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Old 10-27-2006, 12:00 PM   #1
iamback's Avatar
Join Date: Oct 2005
Location: Amsterdam, NL
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Default Translating Chinese

Chinese is a fascinating language - even though I know really only very little about it. But every time I try to understand a bit I learn a little more and find it ever more fascinating...

Characters and syllables

Here's one little tidbit to get us started: if you hear a Chinese word, like "Beijing" you hear two syllables. Each syllable corresponds to one character. But a character is not "just" a syllable: it's a word by itself. "Jing" means "capital". "Bei" means "north" or "northern" (i.e, it's both a noun and an adjective). String the two together to "Bei Jing" (the two characters written in that order) and its meaning becomes clear: the northern capital. (China had other capitals through the ages!)

Next step: "He" means river and "hai" means sea. Interesting that they both start with "h" though it may be a coincidence (though given words for "water" in various languages, it may not be a coincidence!)[1]. So: what's "Beihai"? Right. "North Sea". Interestingly, this refers to an actual sea (more a marginal sea or bay, actually) as well as to a lake in Beijing - the Chinese concept of "sea" is obviously not completely overlapping our concept of "sea". So when a Chinese "hai" is inland, we'd generally translate it as "lake". We also have the Wei He (translation not known to me)[2] flowing into the Huang He (Yellow River).

Making new words

There's a character that means "outer garment" or "coat" or "jacket". String together the character for "rain" and the character for "outer garment" and what do you get? Replace the character for "rain" with the character for "wind" and what do you get? "Jeans" is a three-character word: cow+boy+trousers. The matching jacket is of course cow+boy+outer garment. (I'm not making these up - these are real two- or three-character words in Chinese.) Looking at all examples given so far, it's also obvious that word order in these cases is as we'd use it: the "descriptive" part before the "noun" that it qualifies. Of course the Chinese didn't have jeans - trousers or jackets - originally, but they had no problem making up their own words for it!

This method of stringing concepts together makes Chinese wonderfully flexible - you can combine concepts endlessly to make up new ones, and thus Chinese only very rarely uses loan words. Internet cafe? Wăng bā!


When such "strings" of characters become words in themselves, we tend to write them as a single word of multiple syllables (like Beijing or Beihai) but quite often each syllable is capitalized to show their correspondence to characters: BeiJing and BeiHai. I like that, since it reminds me to look for two characters and in many cases aids in pronunciation (even though the diacriticals for the tonal variations are left out).

In written Chinese, these "word groups" are not in any way indicated or separated within a sentence - you just need to "know" (or understand) how the characters are strung together to make up other, new concepts. At least they do write a full stop at the end of a sentence - that helps.

Another interesting tidbit is that Chinese doesn't have prepositions, articles, or even a plural form (except some rare cases): all the things we do with such language mechanisms are done in Chinese by how you string the (one-syllable) words together - and context.


So - we "built" some Chinese words from singular concepts: flexible, and very very powerful.

Now, we do it the other way round: take a Chinese word of multiple characters and find a good translation for it. Precisely because of this powerful mechanism of just stringing together words without even needing prepositions, translating such composite words can become very, very hard. Or simply lead to a host of not-quite-synomymous expressions. That's what I was stumbling over today: I didn't try to translate myself, merely find "good" translations. Not easy at all:

So... I'm going through my collection of photographs shot last September in Beijing in the Summer Palace. Also known as YiHei Yuang, or Garden of Good Health and Harmony. Um? It's not so hard to deduce that "good health" is probably a single word (character) in Chinese. But where did "of" and "and" come from? Context! Given what we've already seen of word order, we can also guess that "Yuang" means garden. So most likely "Yi" is "good health" and "Hei" is "Harmony". Just guessing...

What I set out to do, was find the "correct" English names (and preferably pinyin as well) of all the buildings, hills, lakes and islands in my Summer Palace pictures... it appears for the English there's no such thing! To the Chinese, two or three characters strung together have a specific meaning - by context and convention - but translating that is apparently not so easy. Here's one example (of many) I stumbled over today - I'll order it by starting with the romanization of the Chinese:
  • FoXiang Ge
  • FoXiang Tower (oh, wait: "Ge" must mean tower!)
  • Tower of Buddhist Virtue (now, which part is "buddhist" and which "virtue"?)
  • Pavillion of Buddhist Fragrance (ok, so "tower" and "pavillion" may be the same word in Chinese. But where did "fragrance" instead of "virtue" come from?)
  • Tower of Buddhist Fragrance (back to "tower again")
  • Buddhist Fragrance Pavillon (well, at least that doesn't make up "of" - but is it a budhhist "fragrance pavillion" or a "buddhist fragrance" pavillion?)
  • Buddhist Fragrance Hall (a new one: "hall", instead of "pavillion" or "tower")
  • Buddha Fragrance Pavillion (oh, maybe one of the first two syllables really is "buddha" and it only becomes "buddhist" in translation by stringing it together with another concept!)
  • Pavillion of the Fragrance of Buddha (ok ...)
  • Pavillion of the Incense to Buddha (are fragrance and incense the same word in Chinese? Quite possible. But by now that "virtue" becomes a bit doubtful. Or is it maybe "virtue" because it's virtuous to burn incense for Buddha?)
  • Temple of Buddhist Virtue (right - we didn't have "temple" yet)

Phew! And that's only one of the buildings in my pictures (though admittedly with the largest collection of English names). If anyone's interested, I have more examples jotted down.

Not what I was looking for...

What I actually set out to find was the name of the little island just off the West coast of Longevity hill (WanShou Shan). I've found various maps (in addition to textual descriptions of the Summer Palace, even a walking route descriptiion that goes over the island) but none give its name. I give up for now.

Usually when I go googling I find what I need. Today, I found a load of interesting stuff that (by its very variability) actually gave me a little better insight in how Chinese "works" - but that was not what I was looking for!

[1] Apart from he (he2, river) and hai (hai3, sea or lake) I've also found hu2, meaning lake. All three starting with an h! But looking for lakes, I also came across chi2, also translated as lake, but in the meaning of pond, reservoir; Heaven Lake (or Heavenly Lake) in northern Xinjiang is called Tian Chi so possibly it also means something like "mountain lake" - it's hardly a pond!
[2] A lot of googling finally indicates that "Wei" is an ancient state in China; the CT dictionary gives wei2 as "name of a river". My conclusion is that Wei He is named after the region (state) and thus translates as "Wei River". Wei also occurs a lot as a personal name - possibly also going back to the ancient state!

Marjolein Katsma
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Occasionally I am also connecting online dots... and sometimes you can follow me on Marjolein's Travel Blog

Last edited by iamback; 10-30-2006 at 06:06 AM. Reason: added 2 notes; three(!) more examples for the "Tower of Buddhist Fragrance" (etc.); ypot
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