April 13, 2007

Needed: good editor for Chinese-English dictionaries

Never mind what the shrimp did to the cabbage -- look at what another bad Chinese-English dictionary entry did to a sofa! Joel Martinsen has drawn my attention to a blog post by Jeff Keller ("A reeeeaaally bad translation", 4/10/2007) which in turn points to a newspaper article (Jim Wilkes, "Racial slur on sofa label stuns family", Toronto Star, 4/6/2007) that starts this way:

When the new chocolate-coloured sofa set was delivered to her Brampton home, Doris Moore was stunned to see packing labels describing the shade as "Nigger-brown."

Apparently the sofa (or at least enough of it to provide the label) was imported from China, and according to Jeff Keller's blog entry, the translation provided for 深棕色 "dark brown" in many Chinese-English glossaries is "nigger-brown".

A quick Baidu search for that offensive adjective showed [that it's] mentioned all over the place as an acceptable translation of 深棕色, otherwise known as “dark brown.” Four people on this Baidu forum give n-brown as the most preferred translation! They even give a link to a dictionary entry that supports this translation! I only saw one search result that cautioned against using that translation. Other companies come up on the search that officially use this word as well.

A google search turns up an old [1959] prospectus for a school at Oxford that describes the school uniforms as being n-brown. I can only guess that this used to be a widely used term, which carried over into China back in the day, and during all those years of separation from the west the dictionaries kept giving that as the proper translation. I suppose as a good netizen I should register on all those forums and try to make sure no one else makes that mistake again. But then again, when something gets ingrained in the Chinese system it can be damn near impossible to get people to change.

Perhaps the economic damage from angry overseas customers will have an effect that complaints from linguists don't.

It's easy to see how this offensive term got into Chinese dictionaries -- the OED's entry for nigger includes this section:

3. Forming nouns and adjectives denoting or designating a dark shade of a specified colour, as nigger-brown, -grey, -pink, etc. Cf. sense A. 11. Now rare (offensive).

1915 Home Chat 2 Jan. 11/1 Nigger-brown cloth.
1922 D. H. LAWRENCE England, my England 116 She was wearing a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet.
1930 J. DOS PASSOS 42nd Parallel I. 124 On each table there were niggerpink and vermilion paper flowers.
1960 V. WILLIAMS Walk Egypt 89 A dry-goods store showed a dress of ‘nigger-pink’.
1983 Listener 21 July 4/1 ‘It's a common phrase that is used throughout the land,’ he said. ‘And what about the colour nigger brown?’

Joel's email noted that

Kingsoft's popular Ciba defines it this way (online version here), and their data set is widely used (pirated?) by other online dictionaries. This definition is then mechanically applied by people unaware of the connotations of the word.

In comparison, the Kingsoft definition for 守财奴 "moneygrubber" at somewhat more measured - it provides a number of other options in addition to "Jew". The online version appears to have revised, but an older version of the entry is still available at Dict.cn.

[Sarah McEvoy writes:

I was born in England in 1964, and when I was a young girl I remember seeing references to "nigger black" without any suggestion from surrounding adults that this might be offensive (I think these references were in the context of artists' materials, particularly blocks of watercolour paint, which my mother used). My parents also owned a book by Agatha Christie called "Ten Little Niggers"; I understand the title has since been changed to "Ten Little Indians". However, as far as I recall they never used the word in conversation.

The first time I was told that the word was offensive was at some point in the early 1970s, although unfortunately I can't remember which year. I do recall concluding at the time, with all the seriousness of a primary-school child, that Agatha Christie obviously could not have realised this and somebody really ought to have told her before she published the book.

And Peter Howard writes:

My mother (b. 1927, Nottingham, UK) used to use this term. She last did so in about 1965 in London, to describe the colour of a shirt she wanted to buy. The stall-holder carefully selected one the exact colour of his own skin, deftly making the point that an expression used in all innocence might no longer be acceptable.

Growing up in the northeastern U.S. in the 1950s, I believe that I always understood that nigger was a deeply offensive word. I guess that attitudes evolved more gradually in Britain, at least in some parts.

Martyn Cornell writes:

It was still perfectly acceptable in 1954 Britain for the film The Dam Busters to have the hero, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, call his dog (as it was called in real life) Nigger, although Gibson's dog was dubbed into "Trigger" for the US release of the film (as The Dambusters, one word).

However, a scene where the dog's name was used as one of the codewords radioed back from the raid apparently survived unamended. The scenes where the dog is killed were cut from the last British TV showing of the film, which PC revision caused fewer complaints than came in when the film was shown uncut ...


[Elissa Flagg writes:

The story of the (inexcusably, today) poorly translated couch label is still an item here in Toronto. I wish that the reporter for this story had read the Language Log entry on this beforehand, given that the translation issue wasn't dealt with very clearly in the televised segment. (By the way, the woman who bought the couch has an interesting way of rendering the N-word in speech that I haven't heard beore -- she calls it the "n-i-g-g-e-r word," spelling out the word completely, letter-by-letter, in what seems to be a novel avoidance strategy.)


[Update 4/14/2007 -- John Wells writes:

When I was a boy in England in the 1950s (or, as we jocularly say in England, when I were a lad), "nigger-brown" or just "nigger" was in common use as a colour term for fabrics, paint etc.

No one would use that term nowadays, of course, though I have the impression that our dropping the word owed more to imported American influence than to objections from our own black people. (I'm not sure if British people would know what you meant if you used the expression "the N-word".)


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 13, 2007 08:18 AM