August 15, 2014

Technical translation: word "apply" as a case

You frequently see the Apply button on a computer. For instance, after you make some configuration changes, you can press OK to apply the changes and exit, or press Apply to apply the changes and stay where you are. Surprisingly, there's no perfect Chinese translation for the word "apply" in this sense. Common translation is "应用". But that word in modern Chinese is synonymous with "使用", i.e. "use"; e.g. "应用方法" (use the method). The English word "apply" here actually means "make or commit the changes now". It would be awkward or just plain wrong to say "use the changes".

Here are more examples. When software has a bug, you apply a patch to fix or work around the bug. Chinese translators still use "应用" as the counterpart for "apply", as in "应用补丁", literally, "use the patch", which is semantically different. Colloquial phrase "打补丁" sounds natural, but it is too informal. Data replication software copies data changes from the primary site to the replicated site and applies the changes to synchronize the two sites. In Chinese, it's said "应用数据变化(修改)".

Fortunately, tech savvy Chinese readers have no problems understanding "应用" here. If it takes a while to get used to it, they'll get used to it. But for me, I can't help searching for the perfect word. "实施"? "使用"? "采用"? None is the exact match. I know the set of Chinese characters has been frozen for about a century now (probably even for newly discovered chemical elements), but Chinese words are invented on a yearly, if not monthly, basis. If there's no perfect word in the existing Chinese vocabulary, can a new word be created instead of using an existing word in a slightly different or new sense? One thousand years ago, Chinese translators created a large number of new words in translating Buddhist scriptures, and the words later migrated to Japan. One hundred years ago, Japanese translators created many new Chinese words in translating western technology, and they migrated to China. So, what Japanese translators say about "apply the changes", or some other technical jargon, would be an interesting question.

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