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We get a lot of translation requests at Chinese.SE, and while we'd like to help, there's sometimes very little about the Chinese language in the question, and a lot about the procedure for obtaining plaintext from a photo.

Once we have the plaintext, we can simply input the plaintext into e.g. Google Translate or Yabla to get an approximate answer.

The aim of this post is to develop a self-help guide for use as a duplicate target. Instead of closing these questions as "off-topic" and linking to an impractically long list of (mostly inapplicable) resources, it'd be better to close as a duplicate of this self-help guide.

Question: How do I self-answer "What does this say?"

Answers:

Still don't know? Ask on Chinese.SE but please show prior effort. For example, I asked this question: What does 我们已经帮您踩过了 mean in this peculiarly translated escalator sticker? and you can see what happened.

For things like seals, stamps, calligraphy, etc., it's sometimes impossible to get a translation without asking someone who can read Chinese (and sometimes even native Chinese speakers struggle with this).

There are Internet communities which welcome these questions: like Reddit's /r/translator (and /r/ChineseLanguage has a pinned 翻译 Translation Thread!).

  • Seals are possible to read with minimal training. I agree that calligraphy is not. – dROOOze Dec 16 '19 at 5:33
  • Really? It'd be great to have an answer for that too (I don't think I could do it). – Becky 李蓓 Dec 16 '19 at 5:34
  • 1
    Sorry, that may have been an incomplete statement. I meant, seals are possible to read with minimal training for a native speaker, and only those familiar with Traditional Chinese (because Traditional Chinese and Seal Script share roughly the same character structure). About 60-70% of seal characters is about breaking characters down into components, applying a mental font change from seal shapes to 楷書 for each character component, then reconstructing the mental component change to the same structure as the seal. – dROOOze Dec 16 '19 at 5:37
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Handwriting

TL;DR: Handwriting is much harder than printed text. The first step is to improve the image quality. Afterwards we can input the text into OCR software.

This is on a door where I'm staying.

If we put it directly into Online OCR, it says:

No recognized text !

The image quality is too poor.

Step 1: Improve the image quality.

We can open up Paint (actually I use Pinta) and go over the Chinese in black.

Method 1: change the brightness and contrast:

Method 2: select only the black text (e.g. GIMP has Tools/Selection Tools/By Color Select):

Step 2: Input into OCR software.

OCR software struggles with handwriting, so we may need to try a few times. If we input the second image above into Online OCR, we obtain:

请各位出入
头好蓝色水门

It made two mistakes:

  • the original says 关好 (close) and not 头好 (meaningless);
  • the original says 木门 (timber door) and not 水门 (water gate).

So it's not perfect.

However, inputting the third image into EasyScreenOCR gives:

请各位出入
关好益包木门

It also made two errors:

  • the original says 蓝色 (blue) and not 益包 (meaningless).

Step 3: Compare the outputs; fix bugs.

We can compare these two transcriptions. The writing is stuck on the inside of a blue wooden door, so...

  • (to close) makes sense and not 头 (head);
  • 蓝色 (blue) makes sense;
  • 木门 (timber door) makes sense.

So we can fix the bugs to obtain:

请各位出入
关好蓝色木门

(It may be useful here to search by radical to identify troublesome characters.)

Step 4: Translate.

Now we put this into Google Translate to give:

Please come in and close the blue wooden door

Actually, it's not a very good translation (出入 means "come in and go out"). We can break this up a bit further using Yabla:

Thus it realistically means something like:

Please, when coming in or going out, close the blue wooden door.

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  • What's TL;DR? Is it "too long didn't read"? – dan Dec 16 '19 at 5:00
  • Yes. It's basically an Internet way of saying "summary". – Becky 李蓓 Dec 16 '19 at 5:08
  • How does "too long didn't read" become "summary"? I don't see how it works. – dan Dec 16 '19 at 5:13
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    I believe it started off as an insult to prohibitively long posts (to indicate "I don't have time to read that"), then people started commenting "TL;DR: [summary]" on other people's lengthy posts to save the future reader's time. Then people started including a "TL;DR" in their own posts. – Becky 李蓓 Dec 16 '19 at 5:20
4

OCR: Optical Character Recognition

TL;DR: Input a photo of the text into OCR software (e.g. Online OCR), then input the output into some translation software. This method requires a sufficiently high quality image for OCR to work. (It doesn't work well for handwriting, or top-to-bottom writing.)

Let's begin with a real example: a funny photo I took in Tianjin:

So... what does this say?

Step 1: Use Chinese OCR to get the plaintext Chinese.

The best software for doing this changes over time. I Googled Chinese OCR and stumbled upon Online OCR. Another possibility is the Copyfish OCR browser extension (Chrome; Firefox). I understand both Hanping Chinese and Pleco are mobile options.

After uploading the image and selecting Chinese Simplified, we get:

这块位置we've alreadyetepped enthis area 我们已经帮您踩过了!

Step 2: Input the plaintext Chinese into translation software.

For example, Google Translate gives:

这块位置
This location

我们已经帮您踩过了!
We've helped you step over!

For the words that seem imprecisely translated, we can look them up in a dictionary, e.g. YouDao or Dict.cn, or even just copy/paste the whole thing into Yabla.

Step 3: Still don't know? Ask on Chinese.SE showing what you've done.

Which is what I did for this image: What does 我们已经帮您踩过了 mean in this peculiarly translated escalator sticker?

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3

Drawing characters by hand

TL;DR: We can obtain plaintext by manually drawing characters one-by-one using various software.

Drawing on your phone

If your phone has Chinese input installed, you likely can already do this. E.g., here I'm entering in my name into Pleco:

MDBG Online Dictionary

MDBG will accept hand drawn characters, but it does care about stroke order. Click on the "brush" icon next to the search box:

mdbg.net stroke input

Random websites

If you Google draw characters chinese there's lots of software in which you can draw characters by hand. It'll change over time, and there's sometimes browser issues, etc. So one random example is qhanzi.com:

Google Translate

I believe it's possible to do something similar with Google Translate by clicking this icon:

But I can't get it to work properly, likely because it uses some Google feature that's blocked in China.

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2

Searching characters by their constituent components

TL;DR: We can find characters by inputting some or all of their constituent components.

小學堂 offers a component-searching interface, so that if you manage to recognise some components of a character but not the entire character, you can input those components to get a matching character which contains them.

Let's say that you come across the following character, and you don't recognise it:

enter image description here

Step 1. Identify as many parts of the character as possible.

Let's say that you've recognised 2「木」and a「彡」

enter image description here

Step 2. Input those components at http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/ccdb

enter image description here

Step 3. Click 確定送出 to get a list of matching characters.

enter image description here

You should see the following if you did this step correctly:

enter image description here

Step 4. After you've found the correct character, click the character (not the number underneath it) to bring up a pop-up box.

enter image description here

You should see the following box pop up if you did this step correctly:

enter image description here

Step 5. The box under 瀏覽器 contains a text character. You can select and copy the character, then look up the character under your favourite dictionary.

enter image description here

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  • Great! It’d also be great to update the original question linking these answers. (I can’t do this easily right now.) – Becky 李蓓 Dec 18 '19 at 6:59
  • @Becky李蓓 oh, I see. I'll do it right now – dROOOze Dec 18 '19 at 7:00
1

Extended character searching by their constituent components: Small seal script, Chu silk and bamboo slip characters, bronze inscription characters, or oracle bone characters

TL;DR: Using approximately same sequence of steps as the answer titled Searching characters by their constituent components, we can search for other varieties of characters, including small seal forms (小篆), Chu silk and bamboo slip characters (楚系簡帛文字), bronze inscription forms (金文), and oracle bone forms (甲骨文).

We'll use the same example in small seal script.

Step 1. Identify as many parts of the character as possible.

Let's say that you've recognised 2「木」and a「彡」.

enter image description here

Step 2. Go to http://xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw/ccdb, and click the desired script form. In this example, we're going to look at small seal script, so we'll click 小篆.

enter image description here

You should see an extended box pop up if you did this step correctly:

enter image description here


Note: The Chu silk and bamboo slip characters (楚系簡帛文字) option is hidden under Warring States characters (戰國文字).

enter image description here

Step 3. Input the identified components.

enter image description here

Step 4. Click 確定送出 to get a list of matching characters.

enter image description here

You should see the following if you did this step correctly.

enter image description here

Step 5. After you've found the correct character, click the character (not the number underneath it) to bring up a pop-up box.

enter image description here

You should see the following box pop up if you did this step correctly.

enter image description here

Step 6. The box under 瀏覽器 in the row 楷書 contains a text character. You can select and copy the character, then look up the character under your favourite dictionary.

enter image description here

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0

Search by radical

TL;DR: Chinese characters break down into radicals, so we can identify Chinese characters by searching via radicals. This requires basic familiarity with Chinese radicals.

Step 1: Understanding radicals

Wikipedia and Yellowbridge list the Chinese radicals. Chinese characters are written using these radicals.

Chinese characters are normally written top-left to bottom-right. We can search for a particular character by identifying its first radical.

Step 2: Searching via radicals

To actually do this, there‘s e.g. Search by Radical or Radical/Strokes Lookup. We take the character, e.g.

and identify its first radical. In this case it is the left-most radical (remember: top-left to bottom-right):

(It's listed as a variant of 149. 言.)

Then we find this radical, and click the link:

The following page lists most characters starting with that radical.

It's easier to locate if you have a rough idea of the number of strokes.

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I'm Chinese.

  • To help old people who can't use Pinyin, most native cellphone keyboard software includes OCR. Even you can use voice input. eg: srf.xunfei.cn pinyin.sogou.com

  • Some Chinese meme such as you asked "我们已经帮您踩过了" mean,I recommend you use native search website Baidu.

  • Make some Chinese friends to help you.

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0

Commonly encountered Chinese characters

There are a small number of characters which are often used for decorations, etc.:

(fú) = prosperity; good fortune

Often hung upside down as a decoration.

寿 / 壽 (shòu) = longevity

This is written with multiple variants.

(Together 福禄寿 / 福祿壽 form the Sanxing.)

(xǐ) = double happiness (made of two (xǐ) = happiness)

A decoration typically seen at Chinese weddings.

制 / 製 (zhì) = manufactured

This is often found as the last character (bottom-left) on stamps on teapots, etc.


See also the list of frequently requested translations at Reddit's /r/translator.

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