Tube foot

On using Google images for translation.

Tube foot? Maybe a fungus you acquire from spending too much time in front of the TV?

No, it’s one of these dangly things:


[photo credit]

Who’da known? Not me. But when your 9-yr-old daughter is working on her writing homework and wants to know the word for “those suction thingies that starfish have” your first move, naturally, is to go to Google images with that search term.

That’s what I did, and it wasn’t more than a few seconds before we got the right thing and the technical English term to boot. But then she reminded me:

“Daddy, so how do you say ‘tube foot’ in Chinese?”

“Uh, why don’t you ask your mom?”

“She doesn’t know!”

At Sinoglot, we’ve talked before about translation of technical terms and some of the techniques available, but somehow image searching didn’t come up in the conversation. I don’t know why. It’s enormously valuable even in one’s native language (see exhibit A above). In this case, here’s how* we bumbled through to 管足, which I’m pretty sure is the proper and most common term:

  1. Find technical English term, as described above, using Google images and some cross-referencing
  2. Do a combined search for 海星 [hǎixīng = starfish], tube foot, and 翻译 [fānyì = translate]
  3. Sift through some of the results, many of which are online dictionaries, and come up with two reasonable possibilities:
    1. 管脚 guǎnjiǎo
    2. 管足 guǎnzú
  4. Do another image search for those terms, and pick the one, 管足, whose results most closely match what we’re looking for

Pretty simple. You’d probably want more references for mission-critical translation projects, but for a third-grade essay, this’ll do.

[Update from comments: Robert Delfs reminds me that an easy way to get a more authoritative answer is to double check your result in a regular (Chinese-Chinese) dictionary.]


*There was also an interim step of trying Google Translate, which offered 海星脚管 as the translation of “starfish tube foot.” When I looked at images for that term, though, I realized it was mostly just using the 海星 / “starfish” keyword, so I decided to go with other sources. As I go back now and look at Google Translate again, however, I realize that just translating “tube foot” actually gives “管足”, the correct term. Maybe I shouldn’t have given up on Google Translate so quickly.


UPDATE — From the comments, here’s a summary of Max’s Wikipedia method:

  1. Suppose you already know the correct English term, go straight to the relevant English WP article
  2. Select the link that would take you to the Chinese version of this page, if available. [If, as happens in the case of “tube foot”, there is no Chinese version of the article, try the Japanese version for hints. Sometimes the Kanji is the same for Japanese. For tube foot, it is indeed 管足. ]
  3. Take a step back and go to the main article in English (starfish, in this case) and go from there to the Chinese version. For Starfish (海星), sure enough, it reads: “在它胳膊上的水管系统上有很多凸出的小管足”.

“Together with the hint from the Japanese article and probably a google image search just to be totally sure, I would have come to the same result as you.”

UPDATE II — Claw (in comment below) suggests using Bing’s Chinese dictionary.

10 responses to “Tube foot”

  1. Max says:

    Some good ideas, thanks!
    My favorite method for that kind of stuff involves Wikipedia.
    Like so:
    Suppose I already know the correct English term (which I wouldn’t have) I would have gone straight to the relevant WP article: There, I would have selected the link that would have taken me to the Chinese version of this page. As it happens, there is no Chinese version of the Tube_foot article (maybe your daughter could help? :) ) but there is a link to a Japanese version, which tellingly is: (管足). So I would have taken a step back and went to the main article in English: and would have clicked here on the Chinese version: (海星). Sure enough, here it reads: “在它胳膊上的水管系统上有很多凸出的小管足”. Together with the hint from the Japanese article and probably a google image search just to be totally sure, I would have come to the same result as you.

  2. Carl says:

    Max is right: Wikipedia is a translators best friend.

  3. Robert Delfs says:

    Thanks for the “tube foot” piece, which raises some interesting issues, including how we all have adapted to the availability of powerful tools such as wikipedia, google search and translation engines.

    There is an additional useful step after finding a working translation for the technical term, a step you may have thought too obvious to require mention. That is to look up the provision translation in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary to confirm whether the word is really part of standard usage. In cases where an alternative term which is preferred or more commonly used, that word will often be highlighted and/or subtle but significant distinctions among alternative terms may be clarified.

    Increasingly, rather than thumbing through radical indexes and stroke-count lists to look up a word in a printed dictionary, I find myself copying the term and pasting it into the online Chinese dictionary at , sort of a combined Chinese-English and Chinese-Chinese dictionary/encyclopedia.

    Entering 管足 confirms that this is the correct zoological term for “sucker; ambulacral foot; tube-foot”(ambucral being the technical English language term for the five radial areas on the underside of star fish and other echinoderms (aka 棘皮动物) where the tube feet are located).

    Happily, works both ways — entering “tube foot” yields 管足 as an immediate response. This is increasingly the tool I’m choosing to use first on problems like this.

  4. julen says:

    Syz, In my experience, Google Translator is always incredibly good for technical texts. I wouldn’t know about biology, but for engineering it is great. I think the reason is scientific terms have well defined univocal translations in evey language, and the G translator algorithm doesn’t get confused by metaphors, synonyms, expressions, etc in these kind of writing.

  5. Syz says:

    @Max: good idea on WP. Take a look up in the post and see if my paraphrase does it justice.
    @Robert: actually, the Ch-Ch dict idea didn’t occur to me. I added a note on that too. I end up at a lot through google searches but haven’t yet gotten it into my head to go there directly. Might start doing that.
    @Julen: yeah, normally I have a lot of faith in GT for technical terms too. I guess in this case I was a little more dubious because both “tube” and “foot” are common words. Maybe if I’d been using Robert’s “ambulacral foot”…

  6. Max says:

    If I hadn’t know the answer before, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the Japanese wp page as anything to go by. So I wouldn’t say ‘OR go back to the starfish page’, but I’d *definitely* go to the starfish page and perhaps only keep the Japanese term in the back of my head (if at all). Otherwise it sounds good!

  7. Syz says:

    Thanks, Max, I think the latest update reflects that idea a bit more clearly.

  8. Max says:

    Yep, that’s it :)

  9. Claw says:

    I’ve found to be very useful. It arrives at translations by via natural language analysis on a large database of bilingual sources. This page describes how it’s done.

    The query for tube foot on the site yields 管足 as well.

  10. Syz says:

    Claw, thanks, the Bing dict is one I hadn’t used. I added a note in the main post. Clearly it’s geared towards Chinese->English rather than vice versa. Still, I like the design idea of basing it off mined words/terms in context.

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