The purpose of this post is to explain some of the most common errors made by Chinese students writing English, as well as students translating into English from Chinese, who perhaps have trouble creating natural English expressions when at the mercy of Chinglish words and structures. I hope translation students and Chinese ESL students find this equally helpful. Please note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive and I expect many more good examples will come up in the comments.
In Chinese texts, abstract emotions like happiness, pressure and benefits may be “brought”, but in English this is usually considered, at the very least, a bit awkward or, at the very worst, bizarre. In any case I would advise forgetting the word “bring” altogether and substituting it for a specific verb or a different structure. Some examples as follows:
带来快乐 – “Bring happiness” is a little weird to my ears; depending on context, “brighten up”, “make someone happy”, “please” (as a verb) and other structures would be much preferred. Thus:
Might be rendered as: “His classes make us so happy” or perhaps “His classes really brighten us up.” You could even say, “His classes put us in a good mood.” A literal translation of “His classes bring us a lot of happiness” sounds strange in English.
带来压力 – “Bring pressure” is possible, though a bit awkward. In English the common collocations are “put pressure on someone/something” or “feel pressure from something/someone”. But there are other ways to express the same thing, economically, in English, as can be demonstrated in this example:
You might say: “This work is really stressful” and avoid a literal translation altogether. Again, avoiding the word “bring” works wonders. Another good example:
My suggested translation is: “This situation puts a lot of pressure on a number of enterprises.” Of course, the main idea is that you avoid using the word “bring”.
带来利益 – You may have come across the Chinglish expression “bring benefits” which, whilst is not unheard of in English, could be improved greatly by simply using the verb “benefits”. “Something has benefits” or “something is beneficial” may also be possible. Consider:
Literally: “The official opening of the amusement park has brought benefits to many of the surrounding industries.”
More naturally: “The official opening of the amusement park has benefited many of the surrounding industries.”
It’s not a case of right or wrong – and, indeed, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with the first translation. However in good, formal English redundant words tend to be exchanged for more succinct expressions.
Put simply, in Chinese logic, opinions can be labelled as “right” or “wrong”, “correct” or “incorrect” with relative ease. Whilst this kind of extreme reasoning may be used from time to time in English, you will sound a lot more intelligent if you use higher-quality adjectives such as:
- convincing or persuasive (有说服力的)
- appropriate or suitable (合适的)
- logical or rational (逻辑的；有道理的)
- credible, believable or plausible (可信的)
- equitable or fair (公平的)
- rational or reasonable (合理的)
Now you might say, “But we do say things are right and wrong, correct and incorrect in English!” and this is true. In conversation, for example, you may render 我觉得你说得对 as “I think you’re right” and that’s totally fine. However in formal writing the vocabulary should be suitably high-level. Take a look at:
As you can imagine, there are many possible translations, but I would advise avoiding “right” or “correct” in any case for stylistic reasons. (If you really must know, I think “This point is convincing” is a good translation, but even “point” may be omitted depending on the situation, since English prefers brevity wherever possible.)
To be brief, whilst 培养 is often translated as “cultivate”, my opinion is this word has largely been replaced by “foster” in recent times.
性格培养 – To “build one’s character” or “character-building” (as a noun and attributive) are decent, albeit formal, translations.
4. 外国的 / 外来的
For whatever reason, the word “foreign” has developed slightly negative connotations in the past few decades and, as a result, you should avoid using it when translating 外国的 or 外来的. Take, for instance, the fact that you’ll probably never hear a native speaker refer to students from other countries as “foreign students” unless it was a negative context – “international students” or “overseas students” are the standard expressions. More examples are as follows:
外国人 – “Foreigner[s]” is a totally acceptable translation but my feeling is native speakers of English would avoid this term. What would they substitute it with? I would think in most cases they would try to use a more specific term like “Chinese”, “Korean”, etc, or even say something like “international guests” or “visitors from overseas”.
外国旅客 – “Foreign tourist[s]” sounds so Chinese to me; “international tourist[s]” is much better, and more common according to Google.
外国投资者 – “Foreign investor[s]” is fine; “international investor[s]” is more natural.
外语 – This may be one of the exceptions; “foreign language[s]” appears to be the accepted term. “A as a second language” is a very common structure as well.
To sum up, I’m not saying that English native speakers never use the word “foreign” in a positive or neutral sense, but rather that the word seems to be falling out of fashion and thus should be avoided whenever possible. This could be seen as part of the Political Correctness (PC) phenomenon, a broad concept which goes beyond the idea behind this post.
When translating 高技术 “high technology” is perfectly acceptable but “advanced technology” is much more common in English according to Google. Note that there are no problems with the adjective “high-tech”.
6. 导致 / 造成
导致 and 造成 have three main renderings in English, the small differences of which I will try to explain here:
- Result in / cause – implies a relatively quick result, e.g., “The government’s proposal will cause / result in higher unemployment rates.” (政府的提议会导致更高的失业率。)
- Produce / create/ engender (formal) – implies a relatively quick result, usually in the form of a product, e.g., “His behaviour created a bad impression.” (他的行为造成了不好的印象。)
- Breed – implies a negative result that is gradually formed, e.g., “Disaster breeds famine” (灾难造成饥荒) or “Hatred breeds ignorance” (仇恨导致无知).
Notably, the differences here are very subtle and consequently the three senses may be interchangeable at times. One good strategy you can use to avoid getting confused with the structures these words produce is to introduce a phenomenon in one sentence and then start a new sentence with “As a result…” or “Consequently…”. I would imagine this structure is more common in modern, formal English anyway.
In contrast to 导致, one should remember that 引发 suggests a gradual process and thus is better expressed as “lead to”, “trigger”, “give rise to” or “bring about”. I’ve also seen “initiate” as a translation but my feeling is that this is less common in English. Consider this example sentence:
My suggested translation is: “Scientists believe pollution emissions will trigger serious environmental issues.” The good thing about “trigger” is it is much more economical compared to the other possible translations mentioned before; it also carries imagery (think of the “trigger” of a gun).
8. 不管 / 无论
To put it bluntly, in formal English writing, I try to avoid translating these words at all. This is because if you can get away with avoiding translating 不管 or 无论 altogether you’ll end up with something a bit more natural. This can be demonstrated in the following translation of an old cliche by the famous PRC politician Deng Xiaoping:
And here are some possible translations:
- Black cats and white cats are both good cats so long as they can catch mice.
- It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it can catch a mouse.
- A good cat catches mice – whether it is black or white is besides the point.
- There’s more than one way to skin a cat. (using the English proverb which is more or less the same)
Another example of avoiding the translation of these error-prone conjunctions:
Suggested translation: “He is always walking alone on campus, rain or shine.”
Now, if you really want to use the conjunctions “no matter” or “regardless of”, you need to remember that they must be followed by either a) a conjunction such as who, what, when where, how, etc OR b) an article such as a, an or the. Consider the following example sentences:
- No matter what you do. (无论你做什么。)
- No matter where you go. (无论你走到哪里。)
- No matter how long it takes. (无论花多长时间。)
- Regardless of what you think about him personally, his policies have been shown to be effective. (不管你个人是如何看待他，他的政策确实很有效。)
- Regardless of whether you are rich or poor, we should all care about this issue. (不管是富人还是穷人，我们都应该去关注这个问题。)
In English “pay attention” is more commonly used in every day situations – you should pay attention to the road when you’re driving to school, one pays attention to the teacher in class, etc. However when expressing 关注 in a formal context “pay [close] attention to” is just not good enough and you’d be better off substituting it for “prioritise”, “emphasise” or “focus on”. I’ve also seen it translated as “follow with interest” in dictionaries but I find that phrase incredibly boring.
One possible translation is “Governments should prioritise this issue” but “Governments should make this issue a priority” would work too.
The obvious translation is “attract attention” but it’s too boring and anyway that phrase is more commonly used in colloquial contexts, for instance, if you do something crazy to attract someone’s attention. The formal equivalent would be “captivate”, as in:
My translation: This movie has captivated audiences.
Attention Chinese students: the word “seldom” is seldom used nowadays. Use “rarely” (or “hardly ever” is less formal situations). Some translation examples:
- 这个问题很少在主流媒体中被讨论。 — This issue is rarely talked about in the mainstream media.
- 总统很少去和恐怖分子们交涉。— The president rarely negotiates with terrorists.
- 他很少出门。— He rarely goes out. (He’s a homebody.)
This is not so much a note about translation but about cultural/institutional difference. Whilst “social stability” and “stability and harmony” are totally acceptable translations of 稳定社会 and 安定和谐 respectively, in some contexts you might want to re-express this as “law and order”, the Western equivalent. Whilst the processes are different, the outcomes are arguably much the same – the maintenance of a stable society – and the extremely pervasive and historical notion of “law and order” holds much more relevance to Western audiences than “social stability” as a sociological mechanism.
12. 马马虎虎 / 一般
Again I must draw the attention of Chinese students: “so-so” is so old-fashioned. Use “OK”, “not bad” or “average”.
Regarding 生动, my feeling is that “vivid” is a bit of a Chinese cliche and is going out of fashion in modern English; it seems to be more common in novels and poetry. As for “lively”, this is usually limited to people and events and is not a particularly interesting adjective. I would recommend using a more interesting word such as:
- explicit (明确的)
- detailed (详细的)
- engaging (有吸引力的)
- realistic (逼真的)
- colourful (丰富多采的)
- dynamic (动态的)
- interactive (互动的)
Whilst “with” and “following” are possible translations of 随着, I prefer using “as” since it is easier to create a smooth sentence. It also gives a better sense of a continuous action, as in:
- 随着科学的发展，人们对宇宙的认识将更加深入。— As science develops so our knowledge of the universe deepens.
- 随着居民生活水平的提高，人们对物质的需求也不断提升。— As the standard of living rises, material needs continue to elevate.
Note that if it’s a negative development you might say “in the wake of” or “in the deluge of”, e.g. in:
仇恨不会随着某人的死而消亡。— Hatred cannot just die out in the wake of someone’s death.
I’ve often seen 机关 translated as “organ” in some official literature which, to me, sounds bizarre. I would imagine it’s translated thus due to its communist background. Regardless, “office”, “body” or “government organisation” are a thousand times more common in English and read much more naturally. I would only use “organ” if I deliberately wanted to “foreignise” the translation.
Discussion points: What Chinglish words and stuctures have you come across before and how would you express them to make them sound more natural?