Wenlin releases major upgrade (4.0)

Wenlin logoOne of my favorite programs, Wenlin (which bills itself as “software for learning Chinese”), has just released a major upgrade for both Mac and Windows versions. This doesn’t happen often; it has been three-and-a-half years since the most recent big change was issued (Wenlin 3.4) and heaven only knows how long since 3.0 came out. So, yes, this release has many substantial improvements.

One of the features nearest and dearest to my heart is that Wenlin 4.0 features greatly improved handling of Pinyin. I was among the field testers for the new version, so I’ve already spent a lot of time examining this feature. Here are a few important aspects of this:

  • Conversions from Chinese characters follow Hanyu Pinyin orthography much more closely than before. This is a major change for the better. (There’s still some room for improvement. But I don’t think we’ll have to wait years for this.)
  • In the past, using Wenlin to convert long texts in Chinese characters into Pinyin could be a real chore, with users having to examine example after example of Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations in order to select the proper pronunciation for that particular context. But now users may, if they so desire, tell Wenlin not to ask users for disambiguation input. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Wenlin will always guess right; but many users will be happy that this trade-off allows them to skip the frustration of, for example, having to tell the program over and over and over that, yes, in this case 說 is pronounced shuō rather than shuì.
  • Relative newcomers to Mandarin may appreciate that for common words tone sandhi is indicated in Wenlin with additional marks (a dot or line below the vowel). This feature can also be turned off, for those who want standard Pinyin.

There are, of course, many improvements beyond the area of Pinyin. Here are a few:

  • One limitation of Wenlin 3.x was that its English dictionary wasn’t very large. But Wenlin 4.0 includes not only the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary but also the excellent new ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary (now finally in stock in the printed version).
  • The flashcards are now set up to handle not just individual characters but polysyllabic words.
  • There’s full Unicode Unihan 6.0 support for more than 75,000 Chinese characters.
  • And for those who think 75,000 just isn’t enough, users can now access Wenlin’s CDL technology. Through this, users can create new, variant, and rare characters; moreover, these can be published and shared with other Wenlin users or CDL-friendly devices.
  • Seal script versions of more than 11,000 characters are provided.
  • Wenlin contains an e-edition of the Shuowen Jiezi (Shuōwén Jiězì / 說文解字 / 说文解字).
  • Coders will be interested to know that Wenlin appears to be headed toward becoming open-source.
  • Both Mandarin and English entries are marked with grade levels, which aids learners by indicating relative frequency of use. The levels for Mandarin words are based on the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (Hànyǔ Shǔipíng Kǎoshì / 汉语水平考试 / 漢語水平考試 / HSK).

The full version (i.e., the CD with the program comes in a box and is likely packaged with a hard copy of the manual) is US$199, or US$179 if you download it from the Wenlin Web store. Upgrades from 3.x cost US$49.

For more information, see the summary of features and outline of what’s new in Wenlin 4.0.

screenshot from Wenlin 4.0 -- click for larger version

sg domain names in Chinese characters lag

Between November, 23, 2009, when Singapore first began registering .sg names in Chinese characters, and June 10, 2010, when registrations of Chinese-character .sg domain names opened to all without any additional fee, only 1,024 such names were registered, or just 0.88 percent of all .sg domain names. This apparently includes not just second-level domains (e.g., 中心.sg) but also third-level domains (e.g., 中心.com.sg).

The percentage will likely rise in the coming months, as the process has only recently opened to everyone on a first-come, first-served basis. But, still, demand for such names in Singapore has so far been underwhelming.

A bit more information:

Registrations were accepted in phases, with registrations for government organizations starting on Nov. 23, 2009. Beginning in January, SGNIC began accepting domain name registrations from trademark holders.

During the third phase, the general public was allowed to register domain names starting on March 25, but applicants were charged a “priority fee” of S$100 (US$72) for each domain name, with domain names sought by several applicants awarded to the highest bidder.

In all three phases, applicants could apply for a domain name made up of Chinese numbers or a name with just one Chinese character for a fee of S$500 [US$360]….

The fourth and final phase began on June 10, with SGNIC accepting domain name applications on a first-come, first-served basis. The S$100 priority fee is no longer required, but applicants are no longer allowed to register domain names using Chinese numbers or names with just one Chinese character….

When IDA announced the introduction of Chinese-language domain names last year, SGNIC said the effort was partly intended to help Singaporean businesses target the Chinese market.

source: Singapore registers 1,000 Chinese-language domain names, IDG News Service, June 23, 2010

Baidu adds handwriting input

Baidu has just added a function that allows people to use their mouse to write Chinese characters for searches.

On the Baidu home page, click on “手写” (shǒuxiě/手寫/handwrite).

This will bring up a pop-up box in which you can use your mouse to write Hanzi. This functions in basically the same way as the mouse-writing tool that Nciku added about two years ago.

source: Baidu.com’s Search Box Now Supports Chinese Handwriting Input, China Tech News, June 16, 2010

How to create Hanyu Pinyin subtitles

Since posting about the Pinyin subtitles for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Story of Stuff I have received several messages inquiring about how someone might make Pinyin subtitles themselves. So I might as well put the answer online.

Although at the present stage of software implementation subtitle conversion isn’t as simple as pushing a button, the process is not particularly difficult, assuming you have a good source text to work from. But this does require some time and the right tools.

The Right Tools

The most important tool is, of course, the one that performs the conversion to Hanyu Pinyin. And it’s crucial to keep in mind that not all Pinyin converters are created equal; in fact, the vast majority of so-called Pinyin converters are best avoided entirely. The world does not need any more texts in the hobbled, poorly written mess that many people erroneously think of as Hanyu Pinyin; but it very much needs texts in real Hanyu Pinyin. So don’t waste your time with a program that doesn’t do a good job of word parsing, etc.

At present the clear front-runner for converting Chinese characters to Hanyu Pinyin texts (real Hanyu Pinyin texts) with a minimum need for user assistance is Key Chinese (Windows and Mac). The demo version is fully functional for 30 days. Key’s considerably less expensive “Hanzi To Pinyin With Tones Conversion Utility” for MS Word texts (also with a 30-day demo) would probably also work well, though I haven’t tried it myself.

Wenlin (Windows and Mac) is another excellent program that can produce properly spelled and word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin. But it requires users to run some disambiguation themselves, which can take a lot of time when you’re talking about something with as much text as a screenplay. Nonetheless, Wenlin’s incorporation of John DeFrancis’s ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary makes it a helpful reference when performing post-conversion checks. Also, especially if one does not have Key, Wenlin — even the function-limited but non-expiring demo version — is useful for handling some adjustments (such as removing tone marks or providing a workaround when dealing with programs that don’t handle Chinese characters well).

You’ll also need a Unicode-friendly text editor with good support of regular expressions (to allow wildcard searches). I like Em Editor, which is Windows based. But lots of other programs would work. One could even use MS Word if so inclined.

Finally, having subtitles in an additional language (usually but not necessarily English) is often desirable, not just for others who would use these subtitles but for yourself as you create the Pinyin subtitles. But often the subtitles one may find in Mandarin are not in synch with those in another language. Software can fix this problem. But I don’t have enough experience with this to recommend certain programs over others.

To sum up, the tools I recommend for creating Hanyu Pinyin subtitles are

  1. Key Chinese
  2. Wenlin
  3. EmEditor (or another Unicode-friendly text editor)
  4. a subtitle synchronizer

Actually, just the first one, Key, is sufficient to produce Pinyin subtitles. But in my experience using a combination of all four programs is preferable.

Now it’s time to get down to business.

The Main Steps

  1. acquire source-version subtitles
  2. synchronize subtitle files
  3. identify names of the movie’s characters (dramatis personae)
  4. perform initial conversion of subtitles in Chinese characters to Pinyin
  5. double check the results and perform necessary cleanup
  6. create additional version without tone marks
  7. share your work

1. Acquire subtitles for conversion and reference

At present the most useful site for finding Mandarin subtitles written in Chinese characters is probably Shooter. You may need to try searching for your desired title in both simplified and traditional characters. Also, be aware that movies — especially movies not filmed in Mandarin — often have different names in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc.

You may find it useful to look for subtitles in other languages, too. Shooter can be useful for that, though you may have better luck finding English subtitles at Opensubtitles.org or similar English-language sites.

One can often find different subtitle files for the same movie, so you may wish to examine more than one for quality. Another thing that’s worth keeping in mind: Converting from traditional Chinese characters to simplified Chinese characters is less problematic than vice versa.

2. Synchronize subtitle files

Once you have the files, you should synchronize them with each other according to the directions for the particular program you are using.

If the program you’re using for this chokes on Chinese characters, though, you’ll need to take a couple extra steps. First, convert the Chinese characters to Unicode numerical character references using either Pinyin Info’s NCR conversion tool or Wenlin (full or demo version). The reason for this is that even synchronizers that screw up “李慕白” should be able to handle the NCR equivalent: “李慕白”.

In Wenlin,
Edit –> Make transformed copy –> Encode &#; [decimal]

Take the NCR text and synchronize the files. After you get this taken care of, reconvert to Chinese characters.

In Wenlin,
Edit –> Make transformed copy –> Decode &#;

3. identify names of the movie’s characters

You must teach your software know which strings of Hanzi represent names. For example, it’s crucial for clarity that the character name “李慕白” is written “Lǐ Mùbái” rather than as “lǐ mù bái“. This part takes some time up front. But do not skip this step, because it is not only crucial but will save a lot of trouble in the long run.

Before doing this, however, people may want to refamiliarize themselves with Hanyu Pinyin’s rules for proper nouns (PDF). Note especially what is supposed to be capitalized and what isn’t.

The Mandarin version of Wikipedia is one resource that can be helpful in identifying the names of at least the main characters in the movie. But you’ll want to look for more names and forms than will be listed there. Keep in mind that characters aren’t always addressed by their full names. You need to look for other forms as well (e.g., in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Li Mubai is sometimes referred to as “Li Mubai” but other times as “Li ye” or simply as “Mubai”) and enter them.

English subtitles can be very useful for locating most proper nouns in the text. (Hooray for word parsing and capitalization of proper nouns!) The following search of an English subtitle file should help pinpoint the location of proper nouns.

find (with “Match Case” and “Use Regular Expressions” checked):

in MS Word, find (with “Use wildcards” checked):
[!\.] [A-Z][a-z]

Since you’ve already synchronized your subtitles, you’ll easily be able to find the corresponding point in the Mandarin subtitles by looking at the time the line appears.

As you gather the names, or after you compile the full list, add your findings to the Pinyin converter’s user dictionary. In Key, perform Language –> Add Record, then fill in the Hanzi and Pinyin fields.

4. Perform initial conversion to Pinyin

OK, I know you’re eager to run the conversion and see all of those Hanzi turn into lovely Hanyu Pinyin. But there’s one quick step you need to do first. If you’re using Key Chinese, the program won’t make use of all of those character names you just painstakingly added to the user dictionary unless you first run “linguistic reconstruction” on the subtitles you wish to convert:
Language –> Linguistic Reconstruction

Now you’re ready for the big step:
Language –> Convert to Pinyin

5. Double check the results and perform necessary cleanup

Unfortunately, most Pinyin converters — even the best — tend to be lazy about inserting spaces in some of the places they belong, such as around numeric and alphabetic strings. For example, “自3月22日(星期一)起至5月31日(星期一)” will generally convert to something that looks like this:
“zì3yuè22rì (Xīngqīyī) qǐ zhì5yuè31rì (Xīngqīyī)”.
But it should look like this:
“zì 3 yuè 22 rì (Xīngqīyī) qǐ zhì 5 yuè 31 rì (Xīngqīyī)”.

To fix this in your Pinyin text, run the following regular expression in EmEditor. Make sure “Match Case” is not checked.

\1 \2 \3

If you do this in Word, you’ll need to use the following instead in your wildcard search.

\1 \2 \3

The rest of cleanup work usually involves you simply reading through the text, looking for errors, perhaps while listening to the movie.

6. Create additional version without tone marks

If you have Key, this is very easy: Highlight the entire text, then
Format –> Strip Tone Marks.

And you’re done, though because Key keeps u-umlaut as such, if your television or other device doesn’t show the letter ü correctly you may wish to convert “ü” to “v”.

If you don’t have Key or access to another program that can do the same thing as easily, then use a combination of Wenlin (again, even the demo will do what you need) and a text editor. First, paste your Pinyin text into Wenlin. Then select all of the text and perform
Edit –> Make transformed copy… –> Replace tone marks with 1-4

Copy and paste the results into a new document in your text editor. Then run the following search-and-replace. Make certain the “Use Regular Expressions” or “Use Wildcards” box is checked.


replace with:
Then click “Replace All”.

What this looks like in EmEditor:
image showing the search-and-replace dialog box for the above

What this looks like in MS Word:

7. Share your work

It’s much better if people can concentrate on producing new material rather than having to redo things others have already taken care of. So if you make a good Hanyu Pinyin version of something, please let me know.

Google Translate and rōmaji

The following is a guest post by Professor J. Marshall Unger of the Ohio State University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures.

The challenge

On 18 November 2009, Mark Swofford posted an item on his website pinyin.info criticizing the way Google Translate produces Hanyu Pinyin from standard Chinese text. He concluded by saying, “Google Translate will also romanize Japanese texts written in kanji and kana, Russian texts written in Cyrillic, etc. But I’ll leave those to others to analyze.” So I decided to take up Swofford’s challenge as it pertains to Japanese. Using Google Translate, I romanized a news item from the Asahi of 6 December 2009:

Original Google Translate
6日午後4時35分ごろ、東京都千代田区皇居外苑の都道(内堀通り)の二重橋前交差点で、中国からの観光客の40代の男性が乗用車にはねられ、全身を強く打って間もなく死亡した。車は歩道に乗り上げて歩いていた男性(69)もはね、男性は頭を強く打って意識不明の重体。丸の内署は、運転していた東京都港区白金3丁目、会社役員高橋延拓容疑者(24)を自動車運転過失傷害の疑いで現行犯逮捕し、容疑を同致死に切り替えて調べている。 roku nichi gogo yon ji san go fun goro , tōkyō to chiyoda ku kōkyogaien no todō ( uchibori dōri ) no nijūbashi zen kōsaten de , chūgoku kara no kankō kyaku no yon zero dai no dansei ga jōyōsha ni hane rare , zenshin wo tsuyoku u~tsu te mamonaku shibō shi ta . kuruma wa hodō ni noriage te arui te i ta dansei ( roku kyū ) mo hane , dansei wa atama wo tsuyoku u~tsu te ishiki fumei no jūtai . marunouchi sho wa , unten shi te i ta tōkyō to minato ku hakkin san chōme , kaisha yakuin takahashi nobe tsubuse yōgi sha ( ni yon ) wo jidōsha unten kashitsu shōgai no utagai de genkō han taiho shi , yōgi wo dō chishi ni kirikae te shirabe te iru .
 同署によると、死亡した男性は横断歩道を歩いて渡っていたところを直進してきた車にはねられた。車は左に急ハンドルを切り、車道と歩道の境に置かれた仮設のさくをはね上げ、歩道に乗り上げたという。さくは歩道でランニングをしていた男性(34)に当たり、男性は両足に軽いけが。 dōsho ni yoru to , shibō shi ta dansei wa ōdan hodō wo arui te wata~tsu te i ta tokoro wo chokushin shi te ki ta kuruma ni hane rare ta . kuruma wa hidari ni kyū handoru wo kiri , shadō to hodō no sakai ni oka re ta kasetsu no saku wo haneage , hodō ni noriage ta to iu . saku wa hodō de ran’ningu wo shi te i ta dansei ( san yon ) ni atari , dansei wa ryōashi ni karui kega .
 同署は、死亡した男性の身元確認を進めるとともに、当時の交差点の信号の状況を調べている。 dōsho wa , shibō shi ta dansei no mimoto kakunin wo susumeru totomoni , tōji no kōsaten no shingō no jōkyō wo shirabe te iru .
 現場周辺は東京観光のスポットの一つだが、最近はジョギングを楽しむ人も増えている。 genba shūhen wa tōkyō kankō no supotto no hitotsu da ga , saikin wa jogingu wo tanoshimu hito mo fue te iru .

Google’s romanization algorithm does a thoroughly mediocre job compared with what a human transcriber would do. To see this, compare the following:

Google Translate human transcriber
roku nichi gogo yon ji san go fun goro , tōkyō to chiyoda ku kōkyogaien no todō ( uchibori dōri ) no nijūbashi zen kōsaten de , chūgoku kara no kankō kyaku no yon zero dai no dansei ga jōyōsha ni hane rare , zenshin wo tsuyoku u~tsu te mamonaku shibō shi ta . kuruma wa hodō ni noriage te arui te i ta dansei ( roku kyū ) mo hane , dansei wa atama wo tsuyoku u~tsu te ishiki fumei no jūtai . marunouchi sho wa , unten shi te i ta tōkyō to minato ku hakkin san chōme , kaisha yakuin takahashi nobe tsubuse yōgi sha ( ni yon ) wo jidōsha unten kashitsu shōgai no utagai de genkō han taiho shi , yōgi wo dō chishi ni kirikae te shirabe te iru . Muika gogo yo-ji sanjūgo-fun goro, Tōkyō-to Chiyoda-ku Kōkyo Gaien no todō (Uchibori dōri) no Nijūbashi-zen kōsaten de, Chūgoku kara no kankō-kyaku no yonjū-dai no dansei ga jōyōsha ni hanerare, zenshin o tsuyoku utte mamonaku shibō-shita. Kuruma wa hodō ni noriagete aruite ita dansei (rokujūkyū) mo hane, dansei wa atama o tsuyoku utte ishiki fumei no jūtai. Marunouchi-sho wa, unten-shite ita Tōkyō-to Minato-ku Shirogane san-chōme, kaisha yakuin Takahashi Nobuhiro yōgisha (nijūyon) o jidōsha unten kashitsu shōgai no utagai de genkōhan taiho-shi, yōgi o dō-chishi ni kirikaete shirabete iru.
dōsho ni yoru to , shibō shi ta dansei wa ōdan hodō wo arui te wata~tsu te i ta tokoro wo chokushin shi te ki ta kuruma ni hane rare ta . kuruma wa hidari ni kyū handoru wo kiri , shadō to hodō no sakai ni oka re ta kasetsu no saku wo haneage , hodō ni noriage ta to iu . saku wa hodō de ran’ningu wo shi te i ta dansei ( san yon ) ni atari , dansei wa ryōashi ni karui kega . Dō-sho ni yoru to, shibō-shita dansei wa ōdan hodō o aruite watatte ita tokoro o chokushin-shite kita kuruma ni hanerareta. Kuruma wa hidari ni kyū-handoru o kiri, shadō to hodō no sakai ni okareta kasetsu no saku o haneage, hodō ni noriageta to iu. Saku wa hodō de ranningu o shite ita dansei (sanjūyon) ni atari, dansei wa ryōashi ni karui kega.
dōsho wa , shibō shi ta dansei no mimoto kakunin wo susumeru totomoni , tōji no kōsaten no shingō no jōkyō wo shirabe te iru . Dō-sho wa, shibō-shita dansei no mimoto kakunin o susumeru to tomo ni, tōji no kōsaten no shingō no jōkyō o shirabete iru.
genba shūhen wa tōkyō kankō no supotto no hitotsu da ga , saikin wa jogingu wo tanoshimu hito mo fue te iru . Genba shūhen wa Tōkyō kankō no supotto no hitotsu da ga, saikin wa jogingu o tanoshimu hito mo fuete iru.

For the sake of comparison, I have retained Google’s Hepburn-style romanization. The following changes have been made in the text in the righthand column:

  1. Misread words have been rewritten. Many involve numerals; e.g. muika for “roku nichi”, yo-ji for “yon ji”, sanjūgo-fun for “san go fun”. The personal name Nobuhiro is an educated guess, but “Nobetsubuse” is certainly wrong. Shirogane for “hakkin” is a place-name (N.B. Google did not produce *hakukin, indicating that the algorithm does more than just character-by-character on-yomi).
  2. False spaces and consequent misreadings have been eliminated. E.g. hanerare for “hane rare”, wattate ita for “wata~tsu te i ta”.
  3. Run-together phrases have been parsed correctly. E.g. to tomo ni for “totomoni”.
  4. Capitalization of proper nouns and the first words in sentences has been introduced.
  5. Hyphens are used conservatively for prefixes and suffixes, and for compound verbs with suru.
  6. Obsolete “wo” for the particle o has been eliminated. (N.B. Google did not produce *ha for the particle wa, so “wo” for o is just the result of laziness.)
  7. Apostrophes after n to indicate mora nasals in positions where they are not needed have been eliminated.
  8. Punctuation has been normalized to match for romanized format and paragraph indentations have been restored.

One could make the romanized text more easily readable by restoring arabic numerals, italicizing gairaigo, and so on. Of course, if the reporter knew that his/her copy would be reported orally or in romanization, s/he might have chosen different wording to avoid homophonic ambiguities. E.g., Marunouchi-sho could be Marunouchi Keisatsu-sho, though perhaps in the context of a traffic accident story, it is obvious that the suffix sho denotes ‘police station’. Furthermore, in a digraphic Japan, homophones might not be such as great problem. If, for instance, readers were accumstomed to seeing dōsho for 同所 ‘same place’, then dō-sho would immediately signal that something different was meant, which, given context, might be entirely sufficient to eliminate misunderstanding.

But having said all that, my guess is that the romanization function of Google Translate was programmed with some care. Rather than criticize the quality Google’s algorithm, I suggest pursuing the logical consequences of assuming that it deserves about a B+ by current standards.


Clearly, there is a vast amount of knowledge an editor needs if s/he wants to bring Google’s result up to an acceptable level of romanization for human consumption. That minimal level, in turn, is probably a far cry from what a committee of linguists might decide would be an ideal romanization for daily use in 21st-century Japan. It is quite obvious why Google’s algorithm blunders — the reasons were well understood and described long ago (e.g. in Unger 1987) — and though the algorithm can be improved, it can never produce perfect results. Computers cannot read minds, and mindreading is ultimately what it would take to produce a flawless romanization.1

Furthermore, imagine the representation of the words of the text that presumably takes shape in some form or other in the mind of the skilled reader of the original text. Given that Google’s programmers are doing their best to get their computers to identify words and their forms from Japanese textual data, it is clear that readers, who achieve excellent comprehension with little or no conscious effort, must be doing vastly more. The sequence of stages — from (1) the original text to (2) the Google transcription, (3) the better edited version, (4) some future “ideal” romanization scheme, and onward to (5) whatever the brain of the skilled reader ultimately distills and comprehends — concretely illustrates how, at each stage, different kinds of information — from the easily programmable to genuine expert knowledge — must be brought to bear on the raw data.

Of course, something similar can be said of English texts as well: like Chinese characters, orthographic words of English, even though written with letters of the roman alphabet, typically function both logographically and phonographically. The English reader has to do some work too. But how much? Think of the sequence of stages just described in reverse order. The step from the mind of an expert reader (5) to an ideal romanization (4) is short compared with the distance down to the crude level of romanization produced by Google Translate (2). Yet Google does quite a bit relative to the original text (1). It does not totally fail, but rather makes mistakes, which, as just demonstrated, a human editor can identify and correct. It manages to find many word boundaries and no doubt could do better if the company’s programmers consulted some linguists and exerted themselves more. The point is that Japanese readers must cover the whole distance from the text to genuine comprehension, a distance that must be much greater than that traversed by the practiced reader of English, for all its quaint anachronistic spellings. With a decent, standardized roman orthography, the Japanese reader would have a considerably shorter distance to negotiate.


  1. Indeed, starting in the 1980s, Asahi pioneered in the use of an IBM-designed system called NELSON (New Editing and Layout System of Newspapers) that uses large-array keyboards (descriptive input) rather than the sort of kanji henkan methods (transcriptive input) common on personal computers and dedicated word-processing systems. Consequently, the expedient of storing the underlying roman or kana input stream alongside the selected characters is not available for Asahi stories. Of course, such information is routinely thrown away by many other input systems too.

Google Translate’s new Pinyin function sucks

Google Translate has a new function: conversion to Hanyu Pinyin, which would be exciting and wonderful if it were any good. But unfortunately it’s terrible, all things considered.

What Google has created is about at the same level as scripts hobbyists cobbled together the hard way about a decade ago from early versions of CE-DICT. Don’t get me wrong: I greatly admire what sites such as Ocrat achieved way back when. But for Google — with all of its data, talent, and money — to do essentially no better so many years later is nothing short of a disgrace.

To see Google Translate’s Pinyin function in action you must select “Chinese (Simplified)” or “Chinese (Traditional)” — not English — for the “Translate into” option. And then click on “Show romanization”.

For example, here’s what happens with the following text from an essay on simplified and traditional Chinese characters by Zhang Liqing:

談中國的“語”和“文”的問題,我覺得最好能先了解一下在中國通用的語言。中國的主要語言有哪些?為甚麼我說這個,而不說那個?因為環境?因為被強迫?因為我愛這個語言?因為有必要?因為這個語言很重要?也想想什麼是中國人的共同語言。用一個共同語言有必要嗎?為什麼?別的漢語的去向會怎麼樣?如果你使用中國的共同語言普通話,你了解這個語言的語法(比如“的, 得, 地“ 和“了” 的不同用法)嗎? 知道這個語言的基本音節(不包括聲調)只有408個嗎?

screenshot of Google Translate with the text above

Google Translate will produce this:
screenshot of Google Translate with the text above and how Google Translate puts this into Pinyin (see text below)

tán zhōng guó de“yǔ“hé” wén” de wèn tí, wǒ jué de zuì hǎo néng xiān liǎo jiè yī xià zài zhōng guó tōng yòng de yǔ yán。zhōng guó de zhǔ yào yǔ yán yǒu nǎ xiē?wéi shèn me wǒ shuō zhè ge, ér bù shuō nà gè?yīn wèi huán jìng?yīn wèi bèi qiǎng pò?yīn wèi wǒ ài zhè ge yǔ yán?yīn wèi yǒu bì yào?yīn wèi zhè ge yǔ yán hěn zhòng yào?yě xiǎng xiǎng shén me shì zhōng guó rén de gòng tóng yǔ yán。yòng yī gè gòng tóng yǔ yán yǒu bì yào ma?wèi shé me?bié de hàn yǔ de qù xiàng huì zěn me yàng?rú guǒ nǐ shǐ yòng zhōng guó de gòng tóng yǔ yán pǔ tōng huà, nǐ liǎo jiě zhè ge yǔ yán de yǔ fǎ(bǐ rú“de, de, de“ hé“le” de bù tóng yòng fǎ) ma?zhī dào zhè ge yǔ yán de jī běn yīn jié(bù bāo kuò shēng diào) zhǐ yǒu408gè ma?

Here’s what’s wrong:

  • This is all bro ken syl la bles instead of word parsing. (So it’s never even a question if they get the use of the apostrophe correct.)
  • Proper nouns are not capitalized (e.g., zhōng guó vs. Zhōngguó).
  • The first letter in each sentence is not capitalized.
  • Punctuation is not converted but remains in double-width Chinese style, which is wrong for Pinyin.
  • Spacing around most punctuation is also incorrect (e.g., although a space is added after a comma and a closing parenthesis, there’s no space after a period or a question mark. See also the spacing or lack thereof around quotation marks, numerals, etc.)
  • Because of lack of word parsing, some given pronunciations are wrong.

In my previous post I complained about Google Maps’ unfortunately botched switch to Hanyu Pinyin. I stated there that, unlike Google Maps, Google Translate would correctly produce “Chengdu” from “成都” (which it does when “translate into” is set for English). But I see that the romanization bug feature of Google Translate also fails this simple test. It generates the incorrect “chéng dōu”.

All of this indicates that Google apparently is using a poor database and not only has no idea of how Pinyin is meant to be written but also lacks an understanding of even the basic rules of Pinyin.

If you should need to use a free Web-based Pinyin converter, avoid Google Translate. Instead use Adso (from the fine folk at Popup Chinese) or perhaps NCIKU or MDBG — all of which, despite their limitations (c’mon, guys, sentences begin with capital letters), are significantly better than what Google offers.

By the way, Google Translate will also romanize Japanese texts written in kanji and kana, Russian texts written in Cyrillic, etc. But I’ll leave those to others to analyze.

For lagniappe, here’s a real Hanyu Pinyin version of the text above:

Tán Zhōngguó de “yǔ” hé “wén” de wèntí, wǒ juéde zuìhǎo néng xiān liǎojiě yīxià zài Zhōngguó tōngyòng de yǔyán. Zhōngguó de zhǔyào yǔyán yǒu nǎxiē? Wèishénme wǒ shuō zhège, ér bù shuō nàge? Yīnwei huánjìng? Yīnwei bèi qiǎngpò? Yīnwei wǒ ài zhège yǔyán? Yīnwei yǒu bìyào? Yīnwei zhè ge yǔyán hěn zhòngyào? Yě xiǎngxiang shénme shì Zhōngguórén de gòngtóng yǔyán? Yòng yīge gòngtóng yǔyán yǒu bìyào ma? Weishenme? Biéde Hànyǔ de qùxiàng huì zěnmeyàng? Rúguǒ nǐ shǐyòng Zhōngguó de gòng tóng yǔyán Pǔtónghuà, nǐ liǎojiě zhège yǔyán de yǔfǎ (bǐrú “de” hé “le” de bùtóng yǒngfǎ) ma? Zhīdao zhège yǔyán de jīběn yīnjié (bù bàokuò shēngdiào) zhǐ yǒu 408 ge ma?

Web pages with Mandarin text to speech

the Chinese character '?' and with the pinyin 'niàn' above itMy recent addition to this site of Mandarin text with audio brought to mind the issue of text-to-speech for Mandarin.

Here are some Web pages that allow you to input texts (albeit very brief ones in most cases) in Chinese characters and hear them pronounced in Mandarin and, in a few instances, Cantonese as well.

  • Oddcast (Sitepal). Although one of the options is for “Taiwanese,” texts are not read in that language (Hoklo) but rather in Mandarin.
  • Cling
  • Sinovoice. Be sure to enter the “code” number or the text won’t be spoken aloud.
  • Ekho
  • Iflytek. This is is particularly interesting because it can add Hanyu Pinyin above the Hanzi that are being read. Unfortunately, this does not work in Opera; but Firefox and IE are OK.

Does anyone have any favorites?

v for ü

Typing the letter v to produce ü is pretty standard in most Pinyin-related software — the letter v not being used in Pinyin except for loan words, and the letter ü not being found on traditional qwerty keyboards.

Here’s an official sign not far from Tian’anmen Square in Beijing that provides an example of an unconverted v.

official directional sign reading '织女桥东河沿 ZHINVQIAODONGHEYAN' in white letters against a blue background

Of course there’s the usual word-parsing trouble as well, which can indeed be tricky in some cases (but not so much that everythingneedstobewrittensolidlikethis).

This should be “Zhīnǚ Qiáo dōng héyán” (织女桥东河沿 / 織女橋東河沿 / Weaver Girl’s Bridge, east bank) or perhaps “Zhinü Qiao Dong Heyan” or “ZHINÜ QIAO DONG HEYAN”.

Some people might not think this is worth categorizing as a problem. My position, however, is that government has an obligation to write things properly on its official signage. (If this were on some ad hoc sign put up privately it would still be interesting but less problematic.) So, if anyone’s OK with the V, would you also be OK with, say, “之釹喬冬和言”?

OTOH, as mistakes go, at least v remains distinct, unlike when ü gets incorrectly written as u, which is so common in Taiwan that I don’t recall ever having seen a ü on official signage. (Pinyin has the following distinct pairs: and nu, and lu; nüe (rare) and lüe are also used but not nue or lue since the latter two sounds are not used in modern standard Mandarin.