Translation Party

Just a short anecdote for the streak today. Hmm, I guess this developed beyond being just another filler post, which is good.

In addition to preparing my presentation, the other job I have to do for the math competition I’m attending in a week or so (not as a participant, okay?) is translating various guests’ speeches between English and Chinese.

The speeches’ length and formulaicness really get on my nerves, but then again my standards for speeches were skewed upward by Richard Forster’s speeches during the opening and closing ceremony of IOI 2014, but on the gripping hand I don’t think it’s that hard to at least try not to be formulaic and I really can’t see any effort on their part whatsoever. Off the top of my head, pretty much all the speeches tend to go like this:

  1. Welcome!
  2. Math is great!
  3. This competition is great!
  4. The city hosting this competition is great!
  5. The college hosting this competition is great!
  6. You contestants are great!
  7. Good luck!

Except each bullet point is a paragraph that lasts a minute.

(Ninja edit: Which is not to say they didn’t put any effort into their speeches at all, but that much of the effort seem misguided to me. I don’t see how anybody who has been in the audience for one of these speeches can overlook the same flaws in their own. Unless it’s like, at some point in the natural life cycle of the human brain, people spontaneously start enjoying these safe and repetitive speech topics instead of some earnest and maybe lighthearted advice and anecdotes and jokes? Like how people somehow start enjoying spicy stuff, or the bitter flavor of beer and wine, or writing teenage-angsty ranty posts complaining to nobody in particular like this one? Tough questions.)

Anyway. My mom actually does most of the translation but I am the grammar stickler post-processor and we work together on the hard parts. The second hardest things to translate are idioms. The hardest things to translate are quotes. It turns out that lots of people find translated quotes to Chinese and it can be incredibly difficult to reconstruct their English versions. Here is the quote that today’s story is about, which we were tasked with providing the English translation (or original) for and which the speech attributed to 克莱因 (trad.: 克萊因).





If you paste either into Google, you get a few thousand results. Many attribute it the same way it is attributed in the speech; most of the rest attribute it to F. Klein or Felix Klein, the German mathematician after whom the Klein bottle and Klein four-group are named.

Except now you switch to English Google and find that no amount of searching for quotes by Klein about “mathematics” and some of the guessable key words like “music” and “philosophy” can uncover anything remotely like the quote above.

You go back and comb the original Chinese search results and discover that not all of the results attribute it to Felix Klein. Instead, a few attribute it to Morris Kline, an American mathematician and writer about mathematics education. Alas, the pitfalls of transliteration! So now you switch to searching in English for Morris Kline’s quotes about mathematics, and maybe keywords like “philosophy” and “art”, and uncover this quote, from the blurb for Mathematics for the Nonmathematician:

Practical, scientific, philosophical, and artistic problems have caused men to investigate mathematics. But there is one other motive which is as strong as any of these — the search for beauty. Mathematics is an art, and as such affords the pleasures which all the arts afford.

When I got to this point I was ready to stop here and call it a day. There were evident differences but I thought it captured the essence of the quote and I was pessimistic about finding a more faithful version. But Mom wasn’t ready. She sent the quote back to Dr. Sun, who is the reason we are doing all this and whom I am very grateful to despite my ranting about the speeches, and he passed it among his colleagues.

And it turns out!

One of them, Dr. Siu, was the original translator who first produced the Chinese quote above!

So, here is Morris Kline’s original quote in its full glory:

Music may rouse or pacify the soul, painting may delight the eye, poetry may stir the emotions, philosophy may satisfy the mind, and engineering may improve the material life of man. But mathematics offers all of these values.

Right now if I Google for “Music may rouse or pacify the soul” in quotes, I get “about 0 results”: one hit from Google Books, Page 352 of Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty.

Yet its Chinese translation was popular enough to produce a few thousand hits and misattributed by the majority. This is quite surprising.

Hopefully, this post corrects that in addition to being maybe entertaining.

See you tomorrow.

P.S. If you didn’t know: Translation Party.

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