Lost in Chinese Translation


Cucumber Seedlings
Cucumber Seedlings

It’s perfect weather out there for the snow peas that I have sown – sunshine interspersed with light rain. Inside, I have started a few vegetable seedlings to be transplanted to the garden when the soil gets warmer. Discovering that a seedling has pushed its way out of the soil overnight always brings me great joy and elicits a “Wow!” from me.. Shown in the picture here are two 黃瓜 (huángguā) seedlings. How would you say 黃瓜 (huángguā) in English? Literally, it translates to “yellow squash”. However, yellow squashes are not what I expect to harvest from these plants when they mature. Rather, 黃瓜 (huángguā) in Chinese refers to what you call cucumbers in English.

Recently I finished writing a mid-grade novel (for ages 11 and up) titled “The Little Monk”. Not to leave out the Chinese-speaking readers, I have translated the story into Chinese as well, with the title “小和尚 “. I hope to get these two books published by the end of this year. Anyhow, what I want to talk about today is language translation between English and Chinese. At first, hoping to save time with the translation, I ran the text through an English-Chinese online translator. The result was totally unreadable and not even worth editing, but it did give me many a good laugh. I thought I’d share a few hilarious examples with you.

May Buddah bless you.
Incorrect: 五月菩薩保祐你. (Wǔyuè púsà bǎoyòu nǐ.)
Correct: 願菩薩保祐你. (Yuàn púsà bǎoyòu nǐ.)

In the above example, the auxiliary verb “may” was interpreted as the fifth month of the year, or the month of May.

He pressed his palms together.
Incorrect: 他按棕櫚葉一起. (Tā àn zōnglǘ yè yīqǐ.)
Correct: 他合起雙掌. (Tā hé qǐ shuāng zhǎng.)

In the above example, the word “palms” was interpreted as the palm leaves instead of the palms of the hands.

He lifted his wooden staff.
Incorrect: 他提起他的木職員. (Tā tíqǐ tā de mù zhíyuán.)
Correct: 他舉起他的木棒. (Tā jǔqǐ tā de mù bàng.)

In the above example, “staff” was interpreted as the employees instead of a long stick.

He raised the club.
Incorrect: 他提升了俱樂部. (Tā tíshēng le jùlèbù.)
Correct: 他舉起棒子. (Tā jǔqǐ bàng zi.)

Here, “club” was interpreted as an organization instead of a cudgel.

forceful strike
Incorrect: 強而有力的罷工 (qiǎng ér yǒulì de bàgōng)
Correct: 強而有力的擊打 (qiǎng ér yǒulì de jī dǎ)

See? When an English word has more than one meaning, it usually messes up the translation. Same with the following example.

The weather was fair.
Incorrect: 天氣很公平. (Tiānqì hěn gōngpīng.)
Correct: 天氣很好. (Tiānqì hěn hǎo.)

River bank
Incorrect: 河的銀行 (hé de yínháng)
Correct: 河岸 (hé’àn)

Question: Why are rivers rich? The answer: Each river has two banks.

a pitcher of spring water
Incorrect: 泉水的一個投手 (quánshuǐ de yīgè tōushǒu)
Correct: 一壺泉水 (yī hú quánshuǐ)

The above example makes me think that the translator must be a baseball fan. In the following two examples, the translator seems to be business-minded.

The board that trapped the man
Incorrect: 設陷井人的委員會 (shè xiàn jǐng rén de wěiyuánhuì)
Correct: 困住那個人的木板 (kùn zhù nàge rén de mùbǎn)

out of commission
Incorrect: 在委員會之外 (zài wěiyuánhuì zhīwài)
Correct: 壞了 (huài le) or 不能動了 (bùnéng dòng le)

As you can see, the problem with many translation software programs is the lack of artificial intelligence. Verbatim translation does not work well, as many English and Chinese words have multiple meanings, and the sentence structures of these two languages are quite different. How to do a good job with English to Chinese translation, or vice versa? You will first need to correctly interpret and understand the content in the source language. Then, you can put the other hat on and express the same meaning and sentiments in the destination language. It is all right to use different words and expressions in the translation as long as the idea is correctly communicated. For example, for “not worth a fig”, don’t mention figs at all, as the Chinese do not associate figs with worthless things. Instead, simply say “一文不值 (yī wén bù zhí)”, which means not worth a penny, or worthless. Speaking of Chinese sentence structures, please review Chapters 19 and 25 in “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes“.

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