Google Translate’s Pinyin converter: now with apostrophes

Google has taken another major step toward making Google Translate‘s Pinyin converter decent. Finally, apostrophes.

Not long ago “阿爾巴尼亞然而仁愛蓮藕普洱茶” would have yielded “Āěrbāníyǎ ránér rénài liánǒu pǔěr chá.” But now Google produces the correct “Ā’ěrbāníyǎ rán’ér rén’ài lián’ǒu pǔ’ěr chá.” (Well, one could debate whether that last one should be pǔ’ěr chá, pǔ’ěrchá, Pǔ’ěr chá, Pǔ’ěr Chá, or Pǔ’ěrchá. But the apostrophe is undoubtedly correct regardless.)

Also, the -men suffix is now solid with words (e.g., 朋友們 –> péngyoumen and 孩子們 –> háizimen). This is a small thing but nonetheless welcome.

The most significant remaining fundamental problem is the capitalization and parsing of proper nouns.

And numbers are still wrong, with everything being written separately. For example, “七千九百四十三萬五千六百五十八” should be rendered as “qīqiān jiǔbǎi sìshísān wàn wǔqiān liùbǎi wǔshíbā.” But Google is still giving this as “qī qiān jiǔ bǎi sì shí sān wàn wǔ qiān liù bǎi wǔ shí bā.”

On the other hand, Google is starting to deal with “le”, with it being appended to verbs. This is a relatively tricky thing to get right, so I’m not surprised Google doesn’t have the details down yet.

So there’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least progress is being made in areas of fundamental importance. I’m heartened by the progress.

Related posts:

The current state:
screen shot of what Google Translate's Pinyin converter produces as of late September 2011

Kindles and Pinyin

Sure, Amazon Kindles can store thousands of books, play mp3 files, provide Web access, and allow one to spend money on books with alarming ease. But can they handle Pinyin?

photo of a Kindle 3 displaying the opening of 'Muqin Chujia' -- showing that all tone marks appear correctly


This test was made on a Kindle 3 purchased at a U.S. retail store. All three typefaces — regular, condensed, and sans serif — worked well.

Yes, Kindles can display Hanzi as well — though there may be some problems with those appearing correctly in book titles in the device’s index.

Below are links to my files, in case you want to test this yourself. I’d appreciate hearing about how Nook and other devices handle this. Thanks.

Google Web fonts and Hanyu Pinyin

Back in the last century, getting Web browsers to correctly display Pinyin was such a troublesome task that I remember once even employing GIFs of first- and third-tone letters to get those to look right. So there were a whole lotta IMG tags in my text. Sure, I put the necessary info in ALT tags (e.g., “alt=’a3′”), just in case. But, still, I shudder to recall having to resort to that particular hack.

Things are better now, though still far from ideal. Something that promises to considerably improve the situation of website viewers not all having the same font you may wish to use is CSS3’s @font-face, which allows those creating Web pages to employ fonts that are provided online. Google is helping with this through its Google Web Fonts. (Current count: 252 font families.)

But is anything in Google’s collection capable of dealing with Hanyu Pinyin? Armed with a handy-dandy Pinyin pangram, I had a look at what Google has made available.

Not surprisingly, most of the 29 font families marked as offering the “Latin Extended” character set failed to handle the entire Hanyu Pinyin set. The ??? group is the most likely to be unsupported at present, with third-tone vowels also frequently missing.

Here are the Google Web fonts that do support Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks:

  • EB Garamond (227 KB)
  • Gentium Basic (263 KB — and about the same for each of the three accompanying styles: italic, bold, bold italic)
  • Gentium Book Basic (267 KB — and about the same for each of the three accompanying styles: italic, bold, bold italic)
  • Neuton (56 KB — and about the same for each of the five accompanying styles: italic, bold, light, extra light, extra bold)

screenshot of the Pinyin fonts above


  • Neuton has relatively weak tone marks, so I wouldn’t recommend it for Web pages aimed at beginning students of Mandarin.

Sans Serifs

  • Andika (1.4 MB)
  • Ubuntu (350 KB) — available in eight styles

screenshot of the Pinyin fonts above

Some Ubuntu sample PDFs: Ubuntu regular, Ubuntu italic, Ubuntu bold, Ubuntu bold italic, Ubuntu light, Ubuntu light italic, Ubuntu medium, Ubuntu medium italic.

Andika sample PDF.


  • Andika’s relatively large size (1.4 MB) makes it unsuitable for @font-face use because of download time. (Its license, however, would permit someone with the time and energy to crack it open and remove lots of the glyphs not needed for Pinyin, thus reducing the size.) More fundamentally, though, I don’t much like the look of it; but YMMV.

Since Google is likely to expand the number of fonts it offers, I’m including the list of all 29 faces I tried for this experiment, which should make it easier for those wanting to test only new fonts. (It is possible, however, that Pinyin support will be added later to some fonts that fail in this area now. If anyone hears of any such changes, please let me know.) Use of bold indicates Pinyin support; everything else failed.

Display Faces with Latin Extended (all fail)

  • Abril Fatface
  • Forum
  • Kelly Slab
  • Lobster
  • MedievalSharp
  • Modern Antiqua
  • Ruslan Display
  • Tenor Sans

Handwriting Faces with Latin Extended (all fail)

  • Patrick Hand

Serif Faces with Latin Extended

  • Cardo
  • Caudex
  • EB Garamond
  • Gentium Basic
  • Gentium Book Basic
  • Neuton
  • Playfair Display
  • Sorts Mill Goudy

Sans Serif Faces with Latin Extended

  • Andika
  • Anonymous Pro
  • Anton
  • Didact Gothic
  • Francois One
  • Istok Web
  • Jura
  • Open Sans
  • Open Sans Condensed
  • Play
  • Ubuntu
  • Varela

Additional resource: SIL Fonts for downloading (including the full versions of Andika and Gentium).

Pinyin pangram challenge

One of the many things I plan to do eventually is to put up some graphics of how Pinyin looks in various font faces. A Pinyin pangram would do nicely for a sample text. You know: a short Mandarin sentence in Hanyu Pinyin that uses all of the following 26 letters: abcdefghijklmnopqrstuüwxyz (i.e., the English alphabet’s a-z, minus v but plus ü).

But then I couldn’t find one. So I put the question out to some people I know and quickly got back two Pinyin pangrams.

Ruanwo bushi yingzuo; putongfan bushi xican; maibuqi lüde kan jusede. (57 letters)


Zuotian wo bang wo de pengyou Lü Xisheng qu chengli mai yi wan doufuru he ban zhi kaoji. (70 letters)

from Robert Sanders and Cynthia Ning, respectively.

James Dew weighed in with some helpful advice. And, with some additional help from the original two contributors and my wife, I made some additional modifications, eventually resulting in a variant reduced to 48 letters:

Zuotian wo bang nü’er qu yi jia chaoshi mai kele, xifan, doupi.

With tone marks, that’s “Zuótiān wǒ bāng nǚ’ér qù yī jiā chāoshì mǎi kělè, xīfàn, dòupí.”

I suppose xīfàn is not really the sort of thing one buys at a chāoshì. On the other hand, people probably don’t worry much about whether jackdaws really do love someone’s big sphinx of quartz, so I think we’re OK. Still, something shorter than 48 letters should be possible — though pangram-friendly brevity is more easily accomplished in English than in Mandarin as spelled in Hanyu Pinyin. As one correspondent noted:

Most of the “excess” letters are vowels. Trouble is that Chinese doesn’t pile up the consonants much. Brown, for example, takes care of b, r, w, and n, while only expending one little o…. There’s no word like string in Chinese (5 consonants; one vowel). Chinese piles up vowels: zuotian and chaoshi and doufu and kaoji all use more vowels than consonants.

I’m challenging readers to come up with more Pinyin pangrams.

But I don’t want this to be a reversed shi shi shi stunt, so let’s stay away from Literary Sinitic. And I’d prefer the equivalent of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” to that of “Cwm fjord veg balks nth pyx quiz.” In other words, wherever possible this should be in real-world, sayable Mandarin.

One possible variant on this would be to use “abcdefghijklmnopqrstuüwxyz” plus all the forms with diacritics āáǎàēéěèīíǐìōóǒòūúǔùǘǚǜ.” (No ǖ — first-tone ü, that is — is necessary.) But that would be even more work.

Those who devise good pangrams will will be covered in róngyào — or something like that.

Happy hunting.

DPP position on romanization

(BTW, this is my 7 KB JPG version of the 442 KB(!) BMP(!) file used on the DPP's site.)With Taiwan’s presidential election less than six months away and various position papers being issued, perhaps it’s time to take a look at where the opposition stands on romanization.

Sure, various politicians rant from time to time. But they may or may not be taken seriously. What about the party itself and its candidate?

Google doesn’t find any instances of “??” (“p?ny?n”) on the official Web site of the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen (Cài Y?ngwén / ???). But searching for “??” on the DPP’s official Web site does yield at least a few results. (See the “sources” at the end of this piece.) It’s probably no surprise that none of them contain anything but bad news for those who support Taiwan’s continued use of Hanyu Pinyin.

Typical is the “e-paper” piece from 2008 that states the change to Hanyu Pinyin will cost NT$7 billion (about US$240 million). (If the DPP candidate wins, will the DPP follow its own assertions and logic and say that it would be far too expensive for Taiwan to change from the existing Hanyu Pinyin to Tongyong Pinyin?) I have no more faith in that inflated figure than I have in the other claims there, such as that the use of Hanyu Pinyin would not be convenient for foreigners and that there is no relationship between internationalization and using the world’s one and only significant romanization system for Mandarin (Hanyu Pinyin).

Then there’s the delicious irony that the image of a Tongyong Pinyin street sign the DPP chose to use in that anti-Hanyu Pinyin message has a typo! The sign, shown at top right, should read Guancian, not Guanciao. (In Hanyu Pinyin it would be “Guanqian.”) That’s right: The DPP says Taiwan needs to use Tongyong — but the supposed expert who put together that very argument apparently doesn’t know the difference between Tongyong Pinyin and a hole in the wall..

That document is a few years old, though. What about something more recent? Just three months ago the DPP spokesman, Chen Qimai (Chen Chi-mai / ???), complained that the Ma Ying-jeou administration had replaced Tongyong Pinyin with Hanyu Pinyin, calling this an example of removing Taiwan culture and abandoning Taiwan’s sovereignty. So there’s nothing to indicate a change in position over time.

It’s worth remembering that there’s a lot of blame to go around for the inconsistencies and sloppiness that characterize Taiwan’s romanization situation. Historically speaking, the KMT is certainly responsible for much of the mess. And the Ma administration’s willingness to go along with “New Taipei City” instead of “Xinbei,” “Tamsui” instead of “Danshui,” and “Lukang” instead of “Lugang” demonstrates that it is OK with cutting back its own policy in favor of Hanyu Pinyin. Nevertheless, it’s now the DPP — or at least some very loud and opinionated people within it — that represents the main force for screwing up perfectly good signage, etc.

Back when I was more often around DPP politicians, I would occasionally ask them privately about their opinions of Hanyu Pinyin. For the most part, they had no opposition to Taiwan’s use of it, regarding this as simply a practical matter. But they would not say so publicly because President Chen Shui-bian’s dumping of Ovid Tzeng made it clear what fate would meet those who opposed Chen on this issue.

Even though Chen is no longer in the picture, I fear that many in the DPP have come to believe their own propaganda on this issue.

I urge individuals (esp. those with known pro-green sentiments) and organizations (Hey, ECCT and AmCham: that means you especially!) that want to avoid a return to the national embarrassment that is Tongyong Pinyin to tell Cai Yingwen and the DPP now that Taiwan’s continued use of Hanyu Pinyin is simply good policy and is supported by the vast majority of the foreign community here, including pro-green foreigners.


Key Chinese updated, adding new Pinyin features

The program Key, which offers probably the best support for Hanyu Pinyin of any software and thus deserves praise for this alone, has just come out with an update with even more Pinyin features: Key 5.2 (build: August 21, 2011 — earlier builds of 5.2 do not offer all the latest features).

Those of you who already have the program should get the update, as it’s free. But note that if you update from the site, the installer will ask you to uninstall your current version prior to putting in the update, so make sure you have your validation code handy or you’ll end up with no version at all.

(If you don’t already have Key, I recommend that you try it out. A 30-day free trial version can be downloaded from the site.)

Anyway, here’s some of what the latest version offers:

  • Hanzi-with-Pinyin horizontal layout gets preserved when copied into MS Word documents (RT setting), as well as in .html and .pdf files created from such documents.
  • Pinyin Proofing (PP) assistance: with pinyin text displayed, pressing the PP button on the toolbar will colour the background of ambiguous pinyin passages blue; right-clicking on such a blue-background pinyin passage will display the available options.
  • Copy Special: a highlighted Chinese character passage can be copied & pasted automatically in various permutations.
  • Improved number-measureword system: it now works with Chinese-character, pinyin and Arabic numerals.
  • Showing different tones through coloured characters (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Chengyu (fixed four character expression) spacing logic: automatic spacing according to the pinyin standard (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Option to show tone sandhi on grey background (Language menu under Preferences).
  • Full support of standard pinyin orthography in capitalization and spacing.
  • Automatic glossary building.

Some programs, such as Popup Chinese’s “Chinese converter,” will take Chinese characters and then produce pinyin-annotated versions, with the Pinyin appearing on mouseover. Key, however, offers something extra: the ability to produce Hanzi-annotated orthographically correct Pinyin texts (i.e,, the reverse of the above). If you have a text in Key in Chinese characters, all you have to do is go to File --> Export to get Key to save your text in HTML format.

Here’s a sample of what this looks like.

B?n bi?ozh?n gu?dìngle yòng? Zh?ngwén p?ny?n f?ng’àn? p?nxi? xiàndài Hàny? de gu?zé? Nèiróng b?okuò f?ncí liánxi? f?? chéngy? p?nxi?f?? wàiláicí p?nxi?f?? rénmíng dìmíng p?nxi?f?? bi?odiào f?? yíháng gu?zé d?ng?

Basically, this is a “digraphia export” feature — terrific!

If you want something like the above, you do not have to convert the Hanzi to orthographically correct Pinyin first; Key will do it for you automatically. (I hope, though, that they’ll fix those double-width punctuation marks one of these days.)

Let’s say, though, that you want a document with properly word-parsed interlinear Hanzi and Pinyin. Key will do this too. To do this, a input a Hanzi text in Key, then highlight the text (CTRL + A) and choose Format --> Hanzi with Pinyin / Kanji-Kana with Romaji.

In the window that pops up, choose Hanzi with Pinyin / Kanji-kana with Romaji / Hangul with Romanization from the Two-Line Mode section and Show all non-Hanzi symbols in Pinyin line from Options. The results will look something like this:

GIF of a screenshot from Key, showing an interlinear text with word-parsed Pinyin above Chinese characters. This is an image of the text after being pasted into Microsoft Word.

This can be extremely useful for those authoring teaching materials.

Furthermore, such interlinear texts can be copied and pasted into Word. For the interlinear-formatted copy-and-paste into Word to work properly, Key must be set to rich text format, so before selecting the text you wish to use click on the button labeled RT. (Note yellow-highlighted area in the image below.)

screenshot identifying the location of the button that needs to be pressed to make the text RTF

back to Tamsui

photo of sticker with 'Tamsui' placed over the old map's spelling of 'Danshui'It’s time for another installment of Government in Action.

What you see to the right is something the Taipei County Government (now the Xinbei City Government, a.k.a. the New Taipei City Government) set into action: the Hanyu Pinyin spelling of “Danshui” is being replaced on official signage, including in the MRT system, by the old Taiwanese spelling of “Tamsui.” I briefly touched upon the plans for “Tamsui” a few months ago. (See my additional notes in the comments there.)

I have mixed feelings about this move. On the one hand, I’m pleased to see a representation of a language other than Mandarin or English on Taiwan’s signage. “Tamsui” is the traditional spelling of the Taiwanese name for the city. And it hardly seems too much for at least one place in Taiwan to be represented by a Taiwanese name rather than a Mandarin one.

On the other hand, the current move unfortunately doesn’t really have anything to do with promoting or even particularly accepting the Taiwanese language. It’s not going to be labeled “Taiwanese,” just “English,” which is simply wrong. It’s just vaguely history-themed marketing aimed at foreigners and no one else. But which foreigners, exactly, is this supposed to appeal to? Perhaps Taiwan is going after those old enough to remember the “Tamsui” spelling, though I wonder just how large the demographic bracket is for centenarian tourists … and just how mobile most of them might be.

So it’s basically another example — retroactively applied! — of a spelling that breaks the standard of Hanyu Pinyin and substitutes something that foreigners aren’t going to know how to pronounce (and the government will probably not help with that either): i.e., it’s another “Keelung” (instead of using “Jilong”), “Kinmen” instead of “Jinmen,” and “Taitung” instead of “Taidong.”

A key point will be how “Tamsui” is pronounced on the MRT’s announcement system. (I haven’t heard any changes yet; but I haven’t taken the line all the way out to Danshui lately.) The only correct way to do this would be exactly the same as it is pronounced in Taiwanese. And if the government is really serious about renaming Danshui as Tamsui, the Taiwanese pronunciation will be the one given in the Mandarin and Hakka announcements as well as the English one. Moreover, public officials and announcers at TV and radio stations will be instructed to say T?m-súi rather than Dànshu?, even when speaking in Mandarin.

Fat chance.

But, as years of painful experience in this area have led me to expect, my guess would be that the announcements will not do that. Instead, it will be another SNAFU, with a mispronunciation (yes, it is almost certain to be mispronounced by officialdom and those in the media) being labeled as “English”.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong about saying “T?m-súi.” But it’s a pretty safe bet that isn’t going to happen: the name will likely be given a pronunciation that a random clueless English speaker might use as a first attempt; then that will be called English. This sort of patronizing attitude toward foreigners really makes my blood boil. So I’m going to leave it at that for the moment lest my blood pressure go up too much.

So, once again, the MRT system is taking something that was perfectly fine and changing it to something that will be less useful — and all the while continuing to ignore miswritten station names, stupidly chosen station names, mispronunciations, and Chinglish-filled promotional material.

Please keep your ears as well as eyes open for instances of “Tamsui” and let me know what you observe. The city, by the way, has already started using “Tamsui” instead of “Danshui” on lots of official road signs, as I started seeing several months ago and which I noticed in increasing use just last week when I passed through that way.

I probably should have taken a more active stance on this months ago; but I was too busy working against the bigger and even more ridiculous anti-Pinyin change of “Xinbei” to “New Taipei City.” Fat lot of good that did.