Let me start off by saying that clichés, stereotypes and euphemisms have always seemed to me to be quintessentially “Western” concepts; it’s for that reason that I’ve been using them as foundations for lesson plans in my ESL teaching. These words, I believe, evolved after centuries of critical theory in linguistics, sociology and other fields, and examining them reveals so much about the cultural underpinnings of linguistic systems. My aim is to figure out whether Chinese shares these concepts – and, if it does, how we are supposed to deal with these in translation. I’ll also give some interesting examples along the way.
For linguistic clichés we readily have the term 陈词滥调 chéncílàndiào in Chinese. But what about clichés which aren’t about those pesky turns-of-phrase we have gotten bored with, but rather, overrused stories or artistic devices? Dictionaries will try and give you 老一套 lǎoyītào for those contexts, but I’m not entirely convinced. One of my friends suggested, for cinematic contexts, 电影里的滥剧情 diànyǐng lǐ de làn jùqíng (“overrused plotline used in movies”), which seems workable.
Some (possible) examples of clichés in Mandarin:
- 好好学习，天天向上 hǎohāo xuéxí, tiāntiān xiàngshàng – Study well and make progress every day.
- 实事求是 shíshìqiúshì – Seek the truth from the facts.
- 太阳从西边出来了 tàiyáng cóng xībian chūlái le – The sun has rose from the West. (Describes something unbelievable.)
Yet whether or not these phrases can be considered clichés is probably a matter of opinion – and I haven’t even bothered to look at all the worn-out expressions originating from communist discourse! Maybe it’s just me, but in English we seem to be in agreement that some phrases are tired and worn-out, though lower-quality publications will inveitably use them. Essentially I’m talking about irksome utterances like “surreal”, “like the plague”, “at the end of the day”, etc. I’d definitely like to know more about how the Chinese critique clichés in their language, if at all.
As for stereotype, these are all possible translations to choose from:
- 刻板印象 kèbǎn yìnxiàng (“cut-block impression”)
- 脸谱化 liǎnpǔhuà (“made-up all the same, like theatrical make-up”)
- 一概而论 yīgài’érlùn (“generalise”)
- 陈规 chénguī (“outmoded convention”)
- 模式化概念 móshìhuà gàiniàn (“modelled concept”)
- 典型 diǎnxíng (“typical model”): This is a very common word, but doesn’t really go far enough to emphasis the “stereo” of “stereotype”.
Given this long list, perhaps my theory that stereotyping is a Western phenomenon is moot. And yet most of these aren’t really all that useful or common. Something tells me that if you’re going to translate a sentence like:
“Some Westerners hold the stereotype that all Chinese are good at mathematics.”
A paraphrase strategy, substituting “hold the stereotype” for “believe”, might suffice:
Back-translation: Some Westerners believe that all Chinese are good at mathematics.
Interestingly, though, if the stereotype was negative, for instance:
“Some Westerners hold the stereotype that all Chinese are terrible at driving.”
We might suggest it was a kind of prejudice:
Back-translation: Many foreigners have the prejudice to believe that all Chinese are terrible at driving.
Perhaps you could supply me with your ideas as to what kind of stereotypes traditional Chinese have about the world in the comments section.
Essentially euphemisms perform a very important function in language – to communicate an idea without directly expressing it in literal terms. This is especially useful when talking about sensitive or taboo topics. The word “euphemism” may be translated as 婉辞 wǎncí, 委婉语 wěiwǎnyǔ and 委婉的说法 wěiwǎn de shuōfǎ. The first two are relatively formal, whilst the third is better understood in conversation.
Some examples of euphemisms in Mandarin:
- If someone has put on weight you may use the verb 发福 fāfú (“to send out fortune”) – traditionally without the negative connotations it has in English.
- If a woman is pregnant you may say 她有了 yǒule (“she has [something]“).
- Like in English, there are many euphemisms for dying, for instance, 回老家 huí lǎojiā (“to return home”) and 仙逝 xiānshì (“saintly-pass-away”).
These are only off the top of my head – I’m sure hundreds more could be added to the list.
Today’s post really only skims the surface of these pivotal ideas. I hope you can all contribute some enlightening examples in the comments. A deeper question to contemplate might be this: are clichés, stereotypes and euphemisms common in both languages? Could they be universal concepts?