Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: language (page 1 of 3)

Big-number cheat sheet and BetterTouchTool

BetterTouchTool is one of my favorite Mac utilities. A real sleeper: originally it just let you create new trackpad gestures (or remap existing ones), and that was useful enough on its own, but it’s been beefed up with more and more interesting features. One feature I just discovered is that it can display a floating window with any HTML you want. This is a perfect way to show my Big Number Cheat Sheet, which is handy for checking your work when dealing with, well, big Japanese numbers.

To use this, open up BTT, add a new triggering event (can be triggered by a key command or text string, trackpad, whatever), and add the action Utility Actions > Show Floating Web View/HTML menu. Give it a name, set it to a width of 500, height of 750, and paste the following in directly. (Posting this online introduces a space between the opening < and !DOCTYPE — that should be deleted.) Be sure to enable “show window buttons” and/or “close when clicking outside” or the window won’t go away.

< !DOCTYPE html>
    <meta charset="utf-8" />
    <title> </title>
        body {
        background-color: #fff;
        font-family: helvetica;
        font-size: 14/18;
        table {
        border-collapse: collapse;
        tr, td, th {
        border: none;
        tr {
        border-bottom: 1px solid #ddd;
        table tr td:nth-child(1), table tr th:nth-child(1) {
        width: 7em;
        padding: 0.5em;
        text-align: right;
        table tr td:nth-child(2), table tr th:nth-child(2) {
        width: 12em;
        padding: 0.5em;
        text-align: left;
        table tr td:nth-child(3), table tr th:nth-child(3) {
        padding: 0.5em;
        text-align: left;
        tr:hover {
        color: #ddd;
        background-color: #333;
    Big number cheatsheet 
        <th> 和 </th>
        <th> English </th>
        <th> Number </th>
        <td> 一万 </td>
        <td> ten thousand </td>
        <td> 10,000 </td>
        <td> 十万 </td>
        <td> one hundred thousand </td>
        <td> 100,000 </td>
        <td> 百万 </td>
        <td> one million </td>
        <td> 1,000,000 </td>
        <td> 千万 </td>
        <td> ten million </td>
        <td> 10,000,000 </td>
        <td> 一億 </td>
        <td> one hundred million </td>
        <td> 100,000,000 </td>
        <td> 十億 </td>
        <td> one billion </td>
        <td> 1,000,000,000 </td>
        <td> 百億 </td>
        <td> ten billion </td>
        <td> 10,000,000,000 </td>
        <td> 千億 </td>
        <td> one hundred billion </td>
        <td> 100,000,000,000 </td>
        <td> 一兆 </td>
        <td> one trillion </td>
        <td> 1,000,000,000,000 </td>
        <td> 十兆 </td>
        <td> ten trillion </td>
        <td> 10,000,000,000,000 </td>
        <td> 百兆 </td>
        <td> one hundred trillion </td>
        <td> 100,000,000,000,000 </td>
        <td> 千兆 </td>
        <td> one quadrillion </td>
        <td> 1,000,000,000,000,000 </td>
        <td> 一京 </td>
        <td> ten quadrillion </td>
        <td> 10,000,000,000,000,000 </td>


Translating a document that involves optics, I ran into what I immediately recognized as ROYGBIV in Japanese:


(actually that’s VIBGYOR, but the point is the same)

I had never really stopped to consider how ROYGBIV might be expressed in Japanese, but it’s an interesting question, because the Japanese word that is ordinarily rendered in English as “blue”, 青 ao, can mean blue or green. “Vegetables” in Japanese can be 青物; a green light is an 青信号. And here it’s being pushed further down the spectrum, away from green, to stand for “indigo.”

The color that holds blue’s place in the above list is 水色, “water-colored.”

And that makes me wonder, what is the color “indigo” anyhow? How is it different from blue? Why do we have two color words for what’s basically the same thing? Apparently I’m in good company—according to Wikipedia, Asimov said “It is customary to list indigo as a color lying between blue and violet, but it has never seemed to me that indigo is worth the dignity of being considered a separate color. To my eyes it seems merely deep blue.” Wikipedia has quite a bit more to say about the color indigo: “According to Gary Waldman, ‘A careful reading of Newton’s work indicates that the color he called indigo, we would normally call blue; his blue is then what we would name blue-green or cyan.'”

Curiouser and curiouser. It seems as if 青 would be a good fit for Newton’s usage of blue, and 紺 would correspond better to indigo, but it’s also interesting to observe how the meaning of simple color words has apparently shifted in English. And 水色 is a pretty good fit for what Newton meant by “blue.”

The Wikipedia article is also interesting in that it explains why there are seven colors in ROYGBIV in the first place, when our modern color models are based on three primary colors (RGB or CMY) with secondaries and tertiaries in between: it was an arbitrary decision to force the colors to correspond with the seven notes of the Western musical scale.


Translating a press release about a new server with a new Intel chip, which describes all the buzzwords the chip is compliant with. Because the release is in Japanese, I’m not sure how these buzzwords are supposed to be rendered in English. Google to the rescue. They are:

  • Turbo Boost
  • QuickPath
  • Hyper-Threading

Got that? One is written as two words, one is InterCapped, and one is hyphenated. Get it together, guys.

Tunnelling towards the truth

tunnelling spelling trouble

Check out the two screenshots crops above. Observe that in each, one instance of the word has been flagged as misspelled, and the other has not.

I ran into this problem while working on a translation job. The client had instructed me to overtype an existing Japanese document in order to preserve the formatting. After nosing around for a minute, I discovered that the upper line was marked as US English, and the lower line was marked as UK English (I prefer the UK spelling in this case). Not sure how those language settings got into a Japanese document.

We need a word

Paging Rich Hall: In this modern era, when people communicate by blog, IM, twitter, e-mail, phone, and occasionally in person, we sometimes respond to things that our interlocutor said in a different medium—sometimes when it’s not obvious we were even a party to the referenced statement, which can be momentarily disorienting for the person who made that statement.

We need a word for this practice of abruptly picking up a conversation in a different medium. Electrolocute? Ricosay? Resumversation?

Translation and situation

I’m translating segments of a Japanese TV show right now. It’s very different from my usual work, and not what I consider a strong suit, but the client seems happy with my work right now, so I’ll take it.

This particular show is of the “physical challenge reality TV” variety. It’s sort of like the show Ninja Warrior that’s currently on U.S. cable, but much sillier and with recognizable Japanese TV celebrities as commentators and sometimes as competitors. The commentators are clearly trying to call the proceedings the way a sports announcer would, and as I go along, I’m trying to imagine how it would sound if Bob Costas were calling the games with my translation. But some of this stuff doesn’t translate. It’s not so much that I don’t know the words, or don’t know what the speakers mean by them (although that happens here and there), it’s just that they’re saying things that would never be said in the same situation in an English-speaking contest.

I just ran flat-faced into a perfect example. The game in question has the contestants trying to sit atop a gigantic ball and navigate it through an obstacle course. At one point, one of the contestants gets stuck in a hole and is rocking unsteadily and impotently, trying to get out. The commentator says “まるで現代人の日常の不安定感をビジュアル化したかのようだ,” which I have translated somewhat loosely as “It’s as if the malaise of modern life has been made tangible in his plight.”

And there’s the thing. No American sports announcer, no matter how literate, would ever say anything remotely like that in this situation. I’m content with the translation, but it’s undeniably weird to an American audience. Then again, the rest of the show is kind of weird.

Google Crowdsourcing Machine Translation

Screenshot of google translation crowdsourcing interface

I clicked through a link from a gadget site to a machine-translated press release for a new car-stereo head unit. I noticed that when my cursor hovered over a block of text, one of those floating mock-windows that are so popular in web2.0 appeared. It permits readers to enter their own translation for that sentence or chunk of text.

This is interesting, and something I hadn’t noticed before. It raises all kinds of interesting questions. Most obviously, how do they vet these reader-submitted translations? But it’s fascinating as a machine-translation paradigm. There are two general approaches to MT: one is basically lexical and grammatical analysis and substitution: diagramming sentences, dictionary lookup, etc. The other is “corpus based”, that is, having a huge body of phrase pairs, where one can be substituted for the other. And there is a hybrid between the two, that uses the corpus-based approach, but with some added smarts that permits a given phrase to serve as a pattern for novel phrases not found in the corpus (this is also pretty much how computer-assisted translation, or CAT, works). I wonder how these crowdsourced submissions work back into the MT backend—if they’re used strictly in a corpus-based translation layer, or if they get extrapolated into patterns. I’m skeptical that they’re getting a significant number of submissions through this system, but if they did, the range of writing styles, language ability, and so on that would be feeding into the system would seem to make it incredibly complicated. And perhaps a huge jump forward in improvement over older MT systems…but perhaps a huge clusterfuck of unharmonized spammy nonsense.

Writing well and translating poorly

Paul Graham always writes interesting articles (though I can’t figure out for the life of me why he hosts them as a Yahoo store), but I don’t track him very closely, so when I ran across a link to his somewhat old Writing, Briefly, I read it eagerly.

And noticed with interest that it has been translated into a number of languages, including a Japanese version (which I can read), and a Spanish version (which I can kinda fake). His advice “use simple, germanic words” may be good (though I’d phrase it as “Anglo-Saxon words”), and as a translation issue, it certainly stands out.

The Spanish translator preserved it but struck it out: “usa palabras simples, germánicas;”

The Japanese translator included it without comment: “簡単でドイツ語的な単語を使いなさい。”

Now, the funny thing here is that there’s a pretty good equivalent to Anglo-Saxon vocabulary for Japanese—大和言葉. I’m not how perfectly the two accord, or whether avoiding 漢語 would be as important to a Japanese version of Paul Graham as avoiding Latinate words apparently is to the English-speaking Paul Graham. Regardless, though, the translator kept that in there. Apparently the translator is relying on the reader to keep in mind that this is a translation of an English text for English audiences, and to understand what Germanic vocabulary means in terms of English style. Going the other way, I would never make that assumption—an English audience would be completely lost if I presented them with the phrase “yamato kotoba” in a text translated from Japanese. But then again, it might be jarring to them if I adapted the concept to “Anglo-Saxon vocabulary” if they knew that my piece was a translation. One could dodge this by simply saying “use native vocabulary.”

The case with Spanish is knotty in its own way. I know Spanish has its share of loanwords, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming influence of French and Latin that English has (and even if it did, it would be harder to tell them apart), or of Chinese that Japanese has. So the call to use native vocabulary is redundant. The way the translator chose to deal with it here is interesting—it transparently acknowledges that the text is a translation, and that in this case, the idea doesn’t quite fit in the translation.

Gibberish mystery solved

Alan Siegrist, a scholar and a gentleman, has cracked the bad kanji tattoo code.

Who knew it could all be boiled down to 26 characters?

Jabberwocky in Japanese

Language Hat posted links to some translations of Jabberwocky, which has been a pet interest of mine ever since I saw the French and German translations in GEB. Someone, years ago, sent me a bunch of Japanese translations of Jabberwocky, and they’ve been languishing on my hard drive ever since. Now seems like a good time to get them out there.

I am posting these with minimal formatting because I’m lazy. Headings are translator names. Notes and credits are as I received them. See after the jump.

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