I’m taking my first Chinese class in almost four years this semester – Intermediate-to-Advanced Chinese Conversation. It’s a tiny class, just three of us and the teacher, 钟老师. I know that it sounds a little silly, taking a class instead of just talking to my Chinese roommate . . . but inertia is a powerful thing and I think it’s good to know your weaknesses and to work on them.
The first time we met, the only students were me and 韩夏, a grad student in East Asian Studies. The teacher asked us to prepare a presentation on our research – easily done for my classmate, who is presumably studying the country whose language and culture the teacher and I are very familiar with.
Me? Not so much. When I said my major, 机械工程系, the teacher had to translate it into “Mechanical Engineering” for her. I didn’t even bother getting more specific with 计算生物力学 (computational biomechanics) or 有限元分析 (finite element analysis).
But, I like a challenge. So I went home and started looking up the words I would need – cortex, white matter, gray matter, axon, neuron, autism, simulation. The Google Translate version of my speech goes like this:
My research is about the development of our brain. Our brains, gray matter out there, there are white matter. Gray very curved, which is in the stomach when occurred. We have more brains than any other animal bent, this is very important for brain function. We do not know how the brain is bent up. Occasionally there will be problems, and some mental disorders may occur, such as autism. I use a computer to simulate the development of the brain and see what things will affect the bend.
Although I assure you it sounded better in Chinese. Somewhat.
I was expecting my classmates to have a hard time with some of the words, but I was surprised when the teacher didn’t know some of them! There was some confusion as to whether I was talking about the growth of the brain or the skull, and the more specific term ‘cortex’ didn’t seem to have much meaning to her.
The biggest challenge, though, was the concept of buckling. This is a fundamental concept in mechanical engineering, and is also a physical reality that you must have experienced even if you did not know what is was called. Buckling happens when long slender objects are subjected to compression and an instability causes it to bend out of the plane. The classic example is pressing on the two ends of a yardstick; it can’t easily shorten in length so it compensates by buckling.
I looked for a translation of this word (变形) for my presentation, but it’s hard to tell if you’re getting results for mechanical buckling or belt buckling, you know? I also got a couple of words for folding (折) and bending (弯曲), but still wasn’t sure I had the word to convey my meaning.
None of them worked. When I illustrated the concept of buckling by pressing on the sides of my notebook until the pages bent, she just shrugged her shoulders. Back in the office, I asked one of my labmates, who is Chinese. She expressed dissatisfaction with each of my candidate words, but had nothing better to offer. While I was heating up my food in the kitchen, a Chinese professor in our department walked in, so I asked him. He struggled for a bit before saying that he was sure he could find it in a textbook somewhere . . . Later, I got an email from him suggesting 压曲, but when I asked another Chinese colleague later he disagreed with that one, too.
All this goes to show how difficult it is to reach professional fluency (or even professional competency) in another language! Technical terms have very specific meanings; colloquially “stress” and “strain” might mean pretty much the same thing, but not in an engineering setting! I’d love to have the opportunity to work on this skill further, but this really illustrated to me the need for people who are proficient both technically and and in Chinese in order to really learn!