Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Character development

Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) (259-210 BC) unified China by standardizing weights and measures, building roads, burying Confucian scholars alive, burning books, and also standardizing the Chinese language.
This was no easy task because even today there are myriad dialects in China and many of them cannot understand each other. But, if you learn to read, everyone can read the newspaper. In mainland China they use simplified characters, as opposed to traditional characters, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Here is an example of a simplified vs a traditional character.
These two characters are the same (gui3, turtle):
However, there is also a third type of character: the crazy Cantonese characters. These characters are definitely not Qin Shi Huang approved, and they make no sense if you don't know what you are looking at. I recently had a translation project that used these characters, and it was pretty difficult trying to decipher it. Here are a few of them that I learned:

啱喇 (ngaam1 laa3): "That's correct." The first character is completely made up to fit an existing Cantonese word for "right, appropriate." The second is just a final sound to have the exclamation end in a long vowel noise. If you try to say it out loud, just drag out the "laaa" for about 3 whole seconds while trailing off, and you will be speaking expert Cantonese. It is interesting to note that many of the characters that are made up to fit existing words have a "mouth" radical (口) next to them, like these two do. In real characters that often indicates that the word has something to do with your mouth (the above 喇 is also part of a real word for trumpet), but it can also indicate a purely spoken word.

唔係 (m4 hai6): "No." Again we see the mouth radical on the word "m." In Cantonese this word basically indicates negation of any verb that follows it. However, it is also a real character that means "hold in the mouth." The second character is also a real word meaning "link, connection." In this case the words were probably chosen due to their similarity in pronunciation to the Cantonese words for "not" and "is," which equals the word for no.

細蚊仔 (sai3 men1 zai2): "Children." This is kind of a really weird one. If you take the meanings of the characters literally, it means "thin mosquito babies." I can only guess that it is a combination of pronunciation and a good sense of humor. Another word for children is 細路哥 (sai3 lou6 go1) "thin road brother." Yeah, I know.

Qin Shi Huang may have forced thousands of people to build the Great Wall, and created a huge tomb with terra cotta soldiers guarding his body, but the barbarians eventually went around the Wall to invade China, and people dug up the soldiers. (Actually there is a movie about him which I really like called 古今大战秦俑情 (Ancient and Modern War of the Terra Cotta Lovers), starring Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.) So I guess it is only fitting that the Chinese language is once again becoming divided. Which is OK, really. I mean the guy was kind of a maniac.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The lost language of trains

If you never thought about it, you might think trains just blow their horns randomly as they are going by.

I used to be one of those people, until I moved into an apartment that is approximately 100 feet from a "grade crossing," or crossing at street level.

Now, every night between 12 and 4 a.m., a train rolls by and blasts its horn at a bone-rattling 100 dB. While working on a news story for the Brighton Blade about train "quiet zones" I discovered that the trains blow their horns in certain patterns, which mean different things. In the loose constraints of the blogosphere, I figure this information fits into the translation motif, and so here is a brief posting about the strange language of trains....

Below is a list of the common signals. The main one we hear at night is the long-long-short-long ( = = o = ) signal, indicating the train is within a 1/4 mile of the crossing. Some engineers take liberties with this signal, and I can now identify the different drivers, based on their interpretation of the signal.

For instance, Mr. Longhorn makes all of his signals really long, so it just drags on forever. Shortround gives two shortish longs, then a really short short burst, but then he lays on the final long for like 10 seconds.

Anyway, here is a list of the now-de-mystified, secret language of trains. (Courtesy of the Union Pacific Web site)

means long
o means short

of short sounds

"Look out you fools"
An attempt to get people or cows to look up and get the
heck off the train tracks.
Hitting the air brakes while train is stopped.
= =
"Leaving Dodge"
AKA: woo-woo sound. Train releases brakes and proceeds.
o o
"OK whatever"
Acknowledgment of any signal not otherwise provided for.
o o o

"Backing the thing up"
Train is backing up, or acknowledging hand signal to back up.
o o o o
A request for a signal to be given or repeated if not understood.
= o o o
"Watch my back"
Instruction for flagman to protect rear of train.
= = = =
"Come back!"
The flagman may return from west or south.
= = = = =
"Come baaack!"
The flagman may return from east or north.
= = o =

"Wake up, Ben and Michala!!"
Train is approaching public crossings at grade with engine in front.
Signal starts not less than 15 seconds but not more than 20 seconds
before reaching the crossing. If movement is 45 mph or greater, signal starts at or about the crossing sign, but not more than 1/4 mile before the crossing if there is no sign. Signal is prolonged or repeated until the engine completely occupies the crossing(s).
In addition, this signal is used when approaching private crossings if pedestrians or motor vehicles are at or near the crossing.

o =
"Crap, no brakes!"
Inspect the brake system for leaks or sticking brakes.
= o

"Coming through! Quiet zone be damned!"
Train is approaching people or equipment on or near the track, regardless of any whistle prohibitions.
After this initial warning, "o o" sounds intermittently until the head end of train has passed the people or equipment.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tela Mundi

The Internet is fun.
I probably spent like three hours doing research for this graphic that I wanted to post with the tournament posting. Here's how it went down:
I searched for a picture of jousting. Then I found this one, and wanted to put the word "badminton" into the text so it was kind of funny and clever.
But after I inserted the word badminton, I wanted to find out what the original text on the thing actually said. Then it could be even more clever, since it would actually say something in Latin. So I searched for text that I could actually read, namely "di cam deo", and I found
(here is how awesome Google is) this site: http://www.aug.edu/augusta/psalms/psalm41.htm
Which happens to have the entire Paris Psalter Psalm 41 in Latin and its translation -- in Icelandic or something. But I was able to grab the Latin phrase "Apud me oratio Deo vite mee. Dicam Deo: Susceptor meus es."
Notice on the tapestry that "oratio" is actually "oracio." What that implies I don't know. Anyway, I then searched the whole Latin phrase and found this site: http://www.medievalist.net/psalmstxt/ps41.htm
Which in turn allowed me to discover that the phrase is actually part of two verses, that mean:
"With me is the prayer to the God of my life, I will say to God, thou art my support."
So then I played around trying to find other even cleverer things to do to the text. I had "dicam deo forma et filum meus es." Trying to say "I will say to God: thou art my racquet and strings," and I finally found a forum somewhere where I learned how to say "do you want to play __" (ludere cupio ___ ), and then threw in "badmintonus."
SO now it says "With me is the prayer to the god of my life. I will say to God: do you want to play badminton?"
Blasphemous? Maybe. Fun? Definitely.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rotten cake

糟糕 (zao1 gao1) in Chinese means "rotten cake." It also means "really bad," which is how I did at the Colorado Open badminton tournament last weekend.
Not that I had a bad time! It was really fun, but that doesn't change the fact that I didn't do very well. Fortunately, there are about 4 other tournaments in the area in the next couple of months, so I have plenty of opportunities to improve/try again.
To the right is a picture of me serving, with my doubles partner Note to the right.
We did well in our first match and moved on to the second round. There, we won our first game against a pair of brothers, I think, but then got sloppy and lost the next two games. Michala was watching from the rafters, and said we would have won the second game if we'd been keeping better track of the score, but such is the way of things I guess.
In mixed doubles, we had been sitting around for about 5 hours, then had 4 minutes or less to warm up. Things were running very late at that point, and needless to say we did poorly. We played an unscheduled match against a very good player -- and his 10-year-old daughter. If you ask me, that was a decision made in poor taste and sportsmanship. OK, he was giving her experience, but the fact was that she barely played, and we didn't want to smash at her (at first) so we got totally spanked.
By the time we caught on to the fact that the only way to beat them was to "attack" the little girl, it was way too late. Then, the same team beat the German guy I lost to in singles and his female partner. During their match I was trying to think of a way to tell him to go after the girl in German, but I couldn't think of it.
Later I thought it might be something like "blitzen der fraulein!!" but I'm not sure. That may have just confused him.
Well, the next tournament is the Fort Collins Open in April. But, I just got a large translation to do so I will likely be distracted by that. It is interesting in that it is written Cantonese, which is quite different from written Mandarin. Mostly the same, but some key words are altered.