Lexicographical considerations in creating an online bilingual lexicon for students from a Chinese background: The problem of translation

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  Chinese  »   Lexicographical considerations in creating an online bilingual lexicon for students from a Chinese background: The problem of translation

Lexicographical considerations in creating an online bilingual lexicon for students from a Chinese background: The problem of translation

By Christopher Greaves and Han Yang | Published  06/10/2005 | Chinese | Recommendation:
Quicklink: http://esl.proz.com/doc/361
Christopher Greaves and Han Yang
Chris Greaves has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and an M.S. in Computer Science, and has previously taught in Sweden, Japan, Brunei and Malaysia. Special research interests are computers in education and research, corpus linguistics, and especially the presentation of teaching and learning materials via the Internet. He is now an Assistant Professor in the English Language Center of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Han Yang is a professional translator and interpreter with over 20 years of experience. She has a B.A. Honors and a Ph.D. in Linguistics. She has taught linguistics and languages at a number of universities in Britain, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. She also worked for the Virtual Language Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic University as chief editor for a bilingual on-line lexicon. She is now an Assistant Professor in Language and Translation at the Open University of Hong Kong.
Lexicographical considerations in creating an online bilingual lexicon for students from a Chinese
1. Introduction

This paper addresses some of the practical aspects of translation that the authors have experienced in the process of implementing a bilingual on-line lexicon currently being developed as part of an integrated multimedia language learning programme—the Virtual language Centre (VLC http://vlc.polyu.edu.hk). It identifies some of the difficulties involved in translating certain culture-specific items into Chinese, and points out some flaws in the existing English-Chinese bilingual dictionaries. Finally this paper offers examples of modification as adopted in the VLC on-line bilingual lexicon, as well as further considerations relating to the translation of other groups of words such as business and banking terms.

2. The Hong Kong Virtual Language Centre (VLC) and online bilingual lexicon

The Hong Kong Virtual Language Centre (VLC) is an integrated learning and study platform run from a dedicated web server. It integrates on a single platform methodologies from computer-assisted language learning (CALL), data-driven learning (DDL) and corpus linguistics, electronic dictionaries and multimedia design, in a way that offers a comprehensive learning facility combining ease of access with integration of the fullest range of these resources.

most of the monolingual online dictionaries are designed for native English speakers or people with relatively high degrees of competency in English.
The development of the VLC English-Chinese bilingual lexicon has been inspired by the effectiveness of linking electronic dictionaries with other CALL activities in the classroom. The VLC bilingual lexicon is, as with other types of electronic on-line dictionaries, a powerful language-learning tool that is easy to use, and is much faster than leafing through a bulky, heavy tome with minuscule typeface which is typical of conventional dictionaries. The vocabulary lists from students' reading texts are linked directly to the bilingual lexicon, and students can simply click on a lexical item and the lexicon lookup will instantly display its Chinese equivalent together with its definition, its grammatical category, examples of its usage, other related words, and its pronunciation.

The principal motivation for introducing the VLC online bilingual lexicon also stems from that fact that most of the monolingual online dictionaries are designed for native English speakers or people with relatively high degrees of competency in English. Since these dictionaries are not aimed at our students in Hong Kong, they are not always suitable. For example, they tend to contain difficult explanations that are beyond the grasp of our students. In fact quite often the explanations contained in monolingual dictionaries are written in words that are more difficult than what is being explained. Cliche for example, is defined in Random House Webster's online dictionary as "a trite, stereotyped phrase." Examples of the definition of the word alcoholism taken from some of the online monolingual dictionaries illustrate the same problem:

  1. WWWebster Dictionary (Merriam Webster, online)

    alcoholism n
    1 : continued excessive or compulsive use of alcoholic drinks
    2 : poisoning by alcohol; especially : a complex chronic psychological and nutritional disorder associated with excessive and usually compulsive drinking

  2. The Wordsmyth English Dictionary-Thesaurus (online)

    DEF: a pathological condition resulting from habitual overuse of alcoholic beverages, characterized by dependence on alcohol, difficulty in functioning properly, and severe withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is stopped.

  3. Random House Webster's (Random House, online)

    al-co-hol-ism (al'kuh holiz uhm) n.
    1. a chronic disorder characterized by dependence on alcohol, repeated excessive use of alcoholic beverages, and decreased ability to function socially and vocationally. [1855-60]

So faced with this type of problems, the obvious solution was to start building a customized bilingual lexicon specifically designed to help Chinese students, which at the same time could be fully integrated into diverse CALL activities on the VLC.

Since the VLC bilingual on-line dictionary is designed primarily for Chinese students of English, it is important to make the definitions as simple as possible, and avoid using only definitions that involve some complicated vocabulary that requires further explanations such as: "a chronic disorder characterized by dependence on alcohol, repeated excessive use of alcoholic beverages" (Random House Webster's). Our lexicographers therefore often have to simplify the dictionary definitions for VLC lexical entries, as exemplified by one of the definitions for alcoholism which simply defines it as: "being addicted to alcoholic drinks".

While the simplification of definitions is relatively free from technical difficulties, the translation of certain types of word into Chinese has put our lexicographers into a number of linguistic predicaments. These are discussed below.

3. The problem of translation.

An important consideration we must take into account in creating the bilingual lexicon is the fact that different cultures have different culture-specific items in their languages, and for such linguistic items lexicographers often have to resort to some lengthy explanations to make the concepts clear to dictionary users. For example, fish ' n' chips, football hooliganism, etc., to name but two, are phrases that identify culturally specific behaviour and background awareness. Many problems in translation and explanation seem to arise where just this type of consideration has not been applied, and lexical items have been treated as being universal when they are in fact culture-specific. Take the example of alcoholism again to illustrate this point.

Almost all the available English-Chinese dictionaries have translated alcoholism' as

(e.g. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Bilingual (English-Chinese); The English-Chinese Dictionary (Unabridged); etc.). However, when

is translated back into English, it has the meaning of alcoholic poisoning, a serious medical condition which may result in death. Alcoholism on the other hand refers to a social and physiological problem that is more common in northern European countries.

Perhaps this prolonged and excessive drinking habit is less common in the Chinese culture, and therefore alcoholism is not a social problem as we know it in the West, and hence the lack of suitable vocabulary in Chinese for alcoholism. Or else, the dictionary makers in the past have simply followed previous examples that were erroneous in the first place. The following examples are taken from a couple of the most commonly used English-Chinese dictionaries illustrating this problem:

    1. The English-Chinese Dictionary (unabridged) (Shanghai Yiwen, 1996)


    2. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (English-Chinese) (Longman Asia, 1997)


    Figure 1: a problem of translation

    But is alcoholism equivalent to alcoholic poisoning?

    The problem becomes even more confusing when we find that many of the well-known English monolingual dictionaries also treat alcoholism as a medical condition and some even regard it as a disease (cf. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). And so perhaps the bilingual dictionary makers might well have been influenced by the definitions provided by the monolingual dictionary writers such as the ones below.

    1. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English—third edition (Longman, 1985)
      Alcoholism: the medical condition of being an alcoholic
    2. The Collins Cobuild Student's Dictionary Online (online, 1998)
      Alcoholism is a kind of poisoning caused by drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time
    3. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (OUP, 1989)
      Alcoholism: (disease caused by) continual heavy drinking of alcohol

    Perhaps the most extraordinary of all these entries is the one which we find provided by the online version of the popular Cobuild Dictionary, which defines alcoholism as "a kind of poisoning". Could the meaning of poisoning be one of the specialised medical definitions that is not used in daily English? Quite the contrary, as the following shows:

    1. The Feber Medical Dictionary (Faber and Faber Limited, 1975)
      alcoholism: 1. Addiction to the intake of alcohol. 2. The morbid result of prolonged or excessive use of alcoholic liquors
    2. Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and allied Health (Third Edition, W.B. Saunders Company, 1983)
      alcoholism: alcohol dependence; the terms is used to denote a variety of conditions involving abuse of alcohol. Alcoholism in its many forms is considered to be a major drug problem in almost all Western societies. Problems related to intemperate consumption of alcohol are both immediate and long-term; it adversely affects the physical and mental health of the individual and the integrity of the society in which he or she lives.

    Since our aim is to help the Chinese learners to improve their learning of English, it would obviously be misleading if our students started believing that alcoholism is some kind of English medical problem!

    4. Implementation of bilingual entries

    So after all this, in writing our own entries for the VLC lexicon, we have arrived at the following translations and definitions for alcoholism:

    Figure 2: the VLC lexicon entries for "alcoholism"

    And finally, we have added a separate entry for alcoholic poisoning with the appropriate Chinese equivalent that is included in the lexicon as illustrated below.

    Figure 3: a new entry for "alcoholic poisoning"

    5. Further considerations

    The kind of problems associated with the translation of alcoholism discussed above is not unique to culture-specific terms. For example, we encountered a term Freedom Share in the process of developing our Business & Banking bilingual terms, one of the subsections of the VLC bilingual lexicon. Even though there are relevant words for both freedom and share in Chinese, our lexicographers did not, and could not translate this phrase directly into Chinese without first of all researching into the precise nature of this type of shares used in investment. And even after ascertaining the precise meaning of this term, we still had a certain degree of hesitation in translating Freedom Share into Chinese directly as it is a highly US-specific term, meaning a kind of non-marketable U.S. Treasury note that was issued between 1967 and 1970, and it has little relevance to the Chinese here generally, and even if we translated this term into Chinese:

    it would mean little to the average Chinese speaker. This is yet another type of consideration we need to carefully take into account in the implementation of the bilingual lexicon.

    6. The development of the bilingual lexicon

    Ideally, to serve as a generally useful reference source a lexicon requires at least 40 - 50 thousand entries. This is obviously a challenging and long-term goal to reach, and requires a large team of lexicographers if all the entries are to be original. However, there are public domain lexical databases which can be used initially, and the most useful of these is the well-known Word Net database which has been developed at Princeton University and can be accessed and freely downloaded from their web site. By incorporating this database into our own we have been able at least to create a lexicon with a sufficiently large number of basic English entries to be a practical and useful reference tool.

    However, most of the above mentioned entries do not yet have Chinese translations, and also many of the definitions suffer from the same deficiencies as those examples given above in that they are not intended for second language learners. Nevertheless, the bilingual English-Chinese lexicon, as indeed for other online documents, can be built up gradually and still be used effectively at the same time as it is being developed. Eventually, the lexicon will have a sufficient number of fully edited and translated entries to serve as a general reference resource for all users.

    7. Conclusion

    We have analyzed the problem of alcoholism in some depth not because it is an isolated problem, but because on the contrary it is typical of the problems faced in translation generally. When one considers that there are thousands of other entries, which in varying degrees present similar difficulties as exemplified by the instances of cliche, alcoholism, Freedom Share, and so on, the scale of difficulty seems daunting. What we have come to refer to as the problem of alcoholism in translation demonstrates the challenges faced in implementing the task of developing a comprehensive and trustworthy online English-Chinese lexicon.

    8. References

    Collins Cobuild Student's Dictionary Online (1998) at http://www.linguistics.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/ccsd.

    Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health (Third Edition), (1983) W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, London, Toronto, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Tokyo.

    Greaves, C. and Teng, A. (1998) The Virtual Language Centre—An Integrated Language Learning Platform on the World-Wide Web. In eds J Gil- Mendieta & M.H.

    Hong Kong Virtual Language Centre at http://vlc.polyu.edu.hk.

    Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Bilingual (English-Chinese) New Edition (1997). Hong Kong: Longman Asia Limited.

    Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (Third Edition), (1985). Harlow: Longman Group Ltd.

    Merriam-Webster WWWebster Dictionary OnLine at http://www.m-w.com.

    Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (Fourth Edition 1989). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Random House Webster's College Dictionary-Newer Words Faster at http://www. vintagebooks.com/features/rhwebsters/.

    The English-Chinese Dictionary (Unabridged) (1996), Shanghai. Shanghai Yiwen Publishing Co.

    The Feber Medical Dictionary (1975), Faber and Faber Limited, London.

    Virtual Language Centre, Hong Kong Polytechnic University at http://vlc.polyu.edu.hk.

    Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913), Webster.

    WordNet, Princeton University at http://www.cogsci.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/webwn.

    The Wordsmyth English Dictionary-Thesaurus at http://www.lightlink.com/ bobp/wedt/site.htm.

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