Chinglish's bilingual e-mail falls short

You are better off taking Chinese lessons

Dutch Internet company Chinglish promises to break down the communication barrier between Chinese and English speakers with its free, bilingual e-mail service. But the service falls short, plagued by translation errors that are common to all machine translators.

I tested the Chinglish service on Tuesday with the help of a friend in Beijing. We both registered for Chinglish accounts and began sending e-mails to one another, checking how the service translated each message and response.

The translation function is easy to use. Instead of having to cut and paste the text of each e-mail into a machine translator on another Web site, Chinglish allows you to translate from English to Chinese, or vice versa, with a single click. Translations are generated quickly and displayed in a column adjacent to the original message, allowing a side-by-side comparison of the two versions.

How did Chinglish do with translations? The result from my first e-mail, written in English, was not promising.

"Your Chinese name looks like the former Iraqi leader," my friend responded via instant messenger.

Indeed, Chinglish translated "Sumner" using three characters, "sa mu na," to approximate the sound of my English name. The system didn't care that my assigned Chinese name shared two of the three characters used in deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Chinese name, "sa da mu."

On the other hand, Chinglish did not attempt to translate the nickname of my friend's son from pinyin -- a widely used romanization system -- into Chinese characters. Instead, Chinglish left the name as pinyin, which means nothing to most Chinese people.

Chinglish did better with my actual Chinese name, Lin Zhitong, using the correct romanization for the characters instead of attempting a literal translation into English. The same could not be said for my friend's son. His Chinese nickname was translated into English as "beans and beans."

As my friend and I sent more e-mails back and forth, it became clear that Chinglish's machine translator needs significant work to smooth out its rough edges. For example, in one e-mail the Chinese word for "weather" was translated into English as "climate," missing completely the context in which the word was used.

In another e-mail, the translator could not recognize that the English word "fall" also means "autumn."

Despite the many translation errors committed by Chinglish, the system was able to get the general meaning of each message across in translation. This could make the service useful in a pinch, but it's not something you want to rely upon for important or lengthy messages.

If you need to communicate with someone in China, you are better off taking Chinese lessons.

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Sumner Lemon

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