Is Google's Asian translation trustworthy?
April 11, 2006 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Can I trust Google's translations of English to Korean, Japanese, and Chinese?

I volunteered to design an Asian-themed poster. The theme is Pride, Partnership, Progress. So I want to use Korean, Chinese, and Japanese writing for these words within the design. I used Google's translation service, but I don't want an embarassing faux pas, like "progress" using the symbol for "thrust forward" or something. Anyone here familiar with Asian writing? Would you like to check it out for me? Thanks!!!
posted by The Deej to Writing & Language (23 answers total)
Well, that's interesting. I tried putting in your phrase exactly and running it through E>J, and rather than treating it as a list of words, it tried to parse it grammatically. Its vocabulary choices were so-so (they mixed kanji and katakana, and so weren't aesthetically pleasing, which is really all that matters for your purposes), but not on the hilarity level of "bite the wax tadpole."

As a rule, you should not trust machine translation for any production-grade purposes. Even single words can be problematic when there's no context (or even when there is). As best as I can tell, machine translation to/from Korean (which I don't know) is the worst of the lot.
posted by adamrice at 2:56 PM on April 11, 2006

(I'm sure you'll get some specific answers, but in general, I'd really recommend hitting up the library for English-X dictionaries for this purpose rather than working with google. Such dictionaries usually provide you with the context for words that have multiple interpretations. For example, the Portuguese dictionary with me has mixer ... [machine - for food] [for drinks] [for cement] etc... For tangible words, you may also consider using Image Search to confirm what you're looking for)
posted by whatzit at 3:01 PM on April 11, 2006

Good info, adamrice. I am putting the words in one at a time. My idea is to use one word of each language. Not that many people will notice, but for the few who do, I want it to be right. I'll post a link to an image of the 3 characters I have at the moment.

posted by The Deej at 3:02 PM on April 11, 2006

This is a good English/Japanese dictionary.

This one supports Chinese, but I have no idea how good it is.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:14 PM on April 11, 2006

A straightforward word-for-word translation won't work, either, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, other languages don't have the same syntax as English. For another, word phrases have meanings beyond the meanings of the individual words themselves.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:17 PM on April 11, 2006

Thanks for the input, whatzit!

No, I am not going to trust Google exclusively. I am hoping maybe some MeFite reads and writes in these languages. If not, then the research will continue.

Here is a link to the image of the characters I have at the moment:

The leftmost one is (supposedly) Korean for pride. The next is Chinese for Partnership, and the last is Japanese for progress. We shall see!

Thanks again to all who wander this way! :)
posted by The Deej at 3:17 PM on April 11, 2006

合作 (he2 zuo4) is more like collaborate, where 合夥 (he2 huo3) is partnership.
posted by kcm at 4:09 PM on April 11, 2006

oh and the third one is also chinese for progress (jin4 bu4).
posted by kcm at 4:13 PM on April 11, 2006

(note the second is a VERB, not a noun)
posted by kcm at 4:14 PM on April 11, 2006

For whatever its worth, all three could be treated as Korean (I think, although it would be odd to have the first word in Hangul and latter two in Hanja); the latter two could be treated as either Chinese or Japanese. A native speaker of any of these languages would look at this and cock their head in wonderment at what, exactly, you were getting at.
posted by adamrice at 4:21 PM on April 11, 2006

긍지 is indeed one of the Korean words for pride, or for the concept that lies somewhere between pride and dignity. The others, I can't help you with.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:38 PM on April 11, 2006

For Japanese: You have to be careful when you translate "pride" into Japanese because many of the words found in the dictionary would have negative connotations. E.g. 優越感 (yuu-etsu-kan, a sense of superiority), 高慢 (kou-man, arrogance), 横柄 (ou-bou, tyrannical), 自慢 (ji-man, brag). I would use プライド (pronounced puraido, the katakana transliteration of the English word), but if you wanted to translate it using two kanji characters, like the other two words, I would use 自負 (jifu), which is the closest word that means pride in a positive sense, as in "take pride in one's work."
"Parnership" in Japanese would be 協同 (kyou-dou) or 提携 (tei-kei), or maybe 協力 (kyou-ryoku, cooperation).
You've got "progress" right. It's 進歩 (shin-po).
And yes, like adamrice says above, as it stands, the characters in your link appear rather strange from a native Japanese standpoint.
posted by misozaki at 5:42 PM on April 11, 2006

Bad Idea (tm). Remember how Asian electronics companies used to produce instructions manuals that were so bad that they were hilarious? You might end up doing the same thing.

Asian languages are highly metaphoric. They draw heavily on parables, history and mythology. E.g. the common Chinese phrase for "contradiction" consists of two words that on their own mean "spear" and "shield" -- due to a fable of two soldiers, one with an invincible shield and another with an all-penetrating spear.

Moreover, one's sense of cadence, rhyme, and poetry in an Asian language is very different from in Western cultures. "Pride, Partnership and Progress" is catchy in English partly because all three words start with the letter P. The combination of their Japanese equivalents might sound be altogether incongruent.

I strongly suggest you get the translation done by a native speaker, a hired professional if possible.
posted by randomstriker at 6:37 PM on April 11, 2006

Asian languages are highly metaphoric. They draw heavily on parables, history and mythology. E.g. the common Chinese phrase for "contradiction" consists of two words that on their own mean "spear" and "shield" -- due to a fable of two soldiers, one with an invincible shield and another with an all-penetrating spear.

Baloney. Yes, I know contradiction is 矛盾, but there's no need to gussy it all up in this exotic language. English words also draw on parables, history, and mythology.

I agree that you should have native speakers check it out.
posted by alidarbac at 6:59 PM on April 11, 2006

You are all great! A few things to keep in mind:

- I am not concerned that it be read as a phrase; this is a graphic element complementing the English phrase. It may even be just a watermark in the background, or covered by the English text.

- It's more important to avoid negative or embarassing mis-interpretation than it is to have an "exact" accurate translation. As long as the correct idea is conveyed I think I am safe.

-The vast majority of those who see this won't know if it says "progress" or "kung pao chicken." But I'd hate to see a group of Asian tourists standing around the display laughing. (These will be displayed in D.C. for a government-sponsored event.)

- I agree with all of you who say it's better to have someone proficient in the language do this. If I have any doubts after MeFi, I will go to the local university or Chinese restuarant.

- Adamrice... so, do you think that it's better to just use one language, since the similarities of the "different" ones would just cause head-cocking confusion? (I was trying to be "inclusive" by using 3 languages.)

Again, thank you all for your input!
posted by The Deej at 7:00 PM on April 11, 2006

Some more online resources:

The Unihan Database

RISU on Kanji

And Hanzi Smatter is a blog dedicated to the misuse and abuse of Chinese characters by westerners, especially in regard to tattoos. It's worth reading some of his archives to see the kinds of traps and mistakes others have made in situations like this. Sometimes it makes "Engrish" look tame by comparison.

I'm just a dabbler when it comes to Japanese, but I know of a few cases where a combination of kanji have a meaning completely unrelated to the individual symbols. Here's one of the best examples I"ve encountered so far:

馬 -- horse
鹿 -- deer
野 -- civilian life; plains; field; rustic
郎 -- counter for sons; son

Put 'em all together and you get 馬鹿野郎 bakayarou

(Who says kanji are used for their meanings rather than their sounds?)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:16 PM on April 11, 2006

OK, what did I do wrong? They looked correct on the live preview pane. Let me try a straight paste of the characters:

馬 -- horse
鹿 -- deer
野 -- civilian life; plains; field; rustic
郎 -- counter for sons; son

Combined the result is 馬鹿野郎 bakayarou .
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:18 PM on April 11, 2006

Something you might be overlooking: Korean hangul is phonetic. I only mention this because it seems you are after the "symbolism" that these east asian characters seem to provide, like Kanji (Japanese characters) and Hanzi (Chinese characters). The Korean equivalent is Hanja, so that is likely what you'd be more interested in.

Also, it would probably be best to pick a language and stick to it. I know that in Japanese 手(hand) plus 紙(paper) means letter (like, epistle), whereas in Chinese I'm pretty sure it means toilet paper.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 7:33 PM on April 11, 2006

If you're going to use Korean, I recommend you don't bother with Hanja, which is just unsimplified Chinese characters, and stick with Hangul, which is natively Korean (if only used since its creation in the 15th century). In this tri-language context, most Koreans I know would feel their national pride was being slighted (as they are so wont to do) were Hangul not used.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:38 PM on April 11, 2006

Yeah, I'd stick to the Chinese (in traditional letterforms) and call it a day. I've got a working knowledge of Japanese and almost none of Chinese, but that would probably give you the most aesthetically pleasing and incidentally meaningful text. But, as gooseontheloose pointed out (and I would have), a given word in Chinese can, rarely, have a completely different meaning in Japanese. Another example is 無料, which means "free" in Japanese and "worthless" in Chinese. And of course, some words will be meaningless in one language but not the other.
posted by adamrice at 7:52 PM on April 11, 2006

(I'll note that although it appears otherwise from his first sentence, adamrice is advocating the opposite of what I recommended in the previous comment.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:15 PM on April 11, 2006

OK, thanks again to all who have given their 2 yen.

I think it is best to use only Chinese. I have uploaded a picture here of the latest incarnation based on what I have gleaned here. Am I close? Anyone disagree with Chinese as the choice?

Remember, I am not looking for the Chinese to be read as a phrase, but individual words. As long as the words represent the individual ideas behind the English, I'm good.

Thanks for your education in an area I have no knowledge.
posted by The Deej at 9:19 PM on April 11, 2006

Asian languages are highly metaphoric. They draw heavily on parables, history and mythology. E.g. the common Chinese phrase for "contradiction" consists of two words that on their own mean "spear" and "shield" -- due to a fable of two soldiers, one with an invincible shield and another with an all-penetrating spear.

Let me second alidarbac in calling this baloney. All languages are "highly metaphoric." Why, the very word metaphor is a metaphor; it means 'carrying across.' Does that affect your use of the word? Does it even matter whether you know it or not in terms of using it as an English word? No and no. The same is true of all those "hidden meanings" in Chinese.
posted by languagehat at 5:36 AM on April 12, 2006

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