Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Seriously Silly Sinophiles

People have been laughing for years at the shoddy English translations that've been produced from East Asia, namely, from China, Japan, and Korea. However, how much has been said about the Western fluency of asiatic languages?

Not much. Or at least, not much on this side of the world. In Asia, however, the locals constantly laugh, chuckle, chortle and snicker at the grevious mispronunciations and syntactic inaccuracies that the "foreigners" produce. Most people of minimal international awareness have probably heard of, or visited, Wonderful stuff.

But now, there's apparently been another site, called Hanzi Smatter (link on right), that does the flip side -- featuring the blunders that the western world does to asian text. It unfortunately features way more tattoo blunders than I'd like (due to my personal aversion to tattoos, and photographs that reveal more about the skin quality of the individual instead of the subject matter), but still entertaining, and oddly addicting.

There is, in the design world, a certain school of thought wherein the "image" or "aesthetic" overrides the symbolic or the semantic. (The main reason for my contempt for contemporary art critics.) A man, woman and snake in a garden with an apple tree is a bit hard to pass off as original without making the viewer draw SOME allusion to the biblical story of Eden. And Chinese characters, an old and established writing system for some 1/6th of the world's population, isn't exactly source material for "obscure references".

In a slightly related corollary, I recently read on a forum or comment box of a blog, the use of the word "pictogram". It almost made me scream. Except that I was alone, so it'd arouse no attention. (Like a tree that falls in a forest...)

Among the 5'000+ characters that are required for reasonable erudition, and the 60'000+ characters that modern dictionaries admit as being legitimate, only about 8% would be truly pictographic -- visually representing their intended meaning. Such characters include "fish" (魚), "bird" (鳥), "hand" (手), and "tree" (木). An overwhelming majority (~80%) of Chinese characters, on the other hand, are composed of two elements: a phonetic, and semantic half.

The phonetic half (usually on the bottom, or the right half of the character), gives some hint to the pronunciation, normally through rhyme. The semantic component, on the other hand, hints at its meaning or function. (A hand radical on the left, for example, often indicates a verb: 掃 (to sweep), 持 (to hold), 揺 (to wave), 打 (to strike); a water radical indicates a liquid object: 湯 (soup), 海 (ocean), 池 (pond; lake), 油 (oil).)

For this reason, contemporary scholars prefer other terms than the archaic "pictogram" or "ideograph". Instead, the linguist might use "logogram", the educated layman "character", and the typographer "glyph". Wikipedia adequately explains the distinction between "Chinese characters" and "Chinese words", for the more curious.

No comments: