Volume 9, No. 1 
January 2005

Tian Chuanmao

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From the Editor
A Few Statistics
by Gabe Bokor

Index 1997-2005

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
A Fitting Trade for a Misfit
by Alex Feht

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

  Translators' Nuts & Bolts
Grammatical Conversion in English: Some new trends in lexical evolution
by Ana I. Hernández Bartolomé and Gustavo Mendiluce Cabrera

  Translators Around the World
Texts in Multilingual Settings: The case of the European Union
by Mari Carmen Acuyo Verdejo, Ph.D.

  Translation History
Some Major Dates and Events in the History of Translation
by Alex Gross

Maddening Amusements; A Richness of Trees
by Eileen Brockbank

Notes on Teaching Translation Between Chinese and English
by Chuanmao Tian

  Book Review
A Newly Revised Dutch Edition of The Lord of the Rings
by Mark T. Hooker
Manual de documentación y terminología para la traducción especializada
Dra. Carmen Cuéllar Lázaro

Interprete professionista o professionista interprete?
Antonella Lasorsa
El reto de formar intérpretes en el siglo XXI
María J. Blasco Mayor

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Panorama de la mediación intercultural y la traducción/interpretación en los servicios públicos en España
Dora Sales Salvador, Ph.D.

  Translator Education
La evaluación en los estudios de traducción
Dra. María-José Varela Salinas y Dra. Encarnación Postigo Pinazo

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium
From Shoebox to SQL
by Danilo Nogueira
Working from Audio Recordings
by José Henrique Lamensdorf

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal

Notes on Teaching Translation Between Chinese and English

by Chuanmao Tian
School of Foreign Languages, Yangtze University, Hubei, 434020 P. R. China

Translation between Chinese and English seems to be more difficult than that between any two European languages, because the fact that the two languages are of two different language families, namely, Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan, gives rise to many more differences in mode of expression, grammar, syntax, meaning system. Therefore, the translation teacher faces greater challenges in training translators who are in greater demand in our era of globalization. The article first presents the major difficulties in the translation between Chinese and English, and then offers some solutions.

Keywords: Chinese; English; translation; difficulty; solution


ranslation is becoming a more and more important international and intercultural activity, for it facilitates mutual understanding among different and conflicting racial, ethnic, religious and cultural groups, which is of special significance today when terrorism and all kinds of conflict are threatening us. For this reason, training translators turns into an important mission, and translation teachers are, indeed, indirectly making contributions to world peace. Whatever difficulties in translation teaching they encounter, they are supposed to try every possible means to find solutions to all potential problems so as to produce qualified and excellent translators.

Translation Difficulties

1. Word/sentence order

It seems that all natural human languages follow a certain sequencing in putting words together to express a complete and coherent thought, but word/sentence order, may vary from language to language in presenting the same idea. A certain sequence of words is often smooth, natural and idiomatic in one language but illegitimate, unidiomatic and even vague or meaningless in another. A good translation should take into consideration language usage and convention. As to attributives and adverbials, Chinese speakers tend to put them before their modified objects if they are one-word or short modifiers. However, in English they may be placed after their modified object. For example:

Original Chinese version: 在教室里学

Chinese pinyin version: wo-men zai jiao-shi li xue-xi fan-yi.

Word-for-word English rendering: We in the classroom are studying translation.

Acceptable English rendering: We are studying translation in the classroom. /

In the classroom we are studying translation.

According to English syntax the version "We in the classroom are studying translation" is unacceptable. It is still illegitimate even if we render the original as "We are, in the classroom, studying translation." Another problem is translating fixed expressions in which the word/sentence order is determined by traditional usage. Look at the following example:

Original Chinese version: 繁衍生息

Chinese pinyin version: fan-yan sheng-xi

Word-for-word English rendering: multiply and live

Acceptable English rendering: live and multiply

The original Chinese version seems illogical in expressing the thought, which should be made logical by inversion in translating. Illogicalness seems an inherent part of human language. For instance, in English we have the expression" to knock at the door". Logically it should be "to knock at a specific point on the door". In Chinese we have "饭烧熟了(fan shao shu le, meaning "The rice has cooked"". Anyhow rice cannot do the cooking. Logic is an important element in translating, which should be carefully handled.

2. Ellipsis

Grammatical omission is one thing in common to all human languages. However, ellipsis differs from language to language. What can be omitted in one language may not be omitted in another. For example, in English a noun or verb may be omitted in the later text if it is repeated. But in Chinese repetition of the same word in the early and later texts is natural, legitimate and habitual. Look at the following example:

Original English version: Ours is a federal system.

Word-for-word Chinese rendering: 的是一个邦制。

Chinese pinyin version: wo-men de shi yi-ge lian-bang-zhi.

Acceptable Chinese rendering: 的制度是一个邦制。

Chinese pinyin version: wo-men de zhi-du shi yi-ge lian-bang-zhi.

The literal translation "的是一个邦制。" is unacceptable according to Chinese usage. What is omitted in "our(s)"—"system"—must be translated. Chinese speakers seldom pay attention to formal cohesion and their expression seems to be meaning-driven. In such a mode of expression, some sentence parts which in English cannot be omitted, in Chinese are. Therefore, to English speakers, many Chinese utterances and writings seem obscure in meaning. For example:

Original Chinese version: 了六只钢笔,一共三十元,拿回家一看,都是用了的。

Chinese pinyin version: wo mai le liu-zhi gang-bi, yi-gong san-shi-yuan, na hui-jia yi-kan, dou-shi yong guo de le.

Word-for-word English rendering: I bought six pens, altogether thirty yuan, took home and had a look, all used.

Acceptable English rendering: I bought six pens which cost me thirty yuan. When I took them home, I found they were second-hand

It is easily seen that the word-for-word English rendering of the original is awfully ungrammatical. The omitted words in the original should be translated so as to make the translation clear, complete and coherent in meaning. As a matter of fact, contextualized ellipsis in Chinese is so common as to produce great difficulties for translators in understanding and expressing. For example:

Original Chinese version: 管原惠庆长怀祖庭的崇高敬意,从寺中摘了一把回日本,经过精心培育,成了一棵枣树(书鸿 李承仙, 《五台名刹画桑》)

Chinese pinyin version: dang-shi guan-yuan hui-qing zhang-lao huai-zhe dui zu-ting de chong-gao jing-yi, cong si zhong zhai le yi-ba zao-zi dai-hui ri-ben, jing-guo jing-xin pei-yu, zhang-cheng le yi-ke zao-shu.

Word-for-word English rendering: Then Master Sugehara had a deep respect for Zuting, picked a handful of dates from the Monastery, took back to Japan, after careful cultivation, grew into a big date tree.

Acceptable English rendering: Having a deep respect for the founder, Master Sugehara picked a handful of dates from the date tree in the Monastery and took them back to Japan. He planted the seed in his monastery, where under meticulous care it has grown into a big date tree.

Due to the fact that many ellipses exist in the original Chinese sentence, the word-for-word English rendering of it is ungrammatical and unclear. "从寺中摘了一把" is illogical because dates can only be picked from a date tree rather than a monastery which cannot grow dates. And what's more, the subjects of the clauses "经过精心培育" and "长成了一棵枣树" are neither clear nor straightforward. All these problems should be solved before translating.

3. Meaning

Meaning in a human language is a complex system. As far as interlingual and intercultural communication is concerned, words in one language may not have exact equivalents or have different associations from those seemingly corresponding words in another language, which brings challenges to translating.

3.1 Lexical gap

Some words and concepts are unique in one language or culture and absent in some/all other languages or cultures. This means that there are no available words in the target language for the translator to use for translating those words. For example, in Chinese we have such cultural words as 极 (tai-ji, the Great Ultimate)阴 (yin, an inactive force derived from the activity which reaches its climax) 阳 (yang, a force derived from the dynamics of the Great Ultimate brought into action)秧歌 (niu yang-ge, to do a yang-ge dance)跷 (cai gao-qiao, to walk on stilts) (wu long-deng, dancing with a dragon lantern),粽子 (zong-zi, pyramid-shaped dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves) 馄饨 (hun-tun, dumpling soup), etc. In English there are May Day, Good Friday, salad, hamburger, pizza, the blues, mascot, etc.

3.2 Associations of words

Peter Newmark (1990:100) points out, "No word is an island entire to itself." Words do not only have dictionary definitions but are associated with their users, social circumstances, and the sources from which they are produced. Very often, in two languages two words have the same literal, i.e. conceptual meaning, but their associations are different from each other. For instance, "dog" is affectively a neutral, even complimentary word in English culture, as seen in such expressions "lucky dog", "love me, love my dog", "top dog", "Every dog has his day", "dog-tired". However, in Chinese culture (gou, dog) is a derogatory word, always associated with something dirty, disgusting and unfavorable, as in 杂种 (gou-za-zhong, bastard), 狗腿子 (gou-tui-zi, lackey),狗娘 (gou-niang-yang de, son of a bitch), 狗屁 (gou-pi, horseshit), 狗急跳墙 (gou-ji-tiao-qiang, a cornered beast will do something desperate.), etc. Unlike in English culture, no Chinese likes to be called as or compared to a dog. Those so-called "false friends" which seem to be identical in form and meaning but which involve subtle differences, especially in associative meaning (Nida, 1993:137) often deceive translators and trap them in "pitfalls." Look at the following Chinese idiom:

Original Chinese version: 五斗米折腰

Chinese pinyin version: bu wei wu-dou mi zhe-yao

Literal English rendering: Do not bend one's body for five dou of rice

Acceptable English rendering: Do not lose your dignity for a small profit.

"五斗米" (five dou of rice, roughly equivalent to five decalitres or 1.3 gallons of rice), in the Jin Dynasty of feudal China, was the monthly pay for a country magistrate, and in the idiom it doesn't mean literally. The idiom was related to and produced by Tao Yuanming, a famous ancient poet who was ever a county magistrate but resigned from his post because he refused to flatter his superiors.

4. Sound and form

Chinese and English have a totally different system in spelling and pronunciation. If any meaning is contained or an important feature is presented in the source language sound or form, it is almost impossible to preserve it in the target language. Sound and form assume a special significance in such things as poetry, advertising language and figures of speech. For example:

Original Chinese version: 可以清心也。

Chinese pinyin version: ke-yi qing-xin ye.

Original English version: The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,

The furrow followed free. (S. T. Coleridge)

The uniqueness in the Chinese example is in its formal flexibility. That is to say, it can be read and interpreted in several ways. For example, we can also read and understand it as 以清心也可, 清心也可以, 心也可以清, and也可以清心 in which the characters remain the same. Anyhow, almost no English version can achieve such formal flexibility. The English example is a piece from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S. T. Coleridge, in which alliteration and rhyme are ingeniously employed to imitate the natural sounds such as those of wind and waves by the repeated consonant and vowel sounds of /f/, /b/ and /u:/. This kind of sound feature cannot be totally reproduced in Chinese.


As intercultural communication, translation is playing a more and more important role in today's world. Whatever difficulties translation teachers encounter in their professional training, it is their duty to find out effective solutions to existing problems. Here are some suggestions:

1. Training students to be excellent language switchers

Mode of expression in some sense mirrors mode of thinking. And the difference in mode of expression between two languages is rooted in their unique ways of thinking. So in translator training the teacher should try to help students think as target language speakers do. He should point out the major differences in mode of thinking between the two languages. For example, the major differences between the Chinese way of thinking and the English way of thinking include:

  1. Chinese is characterized by parataxis, which means that the relation between sentence parts is loose and unclear. English is characterized by hypotaxis, which means that English speakers give much attention to formal cohesion.
  2. Chinese speakers are subjective. As a result, when they generate sentences they tend to use personal subject or no subject. English speakers are relatively objective. In sentence-making they often use an impersonal subject
  3. Chinese people observe things separately. Therefore, in their utterances ideas are arranged together according to the order of physical or mental time. They seem equally important; the relation among them is not clear because no connective is used between them. When English-speaking people observe things, they can always find out the most important thing and place that thing in the main clause of a sentence as the information focus in their speech or writing. Other things will be stated in dependent clauses or various kinds of phrases.
  4. In narrating, Chinese speakers mention things from the past to the present while English speakers follow the opposite line. In logical reasoning, Chinese speakers put reasons or evidence before the result or conclusion, but English speakers do it the other way round.

2. Widening of cultural knowledge

For understanding word associations, we must help students familiarize themselves with the Western culture as well as their mother culture. Without cultural or pragmatic background knowledge, there is no way to grasp words' implications.

3. Coinage

For those words which cannot find their counterparts in the target language, the translator may have to coin his own words. In coinage, he should consider the target language conventions, acceptability to target readers and semantic clarity of the source word. The translation strategies at his disposal include literal translation, free translation, paraphrase, transliteration plus notes, etc.

4. Compensation and substitution

In terms of dealing with sound or formal features in the source text in translating, full equivalence is almost impossible. We can use similar or relevant sound or formal features in the target language to make some compensation for partial loss of the original features. For example, in translating Coleridge's poetic line mentioned above, we can employ Chinese antithetical couplets and end rhyme to substitute the original alliteration, as in the rendering 拂吹,白浪翻 船儿破浪前行. In fact, alliteration does exist in "风拂" (feng-fu) and "翻飞" (fan-fei) and the original consonant sound /f/ is preserved. And for translating the above-mentioned formally unique Chinese expression 可以清心也, some Chinese translator has made a successful attempt to render it as "Real nice refreshing cuppa tea" (which may also be read and interpreted as "Nice refreshing cuppa tea real"/"Refreshing cuppa tea real nice" / "Cuppa tea real nice refreshing" / "Tea real nice refreshing cuppa".). From which we can conclude that any translation difficulty can be overcome if a talented translator puts his mind to the task.



[1] Newmark, P. 1990. About translation. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

[2] Nida, E. A. 1993. Language, culture and translating. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press.

[3] Ping, Yang. 2003. A collection of classical translations. Qingdao: Qingdao Press.

[4] Quanhong, Yang. 2003. An investigation into the meanings of some Chinese and English words. Shanghai: Chinese Dictionary Press.

[5] Miqing, Liu 1999. An outline of cultural translation. Wuhan: Hubei Education Press.