these aren’t way behind the other dictionaries (it really is a pefectly fine dictionary), but the combination of unattractive UI and mediocre results make it uncompelling. As mentioned above, however, I suspect that this is because the site is really targeted at local Chinese people trying to learn English. It has lots of “sentences of the day” and similar features that look like they’d be invaluable to English learners.
A “win” is defined as “giving me a result or results that appear to be most what I was looking for and were subsequently confirmed by native speakers understanding exactly what I meant to stay”. It’s not a 100% precise measure, but then in spoken language, little is.
There were times when all four dictionaries would fail to find results for something I was looking for. For thoses cases where the thing I wanted translated was Chinese, I found two additional tools were surprisingly useful:
- Google Images. Sometimes I could just type the words into a google box, click 图片 (for pictures), and see exactly what I was trying to translate.
- Google Translate. I use the GTalk interface for Google Translate. You can friend email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and then just send words via your favourite IM client, to get the translated results nearly instantly as the reply.
Neither of these two were good enough to see regular use, but they were helpful on occasion.
The net result of this experiment is that there is no clear 100% winner in the battle of the online Chinese dictionaries. Some are clearly better than others, but none can claim to be the “Gold Standard” of dictionaries.
I now always look up all my words words only twice using:
Nciku has an iPhone app which is my most frequently used application, but, again, tends to break down pretty quickly beyond the basics. There are also other iPhone dictionaries that I did not look at all for this article (since it is for online web apps only), but that’s a story for another time.[Read Rest of Article]
In late summer 2008, I found myself in Mumbai living in a Hindu temple and doing about four and a half hours of yoga every day. It was a very solitary existence in the city balanced between yoga, eating, sleeping, and reading. With no Internet in my room (I had a little USB card but it worked extremely poorly), I was by and large cut off from the rest of the world when not in yoga class. Thus it was all the more strange that one week when I met the Spaniard.
I would typically wake up at 6.40am and rush down the stairs to make the 6.45am class start; living in the same building as the classroom had its advantages. After breakfast I would usually shower and nap for an hour to let the local breakfast restaurants clear out a little bit before I myself would venture out to get something to eat. Afternoons, being unbearably hot and thus best spent inside, would be spent reading books, programming, or otherwise snoozing. Three more hours of yoga in the evening, and then a quick dash to get some late dinner and then off to bed. It was a really pleasant and simple life.
After a couple of weeks of this, though, a new student appeared in some of my classes. A lanky, tall guy with a big bushy beard, with legs that just did not want to bend in the way he wanted them to. He struck me as German, or perhaps American, and I had little interaction with him. He would scoot out of class as soon as we were done, and I wouldn’t see him until the next day. But then one day, we bumped into each other in the elevator and struck up a conversation — we were neighbours. He was not from either of my guessed nations, but was indeed Spanish, from Gránada.
His English was as good as my Spanish; which is to say workable, but not great. We would speak in our respective languages, and have slow, painful conversations about motivations for coming to India, what we did, and what we imagined doing in the future. And then we discovered a remarkable thing:
He had lived in Nanjing studying Asian art history for four years. His Mandarin Chinese was really, really good. Much better than his English. Mine was, similarly, better than my Spanish.
And so it came back to pass that this tall hippie-ish looking Spaniard (full disclosure: I didn’t look much better. I didn’t bring a razor and was too lazy to go buy a new one) and a Canadian guy would hang out in restaurants in Matunga, Mumbai, chattering happily away in Mandarin Chinese. The looks from the locals ranged from “oh, that must be english or something” to “what the hell kind of language is that?”
It’s a long way away from being a lingua franca, but for one week in metropolitan India, Chinese helped bridge a cultural gap that might have otherwise gone unfilled.[Read Rest of Article]
Interesting China reading for March 8th, 2010.
|[link]||Fascinating old Chinese menu from 1935|
|[link]||Goldman betting that Chinese Yuan is no longer undervalued, warns of shrinking surplus|
|[link]||Hackers of Google systems stole source code-|
|[link]||In spite of an urgent need to cut emissions, fossil-fuel consumption in China is soaring|
|[link]||Questions for the author of “Driving in China”|
|[link]||Violent crime rate in China rises for first time in 10 years|
|[link]||Rumours of a Chinese bubble are great exaggerated|
|[link]||China’s English Teaching Boom may be about to burst|
|[link]||Lies, Damned Lies, and Chinese Statistics|
|[link]||Understanding (or not) China’s financial transactions|
|[link]||China Warns Hong Kong|
|[link]||Foreign Firms bet on Larger Chinese consumption|
|[link]||Defying Global Slump, China Has Labor Shortage|
|[link]||China pledges to ensure fair, high quality education in decade ahead|
|[link]||Yang Yahui, cause of death: a glass of water|
How things have changed in a few short months since I wrote an article commenting on my lack of understanding of the Twitter phenomenon. I now use it daily, and even much more so than Adium or Skype for much of my chattering with Beijing locals (you should absolutely be following me, @marcwan). In some ways, writing little 140 character messages in twitter space is like farting in the wind – who knows who’s going to notice. But there is one surprising side-effect of these short messages that I’ve decided I really enjoy: It encourages better writing.
Of course, many people will smply strt wrtng lke ths 2 get thngs 2 fit, but for those people who use Twitter for more professional goals, and attempt to maintain a (reasonably) polished appearance there, the 140 character limit forces you to really think about what you’re going to say and how you want to say it.
As somebody who all too often uses words like actually, really, absolutely, reasonably, and softens many sentences to make them avoid seeming too concrete or prescriptive, Twitter has really forced me to cut these out and start writing more succinctly. This is a good thing™.
(Interesting side note: you can type a lot more Chinese in 140 characters you can Western languages. Those characters pack a lot of meaning, and you can basicaly write a paragraph or two per Tweet. Contrast that with the struggle to fit a single sentence in the same space).
So, here’s to hoping my blog posts become increasingly less long-winded. All thanks to Twitter. Who’da thunk it?[Read Rest of Article]
A few hundred times a day, I run across a Chinese character that I’ve never seen before. Or – quite frequently – one that I’ve seen and looked up a dozen times, but for which I can never remember the meaning. I make a point of getting off my butt once or twice a day to look it up again. On rare occasions, I will be rewarded with a character whose meaning is: itself.
My favourite two examples so far are:
- 崂 (láo)
- 兖 (yǎn)
The first is typically defined as “The 崂 in 崂山 (láoshān)”. 崂山 is a national park / nature area near the city of Qingdao (青岛) in Shandong (山东) province. The 崂 character really has no other use apart from the occasional transliteration of a foreign sound
Similarly, 兖 refers to the Yan River and the major city which lies on it, Yanzhou (兖洲 – yǎnzhōu). That’s it.
You know you’ve made it big in China when you get your own character (汉字 – hànzì) that a zillion Chinese kids have to study and memorise.[Read Rest of Article]
On Friday night I was at Nánlúogǔxiàng (南锣鼓巷), when the following conversation took place -
The scene: Me, standing around idly playing a game on my iPhone waiting for some friends to finish browsing in the jewelry store, watching the people strolling past.
Chinese guy (very drunk): Ha-looooooooo! Me (looking up): ? Chinese guy (getting closer): Ha-loooooooooo! Me: Ha-looo? Chinese guy (still drunk): Do... you ... uh ... speak ... Chi-neese? Me: Yes. Chinese guy (pointing): 啊太好啦！麻烦你告诉我那边是南边还是北边？ Me: 南边。那边是北边。 Chinese guy: 哈哈哈！我知道了，必须告诉我的女朋友！ Me (smiling) Chinese guy: Thaaaaannnnk .... you! (runs off)
Never a dull moment in this city.[Read Rest of Article]
One of my favourite restaurants here in Beijing is a place by the name of 黄河水 (huánghéshǔi), or Water of the Yellow River. It’s a Sha’anxi Province (through which the yellow river flows) restaurant, has fantastic noodles, and caters to the locals, which means crazy crowds and lines, simple menus, and low prices.
Most chinese restaurants periodically update their menus and decor with new prices and signs. 黄河水 is no exception, and recently redid their interior. But instead of calling themselves a pulled noodle (扯面) restaurant now, they pulled out the most crazy simplified character any of us have ever seen and started calling themselves a biāngbiāng noodle place. Biāngbiāng is the sound noodles supposedly make when you stretch or pull them, sort of like boing or twang in English.
The character they found for biāng is pictured above. At 42 strokes, it’s hands down the hardest character that I or a Chinese teacher friend of mine have seen so far. None of the dictionaries, computers, or books I have looked at so far have it either. In fact, it’s the only instance of the sound biang I’ve ever seen in Chinese (If you look at all the possible vowel/glide and consonant combinations available in Chinese, a reasonable percentage of them never occur), and is probably made up based on some dialect.
Even nuttier would be that the traditional version, without the simplified radicals, would have at least 10 more strokes, putting it well over 50 !!!
China is currently going through a huge cultural debate as to whether the Simplified character movement of the 50s was a mistake and as to whether they should go back to the traditional characters. As somebody who has learned all of his Chinese in the former, and only had exposure to the latter in the Japanese versions, I will just mention that I’m insanely glad I learned the Simplified ones ….[Read Rest of Article]
While I’m not particularly keen on spending much time posting or talking about Chinglish and bad slogans and signs here in China – there are already plenty of sites on the Internet that do this much better than I – on a recent walk home from having some business cards made, I ran into a number of particularly comical signs, all in the span of a few hundred metres, and all quite chuckle-worthy.
The day started off somewhat surreally as I walked past a local Chinese restaurant, only to have the restaurant name supplemented by “MYSQL”. Buy one bowl of noodles, get an ACID-compliant transactional engine for free?
It turns out that the name of the restaurant is 明月三千里, or míng yuè sān qiān lǐ. Hence, the MYSQL. Still, good fun:
Next, I walked past a massage parlour that advertised “Cupping and scrape measles”. Cupping, or báhǔoguàn (拔火罐), is a reasonably common treatment here in China, which provides topical relief on the skin for various ailments. Scraping, or gūashā (刮痧), is another frequently used treatment for heatstroke and other discomforts involving scraping the back of the neck or upper back. Unfortunately, there is no direct translation like cupping, so when you take the two characters separately, the first gives you scraping, the second gives you “acute ailment”, such as measles or some other virus. Hence, some great sign fun.
Not that it’s a hugely common problem here in China, but I guess the maintainers of this little garden next to a scrool, across the road from the parlour, wanted to make sure that nobody would use their cute little park as a public toilet (there is actually a public toilet about 20m away). Hence this sign asking exactly that:
With the huge fire of the Mandarin Hotel building next to the new CCTV complex on the east Third Ring Road due to unauthorised fireworks, construction sites all around the city are now being extra careful to point out that fireworks are illegal in the city now that Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is over. This one reminds readers that fireworks are illegal inside the 5th ring road:
And finally, I went to meet a friend for some lunch, and walked past a DVD store with this gem in the window:
Evidence suggests they meant to use the word “painting”, which would also be incorrect. The sign asks you not to write any graffiti on their windows. This is in Sanlitun, a big party area on Friday and Saturday evenings, with huge crowds of drunken foreign kids from 10pm until late.[Read Rest of Article]
A few years ago, I had a Palm Treo, which was a pretty cool device – for 2004. The two big problems were its weight – dropping it would immediately break the glass, something I discovered four times in one calendar year – and its lack of UTF-8 support, which made entering accents and weird (read: Asian) characters impossible.
Fast-forward a few years to the iPhone, and finally you have a handset that is both 100% UTF-8 and actually shipping with a worldwide font so you can view emails and pages in Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, and even enter contacts with names in those languages.
But there was a bug: Contacts entered in Chinese characters would not be sorted correctly – they were just lumped at the bottom and you just knew to tap “Z” when you wanted to text or email your Chinese colleague or friend.
The iPhone 2.2 firmware finally fixes this. They now sort names correctly, with Chinese names sorted by pinyin. (Oddly enough, Japanese names are still not sorted by romaji.) In fact, they’ve supplemented the UI for contact names so that you can enter (in Latin characters) how the name is pronounced and how it should be sorted.
An already cool device keeps getting cooler.[Read Rest of Article]