The Reverend Stephen Weston was a translator extraordinaire. In the early nineteenth century, he played a significant role in cracking the Rosetta Stone, revealing the meaning of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the modern world. But even with these linguistic credentials, he readily admitted that navigating the Chinese language was an arduous process.
“The Chinese tongue… may be mastered for the purpose of knowing what it contains,” Weston wrote in 1807, “if one has the courage enough to scale the wall that surrounds it, and to force a way through the hedge of aloes, and prickly pears, with which it is fenced, by the mode of using its dictionaries.”
With these problems in mind, Weston would have approved of this week’s release of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary, the biggest single-volume English-Chinese, Chinese-English dictionary ever compiled. The updated version has a series of new inclusions, such as shanzhai (lookalike, usually lower-quality goods), and fangnu (literally, “mortgage slaves” – people who have borrowed to the limit to buy a house).
The dictionary was a significant lexicographical labour. It took 60 editors and translators five years to compile its 370,000 translations, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The result: “It presents both English and Chinese in a much more modern, colloquial, conversational way,” Janet Kleeman, one of the dictionary’s two chief editors told the Journal. This puts it in sharp contrast with many older dictionaries, which were usually compiled by native Chinese speakers and can fail to capture fully the English side of the equation.
Weighing in at over a thousand pages, the new edition might not be an instant hit with language students.
One alternative is dictionaries installed on a smartphone. Pleco, one such alternative, claims it will soon utilise “augmented reality” to allow users to translate Chinese words by viewing them through the phone’s camera function.
Oxford University Press, the new dictionary’s publisher, says it has digital versions under development too. But some fear that the increased reliance on technology is damaging literacy in native speakers. Chinese kids learn thousands of characters as part of their basic education and then go into a workplace where there is often no need to write anything out by hand. For those that do need to write, it is often by punching keys on a computer or phone.
The problem is that many then forget how to write large portions of the characters learned at school.
“When I can’t remember, I take out my cellphone and find [the character] and then copy it down,” a Hong Kong university student told AFP. One Guangdong native told the newswire that this “character amnesia” is “like you’re forgetting your culture”.
Reaching for the phone isn’t always a solution, especially when the character you’re looking for is a rare one. This is a problem for the Shan family village in Shandong, reports the Wall Street Journal. Their character for shan is so obscure that it cannot be rendered on word-processors used by the government. That makes dealings with officialdom particularly tricky, since the Shan surname cannot be printed on documents. (Younger family members have now changed to a more common character).
Of course, the Shan’s difficulties also offer evidence of an evolving written language. One comparison point – the famous Kangxi Dictionary, published in 1716. It contains 47,000 characters, less than a quarter of which are still in common use.
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