May 19, 2013

Translation of "computer", "calculator", and others

Some English words that were created or became popular after 1950's but before late 1990's are translated differently between mainland China and Taiwan, due to the lack of cultural exchange during that period across the Taiwan Strait. Notable among these words are those related to technology.

For example, "computer" is generally called "计算机" in mainland China and "电脑" in Taiwan. But of course there's no absolute rule. On the web page of National Taiwan University, a search for "計算機", limiting the result to their web site only, returns 20,600 hits; search for "電腦", 96,700. On the mainland side, the 百度百科 (Baidu encyclopedia) page for "计算机" starts with "计算机(Computer)俗称 [commonly known as] 电脑". It appears that "計算機" used in Taiwan more frequently occurs in an academic context while "電腦" is more casual or refers to a personal computer. In the mainland, it used to be almost exclusively "计算机" in both contexts and has shifted more to "电脑" when referring to a personal computer. I think the reason for this shift is twofold: (1) intensive cross-Strait cultural exchange in addition to the big trend of global communication in this Internet age; (2) relative ease in pronouncing "电脑" (diànnǎo) compared to "计算机" (jìsuànjī). The latter becomes evident when you try to say the word increasingly faster; it takes an effort to position the tongue correctly in pronouncing jìsuànjī while diàn and nǎo have the same consonant, n, at the ending and beginning, respectively, of the characters.

Semantically, though, "电脑" is an awkward or absurd translation. It literally means "electric brain", which, had it been adopted decades ago by the pioneers of the computer technology or its users, would be a natural choice. But neither mainland China nor Taiwan is related to the invention of a computer, and so cannot invent a word for it to be backported to the language associated with the invention and expect to be accepted (see my theory of linguistic authority). On the other hand, "计算机" is a perfect literal translation of "computer", although "机", literally "machine", goes beyond the meaning of the suffix "-er" by limiting it to a machine, which in this case is acceptable since a "computer" does not refer to a person that computes but only a machine in the context.[note1]

The story does not end here because there's another word to be translated, "calculator". Both "compute" and "calculate" are accurately translated to "计算" in Chinese. But since "计算机" was already taken for "computer", what's left for "calculator"? My Taiwanese friend told me while they call "computer" "電腦", they call "calculator" "計算機". Mainlanders, on the other hand, call "computer" "计算机" or "电脑", and "calculator" "计算器", literally the same as "计算机", but with the last character changed (thanks to the rich synonym repository in the Chinese language!), it cunningly circumvents the problem created by the semantic equivalence of the two English words. Well, are "compute" and "calculate" really semantically equivalent? Walter W. Skeat's Concise Dictionary of English Etymology says "compute" originated from Latin com- (together) and putare (think), and "calculate" from calculare (reckon by help of small pebbles). We may  conclude that "compute" sounds like more sophisticated computation while "calculate" is for rudimentary arithmetic, and they correctly match the relative complexity between a computer and a calculator. Unfortunately, there are no two good Chinese words that mean the same apart from this subtle difference in connotation. Maybe "算数" is one for the lower end "calculate". But early Chinese translators didn't happen to choose "算数机" for "calculator". So be it.

Related to this translation discrepancy in computer technology are "程序" and "程式" for "(computer) program", "硬件/软件" and "硬體/軟體" for "hardware/software", etc. Fortunately, these differences are historical in the sense that they're limited and won't expand to new words, as the Chinese people in the mainland and Taiwan are more than ever in contact with each other.

[note1] Historically, the word "computer" was initially created in the 17th century to refer to a person that computes. See its etymology.

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