Reverse engineer alphabetical English words to Mandarin?
September 28, 2019 5:28 AM   Subscribe

How to organize a Mandarin vocabulary book to look up new vocabulary words easily, when the Mandarin alphabet is so different than English?

My friend just got a job transcribing Chinese news (in Mandarin) to English, and I'd like to get her a physical notebook where she can organize new vocabulary words from the news with an easy-to-reference system. I thought about an English alphabetized notebook, but that only helps her find the English words and convert them to Mandarin. I've searched for "Mandarin aphabetized notebook" with no results on Amazon.

Can you help me reverse-engineer a dictionary reference book, where she could find Mandarin words/characters and look them up easily, and keep track of the new words she comes across regularly in the news? I'm unfamiliar with Mandarin, so I'm not sure how to organize the system, or if an English alphabetical notebook would be the best way to go.

*She has a Mandarin dictionary, so that's not what I am looking for--I'd like to get her a notebook/organizer to keep track of Mandarin vocabulary words she comes across in the news. Can you recommend a product or search terms to use? Many thanks!
posted by shortyJBot to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Chinese dictionaries are typically organized according to a system of radicals (subcomponents of characters), and then within those by the number of strokes -- it's the rough equivalent of "alphabetical order". It is possible, using this system, to see a completely unfamiliar Chinese character and look it up in the dictionary. The system is really quite complicated, though and probably wouldn't be how most people would choose to organize a vocabulary list as a foreign learner.

But Chinese also has the pinyin system which is phonetic and uses the Latin alphabet. I am pretty sure this would be an easier way to organize things, in regular alphabetical order. Words that share characters would typically end up in the same sections, at least.

It wouldn't allow one to look up a totally unfamiliar character by its appearance, but in many cases it's possible to guess at pronunciation, and then it would still be useful.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:24 AM on September 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is a good question.

Chinese words in dictionaries are ordered by a complicated system of understanding their root character (“radical”) within each character and then the number of strokes to complete the character. It’s very tedious and i find dictionaries useful when I encounter a new word and have no idea what it is but can puzzle it though based on radical and counting strokes. But that is what “alphabetical order” is good for - which to say of limited utility.

I think in the context of what your friend needs to do, which is find the word she means, I would create a glossary based on topics. Country names, city names, people names, government words, economy words, medical words, etc. In the context of what she’s presumably using this notebook for is when she’s like “oh I need the word for diabetes, what was that again?” and go to her “health words I know” section - not “the word for diabetes is actually three words and the first word looks like 糖 (sugar) which had the radical 米 (rice) and then ten strokes, cool, off to the six-stroke radical section.”

I would also on have a section in this book to organize words she learns by pinyin, for looking up when she HEARS a word. So this could be organized in Latin alphabetic order. So she hears “tang2 xue3 bing4” and she could go to her T section.

(I made a notebook like this when I worked in China as a reporter and had to learn different sets of words for different stories and topics. I used the dictionary to look up new ones, and my notebook to find the ones I had learned when I wanted to use them. Essentially you need to triangulate between the way the word looks, what it means and what it sounds like.)
posted by sestaaak at 6:45 AM on September 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well, you could organize a list of Chinese vocabulary by A-Z using Hanyu Pinyin. So if you have 草泥馬(caonima in toneless pinyin), 河蟹(hexie), 我爸爸是李剛(wo baba shi Li Gang) (yes, I'm showing my age in terms of the mainland Chinese Internet-ese that I know), you could file it under c, h, and w (or l for Li Gang) respectively.

Speaking for myself, though, I'd find using a physical notebook like this way too cumbersome. Many serious students of Mandarin already have Pleco with the flashcard add-on, which is way more convenient and useful.
posted by alidarbac at 6:45 AM on September 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would organize it by pinyin. However, many (most?) professional translators use a translation memory tool like Trados. One free open-source alternative is OmegaT.
posted by bradf at 6:59 AM on September 28, 2019

I'm leaving the physical notebook question aside and assuming you know she will want to use this.

Radical-stroke is the traditional organization method for Chinese dictionaries, for a couple of reasons: (1) it allows you to look up a character that you don't know how to pronounce but have seen, (2) it is pronunciation-independent for lookup purposes and (3) it predates the use of pinyin by a long, long time.

But in this case I'd definitely just use pinyin, which is the only* reasonable collation alternative, aside from the topic-based suggestions discussed above. Radical-stroke is impractical for personal use (starting with the fact there are 214 radicals) and the reasons it exists aren't problems for your friend anymore: (1) electronics and smartphones allow you to look up unknown characters way more easily by just handwriting them, and (2) your friend presumably cares about Mandarin only.

Pinyin just then means using an English A-Z notebook. The only very minor hiccup is that words starting with Q, X and Z are going to be a lot more common than in English.

*If she were in Taiwan there would be an argument for using zhuyin, but outside of Taiwan it doesn't make sense.
posted by andrewesque at 9:43 AM on September 28, 2019

I don't know Mandarin, but think I can substitute Japanese for the same lookup by character (radical or stroke count), pronunciation in native form, or pronunciation in a latin alphabet form.

Depending on form factor... I'd like:
a) pages with lightly ruled squares to keep the characters nice and neatly aligned.
b) to be able to add and remove pages at will.

Beyond that, I think it would be best to let her design her own lookup system. It's hard to predict the number of words or the sizes of indexes.

I'd look for something like a 3 ring day planner where you could find the A-Z and 0-9 tabbed sections (or blank tabs that you write on yourself). And has refills of unnumbered pages of sorta large square graph paper. Probably all she needs is to be able to glance over a couple of pages in the index to recognize the word, then look at the page number beside it, and flip to the main section. The word or words and definitions would be there.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:13 AM on September 28, 2019

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