Cross-cultural Communication, Language

The difficulties in Chinese – English translation – the question of translatability

There are different nations, different ethnic groups, different people. They are countless and they all have their own culture, customs and languages. This is a reason why translation is an important tool in cross-cultural communication. It helps to exchange meanings and explain certain cultural aspects from one language to another. However, it very often appears that particular cultures and language structures are so different that the process of translation becomes impossible. There are significant differences between the source language and the target language or there is a total lack of right or direct equivalent for certain cultural aspects. This phenomenon results in linguistic and cultural untranslatability.

While studying in China and doing a linguistic research on the influences between English and Chinese, I noticed that in translations from Chinese into English, untranslatability is most likely to occur. There is an appreciable cultural gap as well as an absence of some cultural features. It mostly touches these areas of culture connected with social structures, customs and traditions, religion or associations with colors. Except the cultural gap, there is also an appreciable difference in the language structure. Concerning the grammar of English and Chinese, the languages differ so much that only a person who is familiar with the grammatical structures of both languages can translate a text properly.

Because of the differences between two cultures semantic equivalence is limited to a great extent and for those cultural-specific terms and expressions, it is simply impossible  to find their references in the target language. In this case, the translator can provide appropriate descriptions in order to explain the meaning of the cultural-specific terms.

Although in some cases, the translator may decide that the culture of the source text should not take the priority over the culture of the target text and that translation should be target language culture-oriented. In this situation, he can simply omit certain parts of the text, use generalization or domestication method in which the goal of translation is to bring, in a way, the cultural aspects to the audience as more recognizable or even familiar. Using domestication method, all the source language culture-specific traces are supposed to disappear.


Social structure in China

In China we can observe the social class system and social hierarchy even when it comes to family members. It also shows that relations between family and relatives have a great value to the Chinese. The words that describe family members can not be easily translated without an exact context. They all can be translated differently depending on the age, sex and maternal or paternal relation. There are for example eleven ways to translate the words “uncle” and “aunt”. A few of them are: “叔父” (shufu) for father’s younger brother, “大爷” (daye) for father’s older brother, ”舅父” (jiufu) for mother’s brother, “姑母” (gumu) for father’s married sister, “舅母” (jiumu) for wife of mother’s brother or “叔母” (shumu) for wife of father’s younger brother. The same happens with words for brothers and sisters, parents-in-law, grandparents, cousins and all possible family members and relatives.

A few more examples would be: “姐姐” (jiejie) older sister, “妹妹” (meimei) younger sister, “哥哥” (gege) older brother, “弟弟” (didi) younger brother etc.

English does not have such wide distinction between uncles or aunts. That is why in such cases, if the exact relationship was an important information also in the target text, the translator would have to provide descriptions in the translation because of the lack of one word equivalent in English. Although, if it was not necessary to give such detailed information, the translator could simply use generalization and instead of writing “wife of father’s younger brother” he could write “aunt” etc.


Customs and traditions

Many difficulties in translation are also caused by typically Chinese traditions and holidays, for example, the Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) or Moon Festival which have many characteristic features which are absent in European or American culture. For example words “红包” (hongbao), which is a typical red envelope with golden writings and pictures, used to give money on the Chinese New Year or „月饼” (yuebing) which is a traditional cake that is made and eaten only during the Moon Festival, usually filled with very unique fillings, are hard to translate without explaining the meaning of those words, unless the readers are familiar with their cultural background.

In this case, when the terms are strongly connected to the culture and there is absolutely no equivalent in the target language culture, the translator should provide descriptions. However, if the connotations of the target text would differ significantly, it would be possible to use generalization and translate those two terms given as examples as “envelope” and “cake”.



Another problem with translation derives from philosophy and religion. China is definitely a country dominated by such religions and philosophical systems as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. For example, the word阴阳 (yinyang), which in China is the whole concept of science, philosophy or even medicine, is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture that it is not only untranslatable but also not as meaningful and understood in our culture as it is in Chinese culture.

Considering it is an important information in the target text, the translator definitely needs to provide explanations. However, if the target text has different connotations or purpose or it is aimed to a different kind of audience, the translator can use domestication and, for example, a word like “Buddhism” translate into “Christianity”.


Associations with colors

There are some similarities when it comes to colors in both English and Chinese language but not many. For example, the word “red” (红, hong) in both languages is connected to fire or shyness (English: to become red- faced, Chinese: lianhong, 脸红 – to blush) but on the other hand, in China red is connected to wedding ceremony, while in our culture it is white. The same appears with funerals. In Chinese culture the color of death is white while in ours it is black. This, for example, means that we cannot translate the Chinese phrase “红白喜事” (hongbaixishi) into „red weddings and white funerals” but into „weddings and funerals”. This case is quite interesting. If the translator chose to change the colors that would be adequate in our culture (red into white and white into black), the translation would not sound good nor naturally. The best technique which the translator could use is half (partial) omission which simply gives “weddings and funerals”.

The color black though, in Chinese culture is associated with water while in our culture it is blue, which in some parts of China it is associated with bad luck.

Another example would be an English phrase “blue movie”. In Chinese, we would have to replace “blue” with “yellow”.


Verb forms

There are two interesting words in Chinese which have no direct equivalences in English and because of that they make translation troublesome. The first one is the verb “to be” which in Chinese is “是” (shi) . The problem is that it only joins with nouns and never exists in sentences where “to be” is followed by an adjective. If we want to say “I am a teacher” we translate it directly into “我是老师” (wo- 我- I, shi- 是- to be, laoshi- 老师- teacher) and the sentence has the same subject – verb – object structure as in English. But if we want to say “The sky is beautiful” we need to translate it into “天很漂亮” (tian- 天- sky, hen- 很- very, piaoliang- 漂亮- beautiful) omitting the verb “to be”, which gives us literally “sky very beautiful”. Instead of the verb “to be” in such a sentence we can see the word “very”. It is indeed often used to replace the word “to be” but it could also be words such as “little”, “really” etc. For example “Today weather is a little bit cold” would be translated into “今天天气一点冷” (jintian- 今天- today, tianqi- 天气- weather, yidian- 一点- a little, leng- 冷- cold) or “He is good” would have to be translated into “他很好” (ta- 他- he, hen- 很- very, hao- 好- good).

There is also another word which means “to be in/ on/ at”. In this case the verb “to be” connects with the preposition “in”, “on” or “at” and gives one word “在” (zai). There are no separate words for such sentence structure which states a location of a subject. When we want to say “I am in Poland” we need to translate it into “我在波兰” (wo- 我- I, zai- 在- to be in, bolan- 波兰- Poland) or “She is at university” would be translated into “她在大学” (ta- 她- she, zai- 在- to be at, daxue- 大学- university).

It means that we cannot directly translate such sentence structures but a person who translates a text needs to remember that in Chinese there are two utterly different words and both stand for “to be”. In this case, referring to the word that stands for “to be in/ on/ at” “在” which lacks a preposition and is more like a phrase “to be in”, we also need to remember that simply there are no prepositions in Chinese which may cause difficulties while translating a text from Chinese into English where prepositions play a significant role. For example: “I go to China” would be translated only into “我去中国” (wo- 我- I, qu- 去- to go, zhongguo- 中国- China) which literally means “I go China”.



There are no exact rules when it comes to tenses in Chinese, especially when it comes to spoken Chinese. We could also say there are no tenses at all. This is one of the most troublesome aspects while translating a text from English into Chinese or from Chinese into English, where the tenses are important and have a quite complex structure. When we want to say something in the present tense, we use the same sentence structure as in Present Simple. For example the sentence “I like music” would be translated into “我喜欢音乐” (wo- 我- I, xihuan- 喜欢- like, yinyue- 音乐- music). But if we want to strongly indicate that something is happening now, we can use the word “在” (zai- to be in/ on/ at) before the verb. For example, the sentence “She is crying” would be translated into Chinese as “她在哭” (ta- 她- she, zai- 在- to be in, ku- 哭- to cry).

When it comes to past and future tenses, there are no fixed structures. If we want to express something in the future tense, we need to use a word such as “tomorrow” or “in one week” or any other that would indicate that the action applies to the future. For example the sentence “I will arrive tomorrow” would be simply translated into “我明天到” (wo- 我- I, mingtian- 明天- tomorrow, dao- 到- to arrive). Only when we want to use a strong indication on the future and stress the word “will”, we should use the additional verb “会” (hui- can, be able to). When we want to translate the sentence “He will come tomorrow” (with a strong emphasis on “will), we should translate the sentence into “明天他会来” (mingtian- 明天- tomorrow, ta- 他- he, hui- 会- can, is able to, lai- 来- to come).

There is exactly the same “rule” in the past tense. The verbs do not have any forms of the past tense and only words such “yesterday” or “a month ago” etc. indicate that the action happened in the past. For example, the sentence “Yesterday I went to school” would be translated into “昨天我去学校” (zuotian- 昨天- yesterday, wo- 我- I, qu- 去- to go, xuexiao- 学校- school). There is also the same situation as in the present and future tense for a strong emphasis. If we want to strongly emphasize that the action happened in the past, we need to add the suffix “了” to the verb. For example “Yesterday I went to the office” (or even “Yesterday I did go to the office”) would be translated into “昨天我去了办公室” (zuotian- 昨天- yesterday, wo- 我- I, qu- 去- to go, le- 了- the suffix that indicates past tense, bangongshi- 办公室- an office).

As we can see, that is a basic choice of tenses in Chinese. More complex tenses such as Present Perfect or Past Perfect do not have exact equivalences in Chinese which causes linguistic untranslatability. Translating such texts into English and choosing the right tense in the target language mainly depends on the context.


Negative sentences

It is very interesting how we negate sentences in Chinese, especially in the past tense. In the present and future tense we simply put the word “不” (bu- not) before the verb. However, in the past tense, the word “不” changes into”没 (有)” (meiyou). In other words, the verbs in all tenses remain the same and only „not” changes its form into the past tense form.


Basic and complex words

In Chinese, in some cases there is no specific distinction between basic words and complex words. For example in the sentence”我在做饭” (wo- 我- I, zai- 在- to be in which indicates that the action is happening now, zuo- 做- to do, to prepare, fan- 饭- rice or zuofan- 做饭- to cook) “做饭” (zuofan) can be either a basic word or a complex word.

The sentence where “做饭” would function as a basic word (做饭) would mean „I am cooking”. (The two characters are marked green as they function together as one basic word meaning “to cook”.) In the sentence where “做饭” would function as a complex word () would be translated into „I am preparing rice”. (The two characters are marked two different colors because in this case they function separately as a complex word meaning “to prepare rice”.) Translating such words also requires from the translator the knowledge of the context of the translated text and being familiar with the words that can function as both, basic and complex words.


We can see that in cross-cultural translations, the right exchange between words and information in the target language is very important. There either must be words that would refer to both, source and target language or right equivalences that would replace a word from the source language in the target language but at the same time keep its meaning. However, there is no doubt that when it comes to such different cultures and languages as English and Chinese, there may be definite lack of replacement or equivalence which causes untranslatability. Therefore, if the readers are not familiar with the cultural background of the source language or aware of the cultural differences, we must provide them with right explanations and certain information. The same happens in terms of linguistic untranslatability. There are often no right equivalences either and the grammar of English and Chinese can not even be compared in many cases.

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