April 20, 2007

Research and empoldering

Here's more evidence that some Chinese-English dictionaries need the attention of a good editor. According to Merriam-Webster's Unabridged (3rd edition), polder (from the Dutch) is "a tract of low land reclaimed from the sea or other body of water (as by dikes or dams)", and thus it's not surprising that to empolder means "to make (land that is underwater or periodically flooded) cultivable by the erection of banks of levees to prevent or control inundation and by adequate drainage".

But if we look up empolder on the Chinese dictionary site Dict.cn, we get

v. (=impolder)开发

And plugging those two characters back into Dict.cn yields:

Define 开发: [ kāi fā ]    
1. open up (for development)
2. exploit
3. to develop

You can see the connection -- empoldering land opens it up for development or exploitation -- but empoldering applies to a very specific sort of development, and kāi fā is a more general term. But somehow, this has led to the idea that the right way to translate 开发 (or perhaps some similar words?) is often "empoldering", in contexts where no land reclamation by dikes is in sight:

Tangshan Renshi Packaging Equipment Co.,Ltd. Ren’s development benefits from self strong research and empoldering predominance, honest marketing sales tactics and benefits more from invisible force of Ren’s civilization. Ren’s spirit of “dealing with concrete work, innovating , demanding nicety and forthcoming ” needs to be carried forward by total staff.

Note that "development" also occurs in this passage.

I haven't yet found the Chinese-English dictionary entries (or perhaps the Chinese-English translation software errors?) that lead people to use empoldering in such cases. But such entries must be out there:

LUFENG CHENGS LACQUER CRAFT FACTORY was founded in 1986. As an integrative artwork enterprise combines designing, empoldering, producing and selling, it locates at Jiazi town of Lufeng City in the east of Guangdong. The town is very famous for its culture, history, seafood industry as well as the lacquer art and the shell carving art. Besides, the town has convenient transportation and perfect artwork manufacture procedure.

For years of development, the company has established scientific enterprise management system quality control system, and set up some departments like designating department, purchasing department, the first producing department, the second producing department, sales department and finance department. Cultivates lots of technical staffs good at lacquer art and shell carving art, the company also collocates excellent artwork producing equipments. The good empoldering and producing ability will ensure the high quality and distinctive artwork for the customers on time.


Shantou Xirong Industry Ltd. (China) : Shantou Xirong Industry Ltd. Established in 1995, licence No. in Industry and Commerce is 4405822000575. They are specialized in empoldering and manufacture products for female. They have a sub-company in Hongkong named KAIXI INTERNATIONAL (H.K.) CO. LTD. which taking charge in empoldering new products and international business. Their main products: T-Shirt Bra Adhesive invisible Silicone bra, Adhesive invisible Super light bra, Silicone bra inserts, Silicone bra pad, Adhesive nipple silicone pad, One-off paster invisible bra, hidden Straps, TPU invisible Bra, Vibrator for breast pad, Lingerie bra.


Guangzhou Brighthome Co., Ltd Our company is running family living production gathering designing, empoldering and producing. The factory locates in Foshan, Guangdong. We deal with furnishings long before, and our main product is wove furnishings by rattan.Artificial rattan series are weaved with steel, aluminum, plastic mainly. The style is elegant, vogue and novel, and hundreds of product all designed by known artificer.

A Baidu search for {empoldering} confirms that this usage, whatever its exact source, is pretty common in English-language descriptions of Chinese enterprises that have nothing to do with land reclamation by dikes, or even with a slow, consensus-oriented process of decision making.

"Empoldering" is certainly not the only infelicity of translation in these passages, but it's the most spectacular one. For some similarly spectacular mistranslations in the other direction, check out Hanzi Smatter.

[Update -- Ken Brown writes:

Not really on topic, but I was reminded that the word "polder" has a specialised use in the literary criticism of fantasy and science fiction, referring to a strictly demarcated part of an imagined world that is also in some way part of another reality, an enclave whose borders have to be maintained against the encroachments of the universe around it. (The best-known examples probably being in the Lord of the Rings which has heaps of them, such as Rivendell and Lothlorien and most noticeably the Shire - a piece of early modern England unaccountably surrounded by ancient horrors from which it is actively defended without the knowledge of most of its inhabitants)

"Polder" in this sense is one of a couple of dozen or so terms coined or appropriated or redefined by the writers of "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" (ed John Clute & Peter Nichols, 1993) and "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy" (Clute and John Grant, 1997) to head short articles on common tropes and themes in fantasy and science fiction. It was probably thought up by Roz Kaveney but has become associated with Clute and was used as the title of a book: "Polder: A Festschrift For John Clute and Judith Clute" (ed Farah Mendlesohn, 2006)

Clute even used the word "empoldering" in a review of "Lousiana Breakdown" by Lucius Shephard, describing a fictional township within the story:

"Grail itself is an epiphany of Grail. Being utterly true, being utterly there, it is a kind of manifestation, within the polder of itself, of Reality made manifest, without veils, worshippable. But it is more than that: The actual inhabitants of Grail are themselves utterly themselves, beyond role. And they know who they are (some of them have returned from elsewhere to become wholly who they are), and they say who they are. And they do not lie. They tell the truth about themselves, and about others. The truth does not kill. Grail is an empoldering of the inner grace and gravitas of an America normally despised. Grail is a magical retention of the heart of that America. Grail is paradise on earth."

(online at http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue309/excess.html)


[Update 4/28/2007 -- Haidong Chi writes:

You said that you hadn't yet found the Chinese-English dictionary entries leading people to use empoldering in error. I just have a e-dictionary (Kingsoft Powerword 2003, a very popular e-dictionary in China) installed on my desktop, so I look up the word "开发" and get this:

empolder, exploitation, exploiter, open out, open up, tap.

It is said that this entry is quoted from Concise Chinese-English Dictionary (简明汉英词典) that is also one of the most popular C-E dictionaries in China. Unfortunately I don't have a hardcopy so can't verify it. I think this might be the source which as you said leads many people to translate "开发" into empolder.

Kingsoft also seems to have been responsible for the infamous "dark brown" = "nigger brown" scandal.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 20, 2007 08:23 AM