Zhongwen Browser Extension

Many people, when first coming to Guiyang, don’t speak or read much Chinese. This is the first guide in a series for helpful tools that can make navigating a new place in a different language a little bit easier. The focus of today’s guide is an extension for the Google Chrome browser. If you don’t use that browser, I’m sure there are other extensions with similar functions, but this is the one I use. 

Zhongwen: Chinese-English Dictionary is a hover-translation extension. I’ll start by telling you what it does, and then we’ll take a look at installation. Note: though the extension doesn’t need a VPN to run, you do need to have access to Google to add the extension to your browser. 

Zhongwen’s name comes from the Chinese word for written Mandarin Chinese, 中文. Unlike Google Translate or other similar tools, it doesn’t translate a whole page for you. Instead, it shows a little pop-up translation of any characters you hover your cursor over.

There are benefits and drawbacks of using this type of translation. The drawbacks are pretty obvious: it is slower than translating a whole page, words may have different meanings in different contexts, and if you don’t know any Chinese grammar you might not understand how the words fit together. I don’t really use this app to read articles. Instead, I use it to find important information on a page, to figure out error messages, or just to find the pronunciation of a word. 

My number one use for the Zhongwen extension is to find the meaning of words while I’m shopping on Taobao. In the picture above, I’ve hovered over the characters 中国, and the popup translation can give me a lot of information about them. First, it shows the characters clearly, in case the site has a crazy font that makes it hard to read. The first two characters are the word in simplified Chinese, and the second set is the same word in traditional characters.

After that, you can see the pronunciation in pinyin, including tone marks. The definition follows. Sometimes, like in this example, the cursor selects two characters to translate together, because they form a compound word. If this happens, but you really want to know the meanings separately, you can see the first character translated below, and shifting your cursor to the second should give you a pop-up just for the second character. 

There are a few good reasons to use a hover translator instead of a full-page automatic translation. 

Here’s a picture of a menu from Taobao after I’ve run it through Google translate. Stylized menus don’t fare well with automatic translations, and you’re often left with no idea of what they say. Hover translations work as long as the text itself isn’t an image. Here, all of the terms on the left translate with Zhongwen, but the words around 4.4 don’t, because they’re in an advertising image.

Google Translate, specifically, requires a VPN when you’re in China, which can redirect you to the global site instead of the local one. This makes payment an issue, as many Chinese payment sites don’t allow international transactions.

Another issue I’ve had with Google translate is that it shifts buttons around, and can make it so that they become unclickable. Try paying for your new shoes when you can’t see the button anymore, and the site thinks you’re in Portugal so it doesn’t redirect you to the Chinese payment system. Good luck.

The main reason I use hover translations, however, is because they’re better for actually learning. Hover over the same word on ten different occasions. The eleventh time you see those characters, you probably won’t need to translate. You’ve already learned the word. Add in the fact that you know the pronunciation, and you’re well on the way to increasing your vocabulary.

Adding the Browser Extension

Step 1

Turn on your VPN. Open Chrome browser and go to “Settings” in the menu. On the settings page, in the top left, click extensions. 

Scroll to the very bottom of the page that opens, and click “Get more extensions.”

Step 2

In the top left of this page, type Zhongwen into the search box. The search results have three options, the same extension in English, French or German. Choose whichever you like. 

Click the “Add to Chrome” button beside the search result. After a moment you should get a pop-up asking if you’d like to add the extension. Select “Add extension” to add it. A quick download will start and then you’ll get a notification that it’s been added. 

That’s it. You’ve added the extension. You can see the tiny icon next to your address bar, with a red caption that says “On.” If it’s getting in the way when you’re trying to click on something (which does happen occasionally), click the icon to turn it off. 

Turn your VPN off again and head over to Taobao to test out your new tool!

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About Jill Marie

Jill is a writer, reader, and foodie based out of Guiyang, Guizhou, China. She spends her time visiting Guiyang's restaurants, bars, and attractions so she can share this remarkable city with the world.

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