Top 12 Errors in Chinese English Dictionaries

Top 12 Errors in Chinese English Dictionaries
中英字典中的12个最常见错误

One of the challenges that Chinese learners of English face is being misled by Chinese English dictionaries, especially online ones. The following is a list of the 12 most common errors I have come across in my translating and teaching work. 学习英文的中国人面临的挑战之一是中英字典的误导,特别是在线的字典。以下是我在翻译和教学过程中遇到的12个最常见的错误。

 

1. apparently ≠ obviously

This translation of "apparently" is wrong, obviously.

This translation of “apparently” is wrong, obviously.

A very long time ago, “apparently” meant “obviously”, but this meaning has long fell out of use. Consider the following example sentences which demonstrate how the terms are used. 很久之前,“apparently”表示“obviously”。但这个意思在很久以前就已经不再使用了。参考以下例句中的使用方式。

One meaning of “apparently” is “seemingly” or “in appearance only”, e.g., “I saw Mary and John arguing last night; apparently, they’re going through some problems.” “apparently” 其中一个意思是“seemingly”或“in appearance only” (好像;看起来;貌似),例如“我看到玛丽和约翰昨天吵了架;他们之间好像有一些问题”。

“Apparently” can also mean “according to what the speaker has read or heard”, e.g., “I just got off the phone with Richard; apparently, Mary and John had another fight last night.” “apparently” 还可以表示“according to what the speaker has read or heard” (据说),例如”我刚和理查德讲完电话;据说,玛丽和约翰昨天晚上又吵架了。”

“Obviously” means “clearly; easily understood”, e.g. “I know about the fight Mary and John had last night; obviously, they’re not happy.” “obviously”表示 “clearly; easily understood” (显然;明显),例如“我知道玛丽和约翰昨天吵了架;显然,他们很不愉快。”

To sum up, “apparently” is used when you are making a comment about something you have seen, or something you have read or heard. It is not the same as “obviously”. This misunderstanding is incredibly common among Chinese students, who have been misled by their textbooks and online dictionaries. And if you think about it, the difference between “obviously” and “apparently” is quite significant. 综上所述,当你看到、读到或听到某事并要作出评论时,到这个时候使用”apparently”才正确,它和 “obviously” 不一样。这种错误的理解在中国学生中非常常见,这些学生被课本和在线词典误导了。如果你仔细想一想,“obviously” 和 “apparently” 的区别挺大的。

 

2. being a girl has nothing to do with not being married
作为一个女生和没结婚没关系

If you look up “girl” in Baidu or Youdao (the two most popular online dictionaries used by Chinese learners of English), you’ll get the following translations: 如果你在百度或有道(中国英语学习者最常用的在线字典)搜索“girl”这个单词,将会出现以下的释义:
n. 女孩;姑娘,未婚女子;女职员,女演员;(男人的)女朋友
n. girl; girl/daughter;  unmarried woman; female employee; actress; (man’s) girlfriend

Can you spot which one looks odd? Well, “female employee”, “actress” and “man’s girlfriend” are a bit strange, but possible translations depending on the context. The one translation that is downright wrong is “unmarried woman”. It may have been the case a few centuries ago that “girl” could only refer to a woman who is not married. But if you look up the word in any English dictionary now you won’t find any mention of marital status. 可以看出哪个意思很奇怪吗?我知道 “female employee”(女职员), “actress” (女演员)和 “man’s girlfriend” (男人的女朋友)听上去有点怪怪的,但是根据语境这些释义还都说的过去。有一个解释绝对是错误的,那就是“unmarried woman”(未婚女子)。可能是在几个世纪以前 “girl” 指的是未婚的女子。但是如果你现在查阅任何英文字典,你是找不到任何有关于婚姻状态的解释的。

The most common usages of “girl” in modern English are: 在现代英语中, “girl”最常见的用法有:

  1. young female child 年幼的女孩
  2. young woman 年轻的女子
  3. any woman, regardless of her age (when used casually, between friends) 任何年龄的女性(非正式的用法,用于朋友之间)
  4. girlfriend (doesn’t have to be of a man) 女朋友(不单单指男人的女朋友)
  5. daughter 女儿
  6. female dog (“that’s a good girl!”) 母狗(“真是个好女孩!”)
  7. used as a term of endearment (common in American English) 亲昵语(常见于美式英语)

A good rule of thumb is to use “girl” for females under 18, and “woman” for females over 18. The same can apply to the terms “boy” and “man”. 一个好的用法准则是对18岁以下的女性使用 “girl”,对18岁以上的女性使用 “woman”。这个准则同样适用于 “boy” 和 “man”。

 

3. the problem with citrus fruits
柑橘类水果的问题

The correct terms for "orange" and "mandarin" in English and Chinese.

The correct terms for “orange” and “mandarin” in English and Chinese.

Many online dictionaries and English textbooks in China still translate “orange” as 桔子. This is wrong. Let’s set the record straight: 中国的许多在线字典和英文课本仍然将 “orange” 翻译成桔子。这是错误的。我们来澄清这个错误:

  • orange: 橙子
  • mandarin: 橘子
  • tangerine: 蜜橘;柑橘;瓯柑
  • clementine: 小柑橘
  • lemon: 柠檬
  • lime: 青柠;酸橙

Collectively these are known as “citrus fruits”. 这些水果的总称是“citrus fruits” (柑橘类水果)。

 

4. to recite is to perform
背诵指的是一种表演

This is another very common misunderstanding among Chinese students. In China, you are taught that 背诵 is translated as “recite”. But the two words do not exactly mean the same thing. While it’s true that 背诵 involves reading out loud what you have committed to memory, it’s not common to use “recite” in this context. “Recite” is more commonly used to refer to a public performance, such as a poetry or ballet recital. I recommend students use words like “review”/“revise”,  or “memorise” when talking about studying course content, as it sounds much more natural. 这是又一个在中国学生中十分常见的错误理解。在中国,老师教你“背诵”的英文翻译是“recite”。但是这两个词意思不完全相同。虽然背诵确实有大声朗读记忆中内容的意思,但在这种情况下使用“recite”并不常见。“Recite” 更常用于公演,比如诗歌或芭蕾演出。我建议学生在谈到学习课程内容时使用“review”/“revise” (复习),  或 “memorise” (背;记住),因为这些词听起来更自然。

5. don’t let your pupils deceive you
不要让你的瞳孔欺骗你

How do online dictionaries translate the word “pupil”? Let’s take a look at the definitions they provide: 在线词典是怎么翻译 “pupil” 这个词的呢?我们来看看它们给出的释义:
n. 学生;[解剖] 瞳孔;未成年人
n. student; [anatomy] pupil; minor

In modern English the most common meaning of “pupil”, by far, is a “student in a primary/high school”. Since Chinese does not have a word with this specific meaning, you can just translate it as 学生. Of course “pupil” can also refer to the dark opening in the centre of eye (瞳孔). As for the old meaning of “minor” (未成年人) – forget about it, it’s obsolete. 在现代英语中, 目前为止“pupil” 最常见的意思是 “student in a primary/high school”(中小学生)。由于中文没有具体对应这个词的表达,你可以把这个词翻译成学生。当然, “pupil” 还可以指眼睛里的瞳孔。而旧释义当中的 “minor”(未成年人)的意思可以不用记,因为用法已经过时了。

 

6. the trick to translating “tutor”
翻译 “tutor” 一词的诀窍

We all know what a “tutor” is, right? It’s a person who teaches small or one-on-one classes, either in a school or as a private teacher. It’s easy to translate these two meanings as 助教 and家庭教师/家教 respectively. The problem is, though, that students are often misled by dictionaries which claim that it has the meaning of 导师. 大家都知道什么是 “tutor” 对吧?指的是在学校或私人小班教学或一对一教学的老师。我们可以很简单地将其分别翻译成助教和家庭教师/家教。但问题是,学生经常被字典误导,在字典里这个词有导师的意思。

A 导师 can either be someone who provides advice and guidance, or someone who leads a great cause. To convey the importance of these roles, the word “tutor” is not enough. I recommend you consider the following reference translations. 一个导师可以是一个提供建议和指导的人,或者引领伟大事业的人。要表达出这些角色的重要性,光光一个 “tutor” 是不够的。我建议你可以参考下列翻译。

  • 导师-> person who gives advise to inexperienced people, often younger people 为没有经验的人提供建议,通常是为年轻人 -> mentor
  • 导师 -> person who supervises students’ learning, especially in the writing of a thesis 监督学生的学习,特别是写论文 -> academic advisor; thesis supervisor
  • 导师 -> person who leads a great cause 伟大事业的领导人 -> leader; teacher

 

7. the respective meanings of “respectively” and “separately”
“respectively”和“separately”的不同用法

When you look up the meaning of “respectively” in the dictionary, don’t be fooled by the translation 分别地. The Chinese term 分别 can be used in many ways – it can mean “distinguish”, “differentiate”, “separate”, and so on. But in English “respectively” has only one meaning and one usage. When you have a list with a number of items, and you want to show how two or more of those items directly correspond with each other, you put “respectively” at the end of the sentence. 翻开中英字典,千万不要被“respectively”的中文释义骗了。中文里的“分别”有许多不同的用法,例如“辨别”、“区分”、“各自”等等。但在英文里的“respectively”只有一种解释,并且只有一种用法——比如说你想要描述2个或以上的个体,每个个体的行为相对独立、且互不影响,那么就要在句子末尾加上“respectively”,并且要将主语和动作一一对应。

The following example clearly illustrates the correct usage of “respectively”: “Serena Williams and Roger Federer won the women’s and men’s singles titles, respectively, at the 2010 Australian Open.” Here “respectively” is used to make it clear that Williams won the women’s titles, and Federer the men’s. This is the way you should use it too. 以下这个例子清晰地说明了“respectively”的正确用法: “在2010年澳网公开赛上,塞雷娜·威廉姆斯和罗杰·费德勒分别赢得了女子单打冠军和男子单打冠军。” 这句话中,加上“respectively”是为了阐明:威廉姆斯赢了女子单打,费德勒赢了男子单打。你也应该这样使用这个词。

 

8. translating “play” is not just child’s play
英语中的“play”可不只是“小孩子过家家”

A quick look-up of the word “play” in an English-Chinese dictionary gives the translation of 玩. But students should remember that, while 玩 can be used in a variety of situations, “play” is usually only used to refer to children or animals. When talking about 玩-ing with adults, I recommend you use “spend time with” or “hang out with” instead. Otherwise, you just end up sounding childish. 快速翻阅一本英翻中的字典,你会发现“play”的中文释义是“玩”。但我们应该注意,中文的“玩”可用于许多场合,但英语中的“play”却只能用于描述小孩子或动物的行为。如果我们要把“和成年人一起玩”这句话翻译成英文,建议将其翻译为“spend time with”或者“hang out with”。否则,如果翻译为“play with”,就会显得非常幼稚。

 

9. the peril of the yellow books
小心翻译“黄书”

Only a silly person would translate 黄书 literally as “yellow books”. But the translation that Baidu and Youdao give – “pornographic book” – is not much better. My advice is to translate it as “erotic novel/fiction/literature”, since “erotic” is a neutral term, while “pornographic” is highly subjective and implies obscenity that should be censored. Note, also, that translating 色情 as “pornographic” is not always a good idea either for the same reason. Consider, for example, translating 色情作品 and 色情广告 as “erotic works” and “erotic advertising” respectively. The translation “sexually explicit” can also be considered, depending on the context. 应该没有人会把“黄书”直译为“yellow books”,但百度和有道给出的英文翻译——pornographic book——也好不到哪儿去。我建议把“黄书”翻译为“erotic novel/fiction/literature”,因为“erotic”是一个不包含感情色彩的中性词,而“pornographic”则带有非常主观的感情色彩,暗指“淫秽的”“应该被审查、被屏蔽的”事物。同理,把“色情”翻译为pornographic也不是很恰当。建议把“色情作品”、“色情广告”分别翻译为“erotic works”和“erotic advertising”。另外,根据不同语境,有时“色情”也可以翻译为“sexually explicit”。

 

10. the danger of offering “wine” to foreign guests
酒桌上的误会

The Chinese term 酒 has long been translated as “wine”, but this is a very misleading translation for Chinese students of English. When we use the word “wine” we are almost always referring to the alcoholic drink made from grapes – and not any other type of alcohol, let alone 白酒 which has a very high alcohol content. If you offered a foreign guest a glass of “white wine” from your hometown, you can imagine the shocked look on his face when he has a taste of it. Thus 白酒 should be translated as “traditional Chinese spirits” to avoid any confusion. Note, also, the correct Chinese translation of “white wine” – 白葡萄酒. Lastly, students should be aware of the three main categories of alcohol in English: beer, wine and spirits. 中文里的“酒”常常被翻译为“wine”,但这对于学英文的中国学生来说带有很大误导性。当我们说英文单词“wine”的时候,我们指的只是葡萄酒,而不是任何其他的酒精类饮料——更别说“白酒”这种酒精浓度极高的酒了。因此,如果你邀请你的外国友人尝尝你家乡的白酒,却将其翻译为“white wine”,可想而知你的外国友人在尝了一口白酒后内心是如何的崩溃。所以,“白酒”应该翻译为“traditional Chinese spirits”,以此避免任何误导和误会。还要注意的是,“white wine”对应的正确中文译法是“白葡萄酒”。最后,同学们应该知道英语中的三种酒:beer, wine, 和 spirits.

 

11. expecting a reply? or looking forward to a reply?
等着一个必来的回复?还是盼着一个未知的回复?

This is another common problem. Many students are under the false impression that “expect” means “look forward to” – it doesn’t. You can blame the dictionaries which translate “expect” as 期望 or 期待. When you “expect” something, you regard it as likely to happen, not that you can’t wait for it to happen. You should note, though, that “expect” can also be used when the speaker requires someone to do something out of what they see as an obligation. 这又是一个很常见的翻译问题。许多学生都误以为“expect”的意思是“look forward to”——大错特错。你可以认为是字典的错,因为字典里“expect”的中文释义是:期望或期待。当你“expect”某事时,你知道这件事很有可能即将发生,而不是期盼着它“可能”发生。另外,“expect”还有另一种含义:你“要求”对方做一件他本来就该做的事。

The following sentences demonstrate the two common meanings of “expect”, as well as the common usage of “look forward to”. 以下三句话清晰地体现了“expect”的两种常见用法,以及“look forward to”的常见用法:

  • I expect I’ll hear back from you soon. (= I think it’s likely that you’ll get back to me soon)(我知道你肯定会很快回复我的。)
  • I expect to hear back from you soon. (= I think you should get back to me soon) (你应该立刻回复我。)
  • I look forward to hearing back from you soon. (= I can’t wait to hear back from you soon)(我急切地期盼你可以尽快回复我。)

 

12. the problem with propaganda
“宣传”的翻译问题

This mistranslation of 宣传 is still commonly seen in China.

This mistranslation of 宣传 is still commonly seen in China.

Simply translating 宣传 as “propaganda” is very problematic. “Propaganda” is a word with negative connotations. It refers to information used to promote a political cause, and often implies an attempt to brainwash the general public. This is why the Chinese government decided to change the official translation of 宣传部 from the “Propaganda Department” to the “Publicity Department”. If you’re talking about 宣传 in a neutral sense, consider using the terms “publicity” or “promotion”. 把“宣传”简单粗暴地翻译为“propaganda”是很不妥的。英语中“propaganda”是一个贬义词,它指的是为达到政治目的进行大规模的宣导,且通常暗含了对公众的洗脑行为。这就是为什么中国政府把“宣传部”原本的英文翻译“Propaganda Department”改为“Publicity Department”。如果你所指的“宣传”只是一个中性词,建议你翻译为“publicity”或“promotion”。

5 Comments to "Top 12 Errors in Chinese English Dictionaries"

  1. 郝先生's Gravatar 郝先生
    03/04/2016 - 7:46 am | Permalink

    I wonder if the “tutor” definition in dictionaries is referring to how the word is used in a British context. See http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/06/tutor.html for one look at how this usage differs between English-speaking countries.

    In Taiwan limes are called 萊姆(果).

  2. 洋鬼子's Gravatar 洋鬼子
    03/04/2016 - 8:11 am | Permalink

    A very interesting article, with great points. It would be interesting to research the level that cultural influences might have in these incorrect translations.

  3. 26/04/2016 - 12:09 pm | Permalink

    But then, “It was quite obvious” and “It was quite apparent” do mean the same thing.

  4. Aoya Wang's Gravatar Aoya Wang
    04/12/2016 - 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Good post. Very helpful for a Chinese like me.

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