Friday, July 21, 2006

Literal translation paying huge dividends

A while ago I posted about literal translation and how I thought it was a great aid to learning Chinese. Well as it happens I am discovering just how powerful it can be. In fact I can't understand why it is not emphasised right from the begining by everybody, as eventually it becomes a wonderful tool to aquire some of your Chinese vocabulary for free.

I have noticed that many Chinese words are composites of others, so you get many words like dian4nao3. Dian4nao3 is computer, but don't stop there, it is literally electric brain. Now what if you learn dian4nao3 = computer but don't fully absorb the electric brain meaning what do you lose?

You lost that aha! moment when you learn dian4hua4 = telephone (electric talk). But hang on hua4 is in shou1hua4 and even xiao4hua4 = joke (smile talk) and .... and ... ... and. I think you get the picture.

A couple of the many concrete examples that I have benefited from:

In one Chinespod podcast they introduced the word ke3ai4, I guessed it meant loveable (or cute etc.) straight away from the context and because the ke3 from ke3yi3 and ai4 (love) literally fitted together and made "can love" or "can be loved". I think that often these helpers are missed. A later podcast hits this word again and goes as far as loveable but not down to this sort of literal translation. To be fair though Cpod is more likely than most resources to give you a literal translation or other mnemonic to rember by (cheers Ken).

Next we have an example of a free word and they are increasing. I was looking up words for husband and wife and came across ai4ren2 (spouse, partner, even sweetheart). I decided to mostly ignore it, spouse is an old-fashioned word in English and I guess this wouldn't be high frequency. However I had already noticed straight away that a literal translation could be (love person), which effectivly memorised the word with no effort. About two weeks later and I am half listening to some Chinese radio and I hear a strange line in a song. The line was literally "ni3 you3 bu4 ai4ren2". That sentance was just wrong, surely it should be "ni mei2you3 ai4ren2" or similar??. Also maybe ai4ren2 is more common than I suppossed (store for later and ask someone). As luck would have it the two hosts on the radio station spotted it too and had a good laugh about it (I actually understood some of what they were saying as I had a context, they thought it was really funny). Now I am pretty sure this word and the grammar was wrong.

I did actually discuss this later with a Chinese friend, he thought it funny too. Apparently a lot of Mandarin songs are written by non-native speaker who sometimes get a little dictionary happy and do horrible things with the language.

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