Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Japanese Cool

A Japanese TV show interviewed people in the streets of New York, Paris, and London, asking them to name famous Japanese people. Check out the French kid who names Mishima!

This is only one in a long series from the show on YouTube.
I posted previously about a sci-fi writer's reflections on Japanese cool.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Yahoo Mail Beta

I have used Yahoo Mail for many years, but recently I have been phasing out that account in favor of Gmail. I just started using Yahoo's new beta version, and I have to say it is a big improvement. I am starting to use that account again.
It is sort of like using an online version of a traditional email program, with your boxes on the left, a list of messages on the top, and the message you have selected on the bottom.
I just received a message with some Chinese in it, though, and the Chinese came out garbled. I went to switch the encoding in my browser, and lo and behold Yahoo Mail was telling me to switch the encoding via an option on the page! A very nice way to get around the problem that Gmail had for a while. With Gmail you have to select "View Original" and then change your encoding. Yahoo does it for you--theoretically. Unfortunately, I selected my appropriate flavor of Chinese (Big5), and it still came out scrambled. I will have to mess around with it to see if it isn't a problem on the sender's end.
Gmail has most of the kinks worked out by now, and I have few problems with mixed-language messages and attachments now.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Free International Calls?

A friend emailed me a few weeks ago about a service that allows you to make a call to an Iowa number here in the States and then dial out from there to international numbers for free. It's called Futurephone.
I was wondering about its legitimacy, and I found an article by David Pogue, technology writer for the New York Times, on it. See the comments on his blog here.
The Futurephone website has a list of countries that you can call using the service, and Japan and Taiwan are on there, but it hasn't worked for me. I get an error message every time.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Princeton Going Mac

According to a story in the Daily Princetonian, 45% of computers purchased through the university were Macs this year. In 2003, only 15% of incoming freshmen bought Macs. In 2004, that went up to 25%, and last year it was 38%. (Figures include only computers purchased through the university.)

Students in the article cite PC problems due to spyware and viruses as a key factor in their decision to go with a Mac. Now that the market share for Mac is going up, though, I bet the malware will increase too.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Sorrows of Translation

A translation led me to the Chinese name of The Sorrows of Young Werther: it's called 少年維特的煩惱. I thought that was a little odd--煩惱 means something like "frustration," and the Chinese version gives me a feeling like "Little Werther's Headaches."

I had heard before that there was a rash of copycat suicides in Europe after the novel appeared in 1774--Goethe (or his fictional Werther) was the Kurt Cobain of the 18th century. What I hadn't heard before is that it got so bad that someone came along and wrote a version of the story with a happy ending called The Joys of Young Werther. Goethe didn't like that, so he wrote a poem in which the Joys author defecates on Werther's grave. Is this true, or a Wikipedia joke? Wikipedia goes on to list a handful of other literary references and appearances of the book and its characters. These days, however, you can get sued for doing that kind of thing.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Traditions vs. Academia

I watched an interesting show on TV last night. A panel was discussing whether or not Chinese researchers should open the tomb of Tang empress Wu Zetian. There was also a live audience holding little signs that looked like ping pong paddles, with "agree" on one side and "disagree" on the other.
The pro argument was that by this point, Chinese technology and expertise are up to the job. Furthermore, things inside are only going to decay further, so why wait any longer?
The con arguments were varied. Some said that objects from previously exhumed sites had not even been properly catalogued and preserved yet, so why add to the pile? Others--and I thought this was interesting--thought that opening the tomb would be disrespectful of "our" Chinese ancestors and should never be done, no matter what discoveries might be made.
It is easy for non-Chinese academics to stand outside the tradition and study it "objectively." But must Chinese academics have to consciously step outside their tradition in order to study it? If they do, what do they step into?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Wikimania comes to Taiwan

It's just been announced that next year's Wikimania conference will be held in Taipei. Check out more details here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Back in Mac

Not much time for blogging for the past few months, and not much to say on this blog's usual topics. What have I been up to? Switching to a Mac, for one thing.
You know, they say Macs are "easier," and that may be true for people completely new to computers (are there still such people?), but if you've been using Windows for a long time, there are some concepts to wrap your head around. The one-mouse-button thing wasn't as hard to get accustomed to as I thought it would be, but I often find myself hitting command-whatever when it should be option or control. I have a feeling they are switching functions on me from app to app.
The other thing is, where are all the files? You can open up a Windows app's folder and see all the gunk inside, while the Mac keeps it all safe and out of view. That's probably a good thing--as is not having to worry about a "registry."
The ads say things "just work." There's even an ad with the Mac guy holding hands with "that new camera from Japan" and speaking her language. All I can say is apparently she wasn't made by Sony.
OS X is supposed to be more stable than Windows, too, though it's crashed on me 2-3 times in a month. Firefox has also crashed on me several times.
I've had a few little problems with Firefox and Chinese/Japanese, but when it acts up I switch over to Safari (or just restart the program). NeoOffice is a good replacement for my PC's OpenOffice, and it's been working fine with Asian languages.
In general, though, I like my new MacBook quite a bit and am glad I switched.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

More Mandarin Mania

Another Mandarin-learning story, this one in Time Asia: Get Ahead, Learn Mandarin. The article is mainly about students in other Asian countries learning Mandarin for business purposes. I don't think it's very surprising that Chinese and Cambdians, say, doing business together might want to use one of their native languages rather than English.

In the same issue is an article by a reporter who went through the famous Middlebury program, in which students make a pledge to only speak the target language. She writes:
About a month after I turned 21, I experienced a second infancy. I had enrolled for the summer at Middlebury College's Chinese School in the U.S. state of Vermont and signed a pledge that for nine weeks, on penalty of expulsion, I would not speak, listen, read or write in English, my native tongue. I couldn't speak a word of Chinese. When my teacher gave me a card with my new Chinese name, Zhai Shuzhen, I couldn't pronounce it. I didn't even know how to say hello.
I have always been sceptical of this kind of "target language only" education--why go round and round trying to describe something you don't know how to say? Of course, the answer is that the process of going round and round gets you talking, and I recently met someone who swears by this program. That person also had pretty decent tones. I imagined it would be pretty tough to start learning a language in such a program--when you can't even say "hello"--but some people say that's the best time. Maybe if someone had forced me to speak Japanese I'd be better at it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Taiwan Cheese

I laughed out loud at the the photo of a "cheese platter" the Taipei Kid found in his hotel room. Maybe you'd have to know Taiwan to fully get the humor of it, but in a way, it is sort of charming.

Tangentially related--I am working on a translation of an article about the "Taike 台客" phenomenon in Taiwan. The characters are the first character of "Taiwan" and one meaning "guest" or "customer" (or, sometimes--like here--just something like "guy"). The word was originally derogatory and was used by the so-called "mainlanders" who came over with the KMT to refer to the locals. You could say meant something like "Taiwanese hick" or something like that. The "Tai" is also used as an adjective--"That's so Tai," meaning tacky or trashy.

Recently, the term has been used a lot on TV, with varety shows featuring segments like "My Taike Boyfriend." People are coming around and embracing the term, using it to imply a kind of homegrown culture. It's loud shirts, flip-flops, fast scooters, Long Life brand cigarettes, and betel nut.

There are plenty of words in English that have been reclaimed, probably most notably "queer." There's also that "N-word," the rehabilitation of which is a little more problematic. I never really thought about it, but this goes on in other languages as well. Maybe the Japanese word "otaku"?

Update: For a nice article written by a southern Taiwanese in Taipei, see Feiren's fine translation at Rank. It's not exactly on the subject of Taike, but it's close, and the article I have been working on talks about this "Taipei et les Provinces" attitude as well. Thanks, Feiren, for making it available in English!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Banning Keigo

The Los Angeles Times features an interesting obituary for a man named Otis Cary who was a Navy translator during World War II. He served with Donald Keene. Cary supposedly could get POWs to "convert" and assist the occupation:
Cary's deep understanding of the Japanese enabled him to help the POWs overcome their shame at having been captured and their fears of returning home in disgrace. He encouraged them to see themselves as patriots, who had given their all to their country and who now had a duty to support its reconstruction.
After the war, he worked for Doshisha University in Kyoto, helping to start a graduate program in American Studies and running a dormitory called Amherst House:
For 32 years, he was director of Amherst House, a dormitory where he encouraged Japanese students to dispense with customs that he considered obstacles to modernization.

One of his targets was honorific speech, which mandates different degrees of politeness depending on a person's social rank. To put students on an equal footing, Cary just gave them nicknames.
I wonder what sort of psychological effect it would have for Japanese to have to use plain speech with everyone in their dorm. Would they really start to see themselves as equals?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bilingual Counseling

Back when I used to teach English in Taiwan, some fellow teachers and I would jokingly refer to some of our private classes as "therapy cases"--some people would just take English classes to have someone to talk to and take advantage of the dissociative effects of speaking a foreign language.

The Asahi Shimbun has a story on an actual therapist, a gaijin names Andrew Grimes, who offers counseling in English and Japanese.
Grimes is intrigued by language. For some of his Japanese patients, English offers something of a reprieve, an easier way of talking about their problems. "There is a belief in some people's hearts and minds that perhaps speaking in English, one is able to express one's individual, personal feelings more freely," he says, offering examples of patients who have endured abuse in one language and feel more at ease talking about it in another.
The article says he also counsels international couples. I can see how it would be beneficial to have someone who'd get the nuances of both languages.

For the Japanophile Who Has Everything....

The perfect gift, bamboo headphones:
They are beautiful, and each pair is unique.

But buyer beware: you cannot crack a safe while using them, they cannot be used to amplify internal voices, and they may prevent ninja from climbing walls. Don't say they never told you so--it's all right there on the vendor's page.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

More Proof...

If you need any convincing of the ever-growing culture gap between Taiwan and China, you need look no further than this New York Times headline:

China Tries Wooing Taiwan by Honoring First Emperor

I wish I could say I made that up, but it's true.

The ceremony was a lavish display calculated to woo the Taiwanese public and instill national pride across China. Leaders from the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp Parliament, and top executives from state-controlled Chinese industries, joined a senior Taiwanese opposition lawmaker and 700 Taiwanese businesspeople in paying their respects to Huang Di, China's semi-mythical first emperor, who is said to have lived 5,000 years ago.

...The event was the latest and most unusual in a series of Chinese initiatives to lessen popular resistance in Taiwan toward an eventual political unification with the mainland.

What on earth are they thinking?!? That's not going to "win over" anyone who wasn't a Great China-ist to begin with. This is what happens when you start believing your own propaganda.

Oddly enough, the NYT version of the article doesn't name the "opposition lawmaker," but it is in the International Herald Times version: "Chin Ching-sheng, the secretary general of the People First Party."

Monday, April 03, 2006

Gold Frappe Grande?

I thought it was funny that the name of band Goldfrapp (which comes from the singer's surname) was translated into Chinese as if it were "gold frappe" ("frappe" as in the icy coffee drink), but apparently it isn't just the Taiwanese record company who got the name wrong. Recently quite a few people have arrived at this page after searching Google for "Gold Frappe," and these searches are not originating in Taiwan.

Goldfrapp's latest CD is Supernature.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Sci-fi Reflections

Though I have read the occasional Philip K. Dick novel, I never really got into sci-fi (or manga or anime). However, I did find this essay by a Japanese sci-fi writer named Takashi Ogawa interesting. He starts by saying how Americans always tell him how "cool" Japan is:
Of course it feels good to have people praise your own country, but I would always stop and wonder what exactly they liked. Sometimes they would get more specific, praising our anime, technological gadgetry, or Haruki Murakami. On the one hand I'd agree, but then again their rock/punk/rap music, PCs, or William Gibson/Raymond Carver/Tom Robbins all seemed even cooler to me.
He says he originally held a dismissive attitude toward some of the same Japanese things his American friends praised. The artists they liked, he thought, were just "neophiles" ungrounded in tradition.

Now he says that neophilia is Japanese tradition, and what's more, gives a defense of it.

The very first Japanese novel—The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter—was a fairly tale, ending with a pun. We have always favored childish things like wordplay and spectacle over the subtler arts of the aristocratic "high culture" of the ruling class. We like to laugh away the gravity and smugness of the metaphysical musings of the elite. But it never amounts to real criticism, or to a genuine counterculture. People simply invent funny words or gestures and enjoy their silliness, just like kids. And by going back to their childhood this way, they can start their lives anew. Words and actions lose their serious, heavy meanings and become plastic and flexible. The childish element in our culture allows us to see things from a new, irreverent perspective. So it was all right to regard manga, anime, and all those silly things that otaku neophiles appreciate as quintessential arts of our pop culture.
Plastic, flexible, irreverent--sounds pretty good to me.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Otaku Incentives

I'm not a big fan of manga or anime (the closest I get is Miyazaki Hayao), but more and more non-Japanese people are, and some of them have been inspired to learn the Japanese language. It was nice to read in this Japan Times article that a lot of students who might not be interested in school otherwise are getting into learning Japanese because of the pop stuff:
There are several factors behind the popularity of Japanese at Hendon. One is the sheer excitement at studying a language so different in sound and appearance to English. As the subject head, Helen Langsam, explains: "Japanese seems to appeal to students who maybe lose their concentration and focus in school. These sorts of children tend to persevere with Japanese and continue to learn and do well in it and I think this is because it's seen as a cool language to learn."
It's great to see that some students start to do better in school when offered something they are interested in.

I didn't get the chance to learn a foreign language until I was in junior high. Japanese wasn't offered, though I would have loved to take it. I took Spanish, and all the pop culture we got was Spanish versions of songs by Sting and Abba. When I started Chinese in college, no pop culture was employed at all in the classroom, but my abilities took off when I discovered Faye Wong and Cui Jian on my own. I don't know if it qualifies as manga or even pop culture, but Tsai Chih-chung's comic-book versions of the Chinese classics were also a big help in learning Chinese for me.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Keep an eye on Wenbudao, a new blog I will be a part of.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

What's "Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck" in Mandarin?

A remarkable bit of web serendipity led me to a great post on dubbing in China on Danwei from quite a while back. The author knows the man who does the voice of Curly of the Three Stooges for Chinese TV.
His name is Cui Song, a teacher in the foreign languages department of the Central University of Radio and Television. A soft-spoken academic, he seems to inhabit a completely different dimension from the slapstick world of Moe, Larry, and Curly.

“Can you do the laugh?” I ask him. “You know, that laugh?” He nods. He knows what I’m talking about.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk!” he suddenly erupts, in an imitation of Curly so compelling that I’m suddenly transported from Beijing to my family’s living room floor in Eureka, Kansas, circa 1959, a bowl of popcorn at my side and the black-and-white TV tuned to the Saturday afternoon Three Stooges broadcast. I nearly spill my tea in the shock of recognition. Cui Song is proud of his craft.

“I’m the only one who could do that laugh,” he says, happy to be in the presence of an American who can verify the accuracy of his rendition. Cui Song studied Curly’s vocal mannerisms carefully in order to dub the role.

The article also includes some funny mis-translations from pirate DVDs:
Understandably, the listening comprehension of the translators tends to falter when the topic turns to sex, as can be seen from these examples from a bootleg DVD boxset of Queer as Folk:
Original English: “Linda Luttsky? She became a lap dancer in Scranton.” Chinese subtitles: “Luttsky? She became a laboratory dancer in Scranton.”

Original English: “To the neighbors we’re just the fags next door.”
Chinese subtitles: “The neighbors think there is a fax machine next door.”

Original English: “It might just be easier to be with someone who’s [HIV] positive.”
Chinese subtitles: “I think it’s easier to be someone with a positive attitude.”

And this nice example from a bootleg of Sex and the City:

Original English: “She gives hand jobs for a living.” Chinese subtitles: “She is a manual laborer.”

No wonder Chinese people always ask me, after watching an American DVD, “What in the world are you foreigners thinking?”

The author also notes that some of the finer points of Three Stooges dialogue gets lost in translation. After all, how do you translate that finely subtle irony in the line "Gimme the brush, Ein-steen!"?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Late Night Textual Criticism

I have been way too busy these days to get a chance to read this, but I was excited to see Jon Stewart interview Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus (and a Princeton PhD), on the Daily Show the other night. From NPR:
Ehrman says the modern Bible was shaped by mistakes and intentional alterations that were made by early scribes who copied the texts. In the introduction to Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman writes that when he came to understand this process 30 years ago, it shifted his way of thinking about the Bible. He had been raised as an Evangelical Christian.
All that stuff about "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"? According to Ehrman, that was not originally in the text. It was written in the margins and eventually made its way into the main body of the text.

We see that all the time with Chinese texts--people arguing over whether such-and-such character was really something else before a scribe got it wrong, or if such-and-such a passage was really originally part of a later commentary. It was fun to see someone speak engagingly about this stuff, and... did I mention that it was on the Daily Show?!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"Gold Frappe"?

Looking for the band "Gold Frappe"? Hard to find--because the name is actually "Goldfrapp." Goldfrapp's latest CD is called "Supernature."

The band takes its name from the singer's surname, but it seems whoever translated it for the Taiwanese pressing didn't realize that. In Chinese, they're called 冰金樂團--"Ice Gold Music Group." They must have thought the band name referred to some kind of metalic coffee drink.

I found some more bad Chinese translations of band names:

The Buzzcocks= 吵鬧公雞樂團 "The Noisy Rooster Music Group"
Badly Drawn Boy= 塗鴉男孩 "Graffiti-Writer Boy"
Basement Jaxx= 地下室混音小子 "Basement Sound-Mixer Little Guys"
Deftones= 盲音合唱團 "Blind Sound Choir"
The Cure= 怪人合唱團 "Weird People Choir"
Dirty Vegas= 賭城老千 "Gambling City Cheater"
N.E.R.D.= 永生樂團 "Eternal Life Music Group"
We Are Scientists= 自然科學家樂團 "Natural Scientists Music Group"

I remember that Radiohead was 電台司令 "Radio Station Commanding Officer," but according to the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry, it's also (better) translated literally as 收音機頭.

The most famous Chinese names for Western artists have to be 貓王 "Cat King" for Elvis and 瘦皮猴 "thin monkey" for Frank Sinatra. I have heard those used but ones like those above seem to be used only on the CD packaging. I guess anybody who'd listen to that kind of music in Taiwan would be at least familiar enough with English to be comfortable using the English names.

Taiwanese Salad-Building Technology

How to get the most salad-bar salad for your buck, demonstrated by some Taiwanese students.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Chinese: God's Language?

Tian reminded me that while the missionaries might say that Japanese was the work of the devil, they have no problem with Chinese--in its written form, at least. Check out his post on HanziSmatter about the World Bible School's crackpot theory that evidence of Christian theology is to be found in the composition of Chinese characters (which ignores the fact that characters contain semantically irrelevant phonetic elements and the existence of loan characters, etc.). Tian also writes that according to SmartFilter, the World Bible School (World BS for short?) site is classified as "phishing" "criminal skills." Too bad it's not classified as "Bad Sinology."

More on the World BS theory at

Japanese: Language of Satan?!?

This article tells of a former missionary's problems with the Japanese language (I'm assuming she's talking about the volitional form):
Gulick said that Francis Xavier, the famous 16th-century Catholic missionary, "said that the Japanese language was a particular invention of the devil to prevent the understanding of the gospel, and that is true." In Japanese, "there is no definite future, so you say, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you might be saved (instead of shall be saved.) It's a problem."
I have a feeling Japanese can fathom the concept of a definite future event and knew what she was getting at, but she's given it up and is now learning Runyoro, a language spoken in Uganda.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

More Chinese Podcasting

I just stumbled across a blog called Wan An Taipei which features Chinese-lesson podcasts. I haven't had time to listen to it but I think some of my readers might be interested. If you listen, please let me know how it is.

From the blog, it looks pretty nice, and apparently the host speaks Japanese as well.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Something Great About 24

The terrorists' time bombs have those little red countdown LEDs just like every show, but the terrorists activate the bombs, slide the timers off and leave!

Monday, March 06, 2006


Ang Lee took home the Oscar for Best Director in last night's Academy Awards. The Taiwanese government seems to have realized the potential for "soft power" its local film industry carries, and I am sure Lee's victory will be a big deal there. Lee has been living in the States for years, but he is still something of a local hero in Taiwan. He's now sure to be even more of an inspiration for Taiwanese filmmakers.

The terms "soft power" and "gross national cool" got thrown around a lot a couple years ago referring to Japan read the Foreign Policy article on the latter here), and according to this AFP article, the Korean drama "Winter Sonata" and its star Bae Yong-joon boosted tourism revenues by $1.1 billion. Capitalizing on soft power seems a good way to go--especially when you are struggling for the attention of the international community like Taiwan is.

Matt of No-sword fame wondered how Brokeback Mountain's famous line "I wish I knew how to quit you" would be rendered into Japanese. Funny, I had been wondering the same thing about that line in Chinese. I saw a reference somewhere to 我希望我知道如何能離開你, so I checked to see if that's really what it is in the movie's Taiwanese theatrical release and according to this Chinese-language blog, it is.

The author of that post says the same line in the book was rendered as 要是我知道如何戒得掉你就好了, and like her I prefer that translation.

我希望我知道如何能離開你 is literally "I hope I know how to leave you." Chinese doesn't have a subjunctive like English ("I wish I knew....") so you could take that line either way. I used to blather on and on about how great the subjunctive is to my students, and the original English line is a great example. After the "I wish I knew...." is a parenthetical: "(but I don't.)" I don't get that resonance from this version of the Chinese.

I am not a native Chinese speaker, but I do get that resonance from 要是我知道如何戒得掉你就好了 because of the structure 要是...就好了 (very literally, "If... that would be good."). I also like the way this translation uses 戒--that's the word you use to say you are "quitting" drinking or cigarettes. The 離開 "leave" of the other version just doesn't have the same impact.

I realize, though, that subtitle-writing is a tricky task. You have to be concise so as to fit on the screen and keep up with the pace . The line has to be understandable at a glance or else it will run the risk of intruding on the film.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bungo Podcast

Japanese Classical Literature at Bedtime offers podcasts of Genji Monogatari, Oku no Hosomichi, and others.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

New Chinese Characters

Chinese-tools and Sinosplice have some pretty funny "new Chinese characters" created by foreigners--character-readers of both Hanzi and Kanji persuasions will be able to get the jokes.

These made me think of the artist Xu Bing, who writes English in character-form (take a look and you'll see what I mean).

Friday, February 17, 2006

$1 Million Bill

Did you read the story about the Japanese investors who were scammed out of millions by someone selling fake million dollar bills? I had to read this sentence a couple times before I got it:
The president [of a construction company] showed them a thousand of the $1 million notes featuring a portrait of George Washington at a Tokyo hotel, according to Asahi.
George was apparently in town to shoot a Suntory whiskey commercial.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Words Which Mean Their Own Opposites, Part 2

Another word that means its own opposite from AC Muller's CJKV-English Dictionary:

  • To sell (an article, object).
  • To buy.
  • A wine seller.
  • A huckster, hawker, peddler.
  • Negligent, careless, remiss.

  • Though, I think if a word means "buy" and "sell," it might be better understood as meaning "trade" or "barter."

    Tuesday, February 07, 2006

    Taiwanese Pop Gets Boing-Boinged

    Boing Boing picked up a post about a 1960s Taiwanese pop band called the Telstar Combo today. The album cover looked great, so I was curious to find out ore about these guys. It ends up they were the backing band for a famous singer named Hsieh Lei 謝雷.

    Hsieh Lei hit it big in 1967 with an old Taiwanese song from the 1930s called "Wine Cup of Sorrow 悲戀的酒杯 " which was given new Mandarin lyrics and re-titled "Full Cup of Bitter Wine 苦酒滿杯." The new version was banned under the KMT.

    Hsieh had a record store near the Taipei Train Station in those days, and the record was selling so fast they had to restock during the day. Fans would surround the returning truck and buy the records up before they could even be put on the store's shelves.

    The record was put out by Haishan Records, the dominant force on the pop scene back then. Their roster included around 80% of the big stars of the 60s and 70s, but they got hit badly by financial troubles in the early 80s. Many of the employees jumped ship and started their own record companies. Haishan is still around, but it only puts out re-issues of the oldies.

    Here's a picture of an album by Hsieh Lei (Shai Lay) and the Telstars Combo called "Golden Dream."

    Sunday, January 29, 2006

    Google in China

    I am a big Google fan, and I have dismissed a lot of the criticism that they have received recently, but I have to admit I am a little disappointed with the news that their new China portal will filter its search results per the CCP's liking. Some have canceled their Adwords accounts in protest. Since Google works just fine in Chinese as it is, I have been wondering what the point of the whole thing was. Most savvy Internet users in China who would want to find "illicit" information have ways around the Great Firewall, and the majority, sadly, don't care about such stuff anyway. Look at how widely-used the censored MSN Spaces is in China.
    I just found this post on Google's official blog that provides some answers:
    Google users in China today struggle with a service that, to be blunt, isn't very good. appears to be down around 10% of the time. Even when users can reach it, the website is slow, and sometimes produces results that when clicked on, stall out the user's browser. Our Google News service is never available; Google Images is accessible only half the time. At Google we work hard to create a great experience for our users, and the level of service we've been able to provide in China is not something we're proud of.
    Fair enough, but I don't think that people using Google via a proxy would have such problems anyway.
    Launching a Google domain that restricts information in any way isn't a step we took lightly. For several years, we've debated whether entering the Chinese market at this point in history could be consistent with our mission and values. Our executives have spent a lot of time in recent months talking with many people, ranging from those who applaud the Chinese government for its embrace of a market economy and its lifting of 400 million people out of poverty to those who disagree with many of the Chinese government's policies, but who wish the best for China and its people.
    I love the self-serving first stance mentioned there--applauding the Chinese government "for its embrace of a market economy and its lifting of 400 million people out of poverty." That's a bit like applauding someone for beating his wife less severely than he used to (and taking him at his word as to the numbers).
    No, we're not going to offer some Google products, such as Gmail or Blogger, on until we're comfortable that we can do so in a manner that respects our users' interests in the privacy of their personal communications.
    So they won't be exposing dissidents like some have recently.

    And yes, Chinese regulations will require us to remove some sensitive information from our search results. When we do so, we'll disclose this to users, just as we already do in those rare instances where we alter results in order to comply with local laws in France, Germany and the U.S.
    Google does deserve a bit of credit for this. Users see a little notice in Chinese that says the results have been filtered. Maybe Chinese users will start to wonder why. What would be great is if it said how many results have been filtered out--"Your government's Ministry of Truth is keeping 1,203,089 sites full of information about Taiwan from you. Now go enjoy ''"
    We're in this for the long haul. In the years to come, we'll be making significant and growing investments in China. Our launch of, though filtered, is a necessary first step toward achieving a productive presence in a rapidly changing country that will be one of the world's most important and dynamic for decades to come.
    They say it's a necessary first step. Let's hope they don't mean it's their first compromise of many to come.

    Thursday, January 26, 2006

    Words which mean their own opposites, Part 1

    According to A.C. Muller's extremely useful Dictionary of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, the character 汨 can mean:

  • A river in Hunan.
  • To manage, control.
  • To be in disorder.
  • The flowing through, or passing through (of water).
  • To float.
  • Floating and sinking.

  • I love Chinese.

    Monday, January 23, 2006

    Mandarin... or Math?

    The Chinese-learning craze continues, if we are to believe the flurry of news articles I'm getting every day. There's always something about some school somewhere in the State (or Thailand, or the UK) starting to offer Mandarin classes. There was a NY Times article a couple weeks ago about a Chinese government project to open a chain of Chinese-language schools called "Confucius Institute" around the world (the original is behind their Select Archive wall, but here's a copy from the SF Chronicle).

    One poster to a C-E translation-oriented mailing list recently said Chinese is just too hard for it to be a worthwhile venture for most students. He was attacked as having bought into the myth that "foreigners just can't learn Chinese," but I think he had a point. Well, it's not so difficult, but it's time-consuming. According to the Foreign Service Institute, it takes more than three times the instruction hours for a native English speaker to become fluent in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Arabic than German, French, or Spanish. (Not that becoming fluent is the only goal in learning a language--if it were, Japan's juku industry would be bankrupt!)

    In this opinion piece, Bloomberg columnist, Andy Mukherjee, reacts to reports that "the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to public schools":

    In 2004, Alan Greenspan, talked about math education's being a threat to U.S. competitiveness in a Senate Banking Committee hearing. The Federal Reserve chairman's concerns were validated in a Bloomberg News article last week about the Chartered Financial Analyst exams.

    Chinese students, the article said, had the highest pass rate in the world in last month's CFA Level I test, followed by Germany and India. The U.S. was fourth.

    Kindergarten students in Portland, Oregon, are learning that a triangle is "San-Jiao" in Mandarin, according to the Associated Press. They might learn something more useful by playing with an abacus.

    See the original AP story he's reacting to here.

    Saturday, January 21, 2006

    Wait Until He Reads Their Newspapers....

    Errors? Xinhua?

    A HOTEL manager has filed a suit against a local bookstore for selling him a copy of one of the country's most definitive dictionaries, which he claims is riddled with errors.

    Chen Dingxiang said he has found more than 3,000 mistakes in the latest version of the Xinhua Dictionary published by the Commercial Press.
    From Shanghai Daily.

    Saturday, January 14, 2006

    Congressional Kabuki

    In coverage of the Alito confirmation hearings, references to "Kabuki," "Kabuki dance," or "Kabuki theater" keep coming up. Even participants in the hearings like Senator Joe Biden made them.

    MSNBC commentator Flavia Monteiro Colgan writes: "Most of the public that could have been interested in weighing these issues had tuned out because of the air of inevitability that Democrats had fostered--or they were turned off by the Kabuki theater of the previous days." Commentator Carol Platt Liebau writes, "we’re treated not to a hearing, where issues and concerns will be thoroughly but impartially aired, but instead to a stylized kabuki ritual, where Judge Alito’s adversaries will attempt to draw blood...." ("Draw blood"? That's some ritual!)

    The Jurist has an article entitled "Of Kabuki Dances and Subtle Minuets."

    The cliched phrase is usually used to refer to highly regulated yet empty movements, though Salon bungles that somewhat. They've got: "The moribund hearings have been as predictable as a Kabuki drama." Predictable? Can you really imagine the Salon writer in a Kabuki theater slapping his forehead and saying, "Not this again!"?

    While in Japan, I never caught a Kabuki performance, but I did see a Noh play. I thought Kabuki was the highly-stylized and ritualistic Noh's wilder offspring. Maybe Noh is what these commentators really mean.

    Anyway, "Kabuki" or "political Kabuki" seems to be a meme that's gathering steam, as Language Hat predicted a while back. Here is an old blog entry on the topic from Semantic Composition which traces its usage.

    Friday, January 13, 2006

    Translator's Blues ran an article the other day entitled Translator's Blues, in which the author frets that someday his translating job will be taken over by a computer. He starts by citing the scepticism most of his human colleagues hold toward machine translation ("MT"):

    Anybody who's played around with translation software knows how bad the technology can be. Everyone in my office knows the hoary classic in which "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," translated into Russian and back, comes out "The vodka is good, but the steak is lousy."
    He then goes on to express his alarm at learning MT is a multi-billion dollar industry, and cites some software he tested out which at least gave better results than Babelfish. But we're not quite there yet:
    The holy grail of MT is FAHQT: Fully Automatic, High-Quality Translation. For now, professional and amateur users content themselves with "gisting"—the practice of accepting 80 percent accuracy so as to get a general sense of a text's meaning. (Ninety percent accuracy leaves one error on every line.) Professionals who work with MT always do so in conjunction with human judgment, either by "pre-editing" to limit vocabulary or by "post-editing" to correct errors.
    For now, he concludes, his (and my) job is safe.

    Recently, someone on a translation-related mailing list pointed out the meaninglessness of expressing accuracy as a percentage--if a plural noun is translated as singular, is that the same percent wrong as it would have been had it been completely misrendered? What does "one mistake per line" mean?

    I am not worried about machine translation. On the contrary, I think it opens up a new job possibility--MT software operator. Software capable of providing the "FAHQT" mentioned in the article would have to be pretty close to artificial intelligence, or use some pretty clever semantic indexing. Take another example from the article: "The con is in the pen." Software could figure out that this "pen" is the one which is the short version of "penitentiary" rather than the writing implement by its proximity to other, related words in the document.

    That might lead to some pretty useful applications, but translation is still an art and not a science to me. I just came across a tough sentence in a job I am working on. The speaker grows coffee in Taiwan, and had a long period of hardship before becoming successful. He says:


    Literally, he says, "What was the eight-year war of resistance? I have gone through Wang Baochuan's difficult 18 years of keeping a cold oven." What would a machine do with that? A human has many options. If it were fiction, I might do something like "World War II was nothing--my struggle was more like the Hundred Years' War!" But these are the words of a real person and as such deserve a more faithful rendition that carry his way of expressing himself. But the reader needs the background behind the words. You could go with something like, "The eight-year War of Resistance [against Japan] was nothing--I went through 18 years of hardship like Wang Baochuan [the wife of a captured Tang Dynasty general]." and explain it in brackets, but that's not really elegant. You could even paraphrase it in third person, saying something like "He endured nearly two decades of struggle before finally tasting success."

    It's a matter of judging your audience and deciding the style of the piece. No MT software is going to be doing that any time soon.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2006

    Confucian Analects

    I have been reading through the Analects of Confucius recently, looking for good "commentary fights" where traditional commentators had widely differing interpretations of a passage. Though it's not readily apparent in the translations, you can sometimes figure out which commentators a given translator was relying on to crack this text. I just discovered a useful site for this, which has translations by Legge, Lau, and Couvreur (French), and the original Chinese to the side. Even better, when you roll the cursor over a Chinese character, the definition and pronunciation appear.

    Monday, January 09, 2006

    Namecards and Chinese Lessons

    I have been stuck in the Han Dynasty recently, reading Analects commentaries, but I popped out to take a look at, a blog run by a friend of No-Sword Matt. There is a beautiful post about Japanese namecards of all things. The author collects them--take a look before you cry "otaku!"

    There's also a post about ChinesePod, an interesting podcasting idea. You can download free Chinese-lesson podcasts, and for a subscription fee you can access some extra services. I am not sure exactly what you get other than PDFs of the script, but if anybody knows, please enlighten me.

    I listened to a couple of the podcasts--they are very professionally put together and entertaining. They feature a foreigner and a native speaker covering a point or two and bantering back and forth. The foreigner has a bit of an accent to his Chinese, but that's just my gaijin griping.

    Please drop a comment if you've listened to the ChinesePod podcasts and let me know what you think! I wish there were such a podcast for Japanese (preferably not made by anime freaks).

    Back to the Han Dynasty for me....

    Thursday, January 05, 2006


    As someone who travels around a lot (or at least used to), I always wanted a web-based word-processor. Now there is one called Writely, and it seems to work OK with Asian fonts. You can save and share your documents online--pretty nice.

    Wednesday, January 04, 2006

    Language Myths

    The LA Times has an article about something I've noticed recently--Mandarin is becoming more prevalent among Chinese in the USA. It contains some unfortunate myths and downright errors. The first is that Cantonese is "a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions" which "can make words of love sound like a fight."

    To me, these sorts of statements are just cultural stereotypes--languages don't have sound, people do. A French truck driver cursing out somebody who just cut him off is not going to sound more melodious than a Cantonese speaker reading poetry. But that's just me. Some Cantonese speakers buy into this Cantonese=cacophony idea, too:

    "You might be saying, 'I love you' to your girlfriend in Cantonese, but it will still sound like you're fighting," said Howard Lee, a talk show host on Cantonese language KMRB-AM (1430). "It's just our tone. We always sound like we're in a shouting match. Mandarin is so mellow. Cantonese is strong and edgy."

    I have heard this from speakers of Cantonese and Taiwanese. Perhaps what it is is that Chinese bilinguals ("bidialecticals"?) often use Mandarin for school and "official" business but their own dialect for more earthy matters. I can say from experience that most Taiwanese will switch from Mandarin to Taiwanese when they want to curse you out, and most of the few Taiwanese phrases I know are "edgy" expressions for that very reason.

    The article also strangely conflates written Chinese and spoken Mandarin:
    To stress a point or to twist a sentence into a question, Cantonese speakers need only add a dramatic ahhhhhhh or laaaaaaa at the end.

    Something simple like, "Let's go" becomes "C'mon, lets get a move on!" when it's capped with laaaaa.

    By comparison, with Mandarin from China, what you see is what you get. The written form has been simplified by the Chinese government so that characters require fewer strokes. It is considered calmer and more melodic.
    Writing with fewer strokes makes the language more melodic?

    I would like to know why Mandarin is becoming more prevalent in the States. The article only says this:
    But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.

    The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China's official language, entrepreneurs [...] have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can't be done with Cantonese alone.
    The author says waves have been coming for three decades, but I think there's been a noticeable increase in Mandarin just over the last few years.

    Sunday, January 01, 2006

    Live from the Renegade Province

    It used to be that New Year's wasn't really a big deal in Taiwan, but it seems to be getting to be more and more of one all the time. Maybe it's the festivities and fireworks at the Taipei 101 building that are drawing more interest. But still, for Taiwanese, the real "new year" is the one on the lunar calendar. I was really surprised when I went to Japan and found that not only do they not celebrate the lunar new year, but that they have moved its celebrations over to the January 1st one. Going to a Buddhist temple on Jan. 1st just seemed so bizarre to me at first. But I got over it--I mean, apparently Jesus was actually born in April, but that doesn't stop us from celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25th (with Pagan trees for decorations).

    I am indulging in a bit of Taiwan nostalgia today by checking out the webcams on this page put up by the government.

    I discovered this right after who else pops up in my New York Times RSS feed but President Chen Shui-bian. In the article, the following appears:

    The speech was Mr. Chen's first major policy address since his Democratic Progressive Party fared badly in islandwide municipal elections on Dec. 3. His party favors greater political independence from the mainland.

    Until today, Mr. Chen had said fairly little in the weeks since the Dec. 3 islandwide municipal elections in which his Democratic Progressive Party, which seeks greater political independence from the mainland, fared badly.

    Is the NYT trying to hypnotize me? And what does it mean for Taiwan to seek "greater" political independence from "the mainland"? Seems pretty damn independent already, just no one can call it as it is because of the big C. "The Independence that Dare Not Speak its Name!"

    Cheers to Michael Turton for the link to the webcams.