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Syntax and Context in Translating Between English and Chinese


A few years back, a U.S. plane accidentally hit a Chinese embassy and caused it to burn. Though there were some injuries, no casualties resulted, but the incident fanned some tension to burn between the two governments, including protests and reactions from the Chinese media and citizens. At some point, an “apology” was demanded from the U.S., but since its government claimed that everything was accidental, no apology was issued, which caused the tension to heat up more. After a few days, the U.S. government issued a statement that it “feels sorry for what happened”.  The next day, the report in the Chinese news wrote, “U.S. apologized for the crash incident”. While this might have positively impacted the tension, it was an obvious result of translating the use and meaning of the word “feel sorry” incorrectly.

This is just one of the intricacies in translating between English and Chinese. There are several more factors and items that need to be considered, ranging from sentence syntax to vocabularies and connotation, and this article outlines some of them.

Basic Sentence Syntax

Frequently, Chinese sentences are constructed with topic-comment syntax, where the first segment is composed of the topic, and a comment comprises the second. On the other hand, English sentences are generally constructed with the comment coming before the sentence topic. The following example illustrates this:

English:                                   I have already bought tomorrow’s breakfast.

Chinese (Simplified):              明天的早餐我已经买了。
Tomorrow’s breakfast I have already bought.

 In both cases, the topic (tomorrow’s breakfast) and comment (I have already bought) are the same; however, the construction of one is the reverse of the other.

Apart from this, nouns (objects) in Chinese require classifiers that serve as some sort of “unit of measurement”. These units of measurement differ for every types of object. Thus, a person, a book, two flowers are written in Chinese as quantity + unit of measure + noun/ object, like 一个人,一本书,两朵花,respectively.

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