Translating Body Language

Today we are talking about body language, commonly translated as 肢体语言 zhītǐ yǔyán or 身体语言 shēntǐ yǔyán in Mandarin. It surprises me that this aspect of language learning is almost always neglected in language and translation training, especially when you consider that so much of our everyday communicative efforts are informed by nonverbal communication (非语言沟通 fēi yǔyán gōutōng). In order to be a bilingual professional one must 察言观色 cháyánguānsè – i.e. carefully examine the other party’s words and facial expressions in order to accurately interpret their intentions.

Using Your Body (肢体语言 zhītǐ yǔyán)

Nod one’s head – 点头 diǎntóu – Means “yes” or “OK” in both cultures.

Shake one’s head – 摇头 yáotóu – Means “no” in both cultures.

Shrug one’s shoulders – 耸肩 sǒngjiān – in English-speaking/Western culture implies that you don’t know the answer to a question or that you don’t care. The verbal equivalent in English is “meh”. In Chinese culture, this kind of body language is relatively rare.

Bow – 鞠躬 jūgōng (formal); 点头哈腰 diǎntóuhāyāo (“bow and scrape); 哈腰 hāyāo (colloquial) – whilst in the West, bowing is done by male performers at the end of a show (women, traditionally, are supposed to “curtsy”), in the East bowing is used in a variety of situations to communicate gratitude, humility, remorse, etc. However in mainland China bowing is not common in everyday life, and indeed if the action is performed outside of a ceremony it can have a negative connotation of 拍马屁 pāi mǎpì (“to pat the horse’s buttocks” – to suck up; to butter up).

Kowtow – 叩头 kòutóu; 磕头 kētóu – In traditional Chinese culture, kowtowing is the greatest sign of respect, and involves kneeling so far as to touch or nearly touch your head on the ground. In modern society this has act of body language has only been preserved in funeral ceremonies, ancestral worship and martial arts.
Pat one’s belly – 拍肚子 pāi dùzi – Not really a fixed expression in either language, but a good example of what a universal sign of hunger could be.

Gestures (手势 shǒushì)

Shake hands – 握手 wòshǒu – Since China started opening up to the West, this has become a generally accepted sign to meet or greet someone in both formal and relatively informal situations.

Wave -挥手 huīshǒu – Universal expression or Western import, I’m not sure – as we all know, this can express one’s greeting or attempt to seek attention. One can use 向 xiàng to create a sentence, as in 我向他挥手。Wǒ xiàng tā huīshǒu. — I waved to him. Synonyms include 招手 zhāoshǒu, 摆手 bǎishǒu and 挥臂 huībì, the differences of which I hope commenters will explain.

Clap – Like English, Chinese makes a distinction between clapping (拍手 pāishǒu) and applauding (鼓掌 gǔzhǎng).

High five – In English we emphasise the number fingers we use to do this celebratory gesture, plus the position – above (“high five”) or below (“low five”) the waist; Chinese is much simpler, and more literal – the verb, 击掌 jīzhǎng, literally means “striking palms”.  “He gave me a high five” may be translated as 他跟我击掌庆贺。Tā gēn wǒ jīzhǎng qìnghè (literally, “he striked palms with me in celebration”). I strongly suspect this gesture originated in the West; one generally doesn’t see this kind of behaviour in old kungfu movies.

Give the thumbs up/down – “Thumbs up” is known as 竖起大拇指 shùqǐ dàmǔzhǐ in Chinese, however interestingly there is no exact verb for giving a thumbs down; 倒大拇指 dào dàmuzhǐ comes to mind, but it is unclear if this is a natural expression, or if it can actually act as a verb.

Flip the bird / give the finger – 竖中指 shù zhōngzhǐ – In most English-speaking countries this is a relatively offensive sign – the “fuck-off” variety. I’ve never seen an Asian person use it before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did due to the influence of the West.

Cross one’s fingers – This is a relatively common gesture in English-speaking countries that raises a bit of a challenge. In written translation, a rendering of 两指交叉为十字 liǎng zhǐ jiāochā wèi shízì (“two fingers crossing in the shape of “十”) gives you the details of the gesture, but fails to convey the expressive meaning of wishing luck or making a false promise. As for interpreting situations, I imagine some kind of paraphrase or explanation might be needed.

Cross one’s arms – 交叉双臂 jiāochā shuāngbì – This movement could convey a number things in either culture – impatience, anger, confusion, boredom, or even professionalism, amongst other things.

Rub one’s hands together -搓手 cuōshǒu – Chinese even has its own character (搓) to express such an action, which can only be presumed as conveying one’s coldness.

Point – 指 zhǐ – Textbooks will tell commonly say that the Chinese always point to their nose when they are talking about themselves, but I can only say I’ve never actually noticed them doing it. In such a situation, an English native speaker we will usually point at his or her chest/heart region, whilst to point at others is traditionally considered rude.

Air quotes – This decidedly Western phenomenon, literally translated as 用手打引号 yòng shǒu dǎ yǐnhào (“using one’s hand to do quotation marks”), has a number of functions – to indicate sarcasm or irony, or to express that the words one has chosen are inadequate, or even simply to narrate direct speech. There may be a small host of Chinese speakers using this gesture in Mandarin conversations, but such body language is not traditionally present in the culture.

Gongshou – 拱手 gǒngshǒu – Previously I wrote about this term being infamously “untranslatable“. Wenlin gives a comprehensive paraphrase explanation – “[to] make obeisance [in other words, obedience and/or submission] by cupping one hand in other before the chest”. Apparently left- and -right-hand gongshous have different meanings, but I have no idea what they could be.

Tap – 敲 qiāo – In the West, tapping on the table, especially with one’s fingernails, denotes impatience; in China, using two fingers to tap on the table is done to thank someone for pouring tea.

Salute – 敬礼 jìnglǐ – Older/formal synonyms include 施礼 shīlǐ and 行礼 xínglǐ. Militaries all over the world have their own systems of saluting, which I won’t go into.

Beckon – 用手示意 yòng shǒu shìyì – If we want someone to “come here” in the West we usually curl our index finger upwards, creating a hook-like sign to draw them closer. In some Asian countries – China included – the beckoning sign is achieved by waving inwards with all the fingers, palm facing the ground.

Finger-counting – 数字手势 shùzì shǒushì – These differ from culture to culture, and I’ll assume you are already familiar with the Western ones. In Chinese these are actually pretty interesting – check out the Youtube video above. There are a number of variants too – e.g. 三 sān (“three”) is sometimes expressed with different fingers without the “O” shape and 十 shí (“ten”) is sometimes indicated by crossing one’s index fingers together.

Facial expressions (面部表情 miànbù biǎoqíng)

Smile – Simply 微笑 wēixiào, literally, a “micro-laugh”.

Grin – Like English, Chinese has a specific word for this facial expression – 露齿而笑 lùchǐ’érxiào, literally, “showing-teeth-smile” – but it is not that common in conversation.

Smirk – This can be expressed as 得意地笑 déyì de xiào, literally, “complacently smile.”

Roll one’s eyes – This is problematic to translate; literally, to roll one’s eyes (眼珠一转 yǎnzhū yī zhuàn) in Chinese means the person has a sudden idea, and the movement is much more circular than it is in English. However in the West, one rolls one’s eyes to express disapproval, indifference or frustration.

Wink – Winking may be translated as 挤眉弄眼 jǐméinòngyǎn or 送秋波 sòng qiūbō; both are flirtatious.

Blink – Blinking is usually 眨眼 zhǎyǎn, but this can also mean winking too.

Raise one’s eyebrows – 竖起眉毛 shùqǐ méimao and 皱起眉毛 zhòuqǐ méimao are both acceptable translations; see also the formal expression 扬眉 yángméi, part of the expression 扬眉吐气 yáng méi tǔqì (literally, “to raise one’s eyebrows and sigh”, connotating that one feels proud of one’s success). In China one also raises one’s eyebrows in times when confused or angry; in English it is commonly associated with shock or surprise.

4 Comments to "Translating Body Language"

  1. Quek Sai Kee's Gravatar Quek Sai Kee
    10/12/2010 - 11:51 pm | Permalink

    皱起眉毛 or 皱眉头is to frown, knit one’s brows.

    Having said that, I must say this is a great site for translators. Thank you.

  2. John S (somerset, uk)'s Gravatar John S (somerset, uk)
    28/12/2014 - 1:52 am | Permalink

    Excellent website. I was going to ask you to find the term 拱手 (had no luck googling it on the basis of my cack-handed description in English!) but no need…
    Ah yes, just remembered another question… completely unrelated, I confess…. if 政權 means regime or political power, I wonder what might one say in Chinese for “political rights”… assuming one wanted to say that, in contradistinction to the broader palette of 人權 human rights… I honestly don’t intend this as a trick question, though of course various ideological quagmires could await the unwary

  3. li's Gravatar li
    24/11/2018 - 4:14 pm | Permalink

    roll one’s eyes, can mean “翻白眼” as well?

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