Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design

8May/103

I’m from Saint Road Easy, Mr. Si

I hope you won't be put off by a few Chinese characters; don't worry, this is still an English blog.  I was recently surprised to discover that the China version of Google Maps (www.ditu.google.cn) is now translating foreign street names into Chinese.  Now, it's quite normal for Chinese streets to be translated into pinyin, the romanized version of Chinese sounds. In fact, almost all street signs in China include the pinyin name under the Chinese name.  This is attributed to a decision by Chairman Mao, and from many westerner's perspective this is one thing we can be grateful to him for.

Pinyin is fairly straightforward.  While there are many characters that make a particular sound, all are simplified to one pinyin word.  For example, all of the following characters would be written in pinyin as "shi": 是,时,十,事,实,施,使,什,市,史,世,式, plus about 50 more.  If you practice saying shi, you can get the sound right.

Writing Chinese street names in pinyin is one thing, translating English names to Chinese is quite another.  Translating an English name to Chinese involves choosing from many characters that might more or less approximate the syllables.  In addition, it's a plus if the character's meaning suggest something about the thing being named, or least has some positive meaning.  For example, take my hometown, Saint Louis.  Here it is...

The Chinese translation is "圣路易斯".  In pinyin the sounds are "sheng lu yi si", and the meaning suggests something like "saint road easy" and the surname "Si".  I guess that is a neutral meaning?  But the translations of major American cities have been officialized on US maps in China for many years.  Now Google has taken it upon itself to translate almost every street name.  It's really astonishing.  I'm not sure how Google is accomplishing this, but I have to assume they're using Google Translate.  The service works by using statistical analysis of previous professional translations, including UN documents, to assign a translation to words and phrases.  Take a close look at my old neighborhood:

I used to live in a 3-story brick apartment building at the corner of 拉塞尔大道 and 克姆街.  I was living in the 肖 neighborhood.  You can see that most but not all of the street names are translated.  It seems Google is assigning names to streets that have been translated previously somehow, but not to names that it can't find in it's database.  So it seems Google isn't translating each name by hand, it's happening automatically through Translate.

What are the implications of all this.  Well, it should make things easier for independent Chinese tourists.  There aren't many now, most Chinese tourists in America are part of coach tours around the Grand Canyon and San Francisco.   But give it a few years and we may see Chinese tourists wandering around the streets of Saint Road Easy Surname.  Is this the first step of the Chinese colonization of America that conspiracy theorists babble about?  Is it even really necessary, when the majority of Chinese citizens can sound out English words, even if they can't string three words together in speech?  Is ditu.google.cn available outside of china?  Have you used Google's translation of foreign street names?  Leave your thoughts.