How to Translate Stuff into Chinese

Translation is an often tricky issue for many interpreters and translators. There are varying beliefs about how one should go about it, whether that be keeping the meaning, the style, or word choice. On one hand, keeping the meaning intact seems like the obvious choice, since it’s what most people are looking for, and it gets the job done. Translation is just conveying the meaning of a text in one language in another, right? It’s not that simple. The Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao (趙元任 – Zhào Yuánrèn) remarks that translation is a “multidimensional affair”, in his paper “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese” (Chao 109). In this paper, Chao discusses how translation is rarely a simple task.

Chao observes that “when you translate a text, it is always in a context, and when you translate something spoken, it is always spoken in a situation” (Chao 110). The context of any translation makes the work more difficult since it includes time, place, society, class, education, etc. This is especially true of a language such as Mandarin Chinese, which has changed considerably from its classical form, and of which many dialects exist.

With this in mind, it may then be better to preserve the overall structure and style. However, even this is difficult, since the stylistic choices of an author or speaker are not always evident. Chao argues that “fidelity”, or truthfulness, to the original text, is the mark of a good translation. But, as one might expect, even that is a complex topic. Keeping in with Chao’s theme, which is the art of translation into Chinese.

As some readers may already know, Chinese is a large family of interrelated but mutually unintelligible tonal languages (for the most part). However, they share a writing system consisting of ideographs, or symbols that represent ideas and words. In contrast to many other languages, it is not a simple affair to translate names, places, or novel technological concepts into Chinese. This is because the translator is limited to using the existing characters, and therefore existing syllables available to read those characters.

For example, the word “chocolate” cannot simply be rendered as “cho-co-late” with various tones. In Hindi, and other Indian languages, you can do something like that: चौकलिट (caukliṭ). In Chinese, what has been settled on is a kind of phonetic translation where the individual characters are interpreted only for their sound: 巧克力 (qiăokèlì).

Due to many people trying their hands at translating such words, there are words translated according to different methods, such as semantic translation, where the meaning is more relevant than the sound. This is the case for words such as “taxi” and “plane”, which are (出租车/出租車 – chū zū chē)and(飞机/飛機 – fēi jī), respectively. These roughly mean “rented vehicle” and “flying machine”, respectively. These are what Chao calls “functional translations” (Chao 115), which translate the concepts rather than the meanings of words of a text. Phonetic translation is comparatively rare, due to the clumsy nature of the resultant translations in speech.

An interesting aspect of this predicament in Chinese is that it raises the question of how new words come to be. Technically, all Chinese characters are composed of components called radicals, providing a sound, tone, or semantic element to the syllable. Sometimes, the meaning is not obvious, or the pronunciation is not obvious. But there is definitely a logic to the characters, one that is implicitly understood by native speakers/readers of Chinese. However, it requires a much more developed understanding of that logic to be able to create new characters from scratch.

Now, why would someone need to do that? Well, if you’ve read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, you have read the whimsical poem known as the “Jabberwocky”. It is widely known for using words that sound like English but are not real words at all. This quality of a text is rarely seen, and difficult to translate, which Chao notes in his paper. It is to the point that Chao, who was a gifted polyglot, actually generates his own characters which adhere to the logic of Chinese characters, but are not coined words in and of themselves. This reflects the quality of word choice and stylistic decisions made by Carroll with words like “brillig” and “outgrabe”. To me, that’s pretty amazing, since I imagine you have to be very well read in Chinese to do that. I’ve uploaded a picture of the poem in Chinese below:

Citation: Chao, Yuen Ren. “Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 29, 1969, pp. 128.

While Chao used Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a system that he devised, I’ve done my best to produce a modern Pinyin version of the romanization of his translation below, in addition to the original Gwoyeu Romatzyh text.

Yeou ‘tian beirlii, nehshie hwojihjide toutz
Tzay weybial jiinj gorng jiinj berl
Hao nansell a, nehshie borogoutz,
yeou miade rhatz owdegerl

Yŏu (yī) tiān béi lĭ, nàxiē huójìjī de tōuzi
Zài wèibià’er jĭnzhe góng jĭnzhe
Hăo nánsì’er ā, nàxiē bōluógōuzi
Háiyŏu miēde rānzi òude gé’er

Feel free to correct me if something’s wrong! My primary difficulty was deciphering what miade was supposed to be, but my best guess is miēde, since according to Chao’s paper, the poem’s pronunciation falls within the Chinese phonemic inventory, and mia isn’t a valid syllable.

Anyway, with regards to translation in Chinese, you’ll find that nowadays, people go with a functional translation for the most part. It’s an interesting translation strategy, and makes being a Chinese interpreter or translator difficult. That said, you shouldn’t feel discouraged about learning Chinese! I hope this article was interesting and informative!

Also, other news: My Hindi guide has been updated and uploaded, so feel free to download it whenever you’d like!