Lecture #3: 15 Common Mistakes in Chinese-English Translation and How To Avoid Them

Lecture #3: 15 Common Mistakes in Chinese-English Translation and How To Avoid Them


Carl Gene Fordham

Beijing International Studies University
11 April 2018

If we accept that it is harder to translate into one’s foreign language than vice versa, then Chinese-into-English translation should be a key focus of translation schools in China, especially considering the significant differences between the two languages. In this lecture I examine the most common errors made by Chinese students in Chinese-into-English translation by providing examples from students’ own work last semester. I will also explain the most useful strategies to prevent and correct these mistakes. It is hoped that this systematic analysis will help students of translating and interpreting, as well as English majors, understand the common challenges they face in becoming competent bilinguals.

Watch the lecture on YouTube:

Part One
Part Two

Watch the lecture on Bilibili:

Part One
Part Two

What I Talked About in This Lecture

In this lecture, I talked about the 15 most common mistakes made by translation students. It is a summary of the translation course I taught last semester at Beijing International Studies University. This lecture may be helpful for both students and teachers of Chinese-English translation, especially those who find textbooks on the subject lacking and impractical.

Please note that this is not supposed to be an exhuastive list – of course, there are many more challenges that students face when learning how to translate. However, I am confident that this presentation provides a good overview of the key ones, and I have tried to put them in order of frequency, so the top five or so are particularly important.

At the begining of the lecture, I provide a warning to interpreting students: that the mistakes I talk about are very different to those encountered by interpreting students, which I hope to cover in a future lecture. The way I see it, the differing needs of translation and interpreting students can be differentiated thus:

For translation students, it’s all about a lack of 严谨 yanjin (“meticulousness”). So many of their mistakes come about because they don’t take the task seriously enough and make a lot of sloppy errors. Often students don’t take their homework seriously. Not surprising perhaps but I hope after they graduate they take their professional jobs seriously otherwise they might get in trouble.

By contrast, for interpreting students, it’s all about a lack of 不要脸 buyaolian (“shamelessness”). Many interpreting students are so concerned about how they are perceived by others – due to shyness, nervousness, etc. – that they struggle to produce fluent interpretations, even if they understand the source text well and have the ability to translate it accurately.

Another problem that I’ve noticed when training interpreting students is their fixation with producing the “perfect” translation, coupled with a reliance on dictionaries and dictionary equivalents. My advice is always thus: students should focus primarly on creating a meaning hypothesis first (i.e. taking a guess at what the speaker is trying to say) and then doing their best to resolve any ambiguity. During the lecture, I gave the following example from one of our interpreting practices:

“Our focus is on girls and women, because they face a particularly heavy burden of malnutrition, and because they are powerful agents of change who lift up everyone around them.”

One of my students stopped interpreting halfway, and asked me, “What does agents of change mean?” Another student finished the whole translation, only to spoil her delivery by cocking her head and raising the intonation of her voice, turning what was originally a pretty good translation into an uncertain question.

It is notable that both students have very good levels of English and had done quite a lot of interpreting practice already, being in their third year of their undergraduate translation degree. Both students have some work to do regarding “shamelessness”. I am convinced that the first student would have been able to produce a fairly accurate translation had she not worried so much about achieving a rendering that was word-for-word “perfect”. The second student is perhaps doing a bit better – it seems she can already achieve a high level of accuracy even when translating amiguous language (which happens all the time in interpreting), but needs to work on her confidence a bit. In the end, it all comes down to that essential quality that an interpreter must have – a kind of audacity that will ensure that you can be a useful communicator for two parties even in tough situations.

Then I try to explain to the audience why all of this is important for students and teachers of translation. Some teachers don’t like to focus on errors, believing that it’s too negative an approach. I can understand that, but I’ve taught Chinese students translation for many years and can easily teach these mistakes in a pretty systematic fashion – so why not? It is an unfortunate fact that native speakers of English judge non-natives by the quality of their English, and this is usually determined by the presence (or lack) of mistakes caused by interference from their first language. It’s not fair, but realistically, students of translation should aspire to be the best language professional they can be.

First, some non-issues

Language DirectionNative LanguageRelative Non-Issue
Chinese-into-EnglishChineseAccuracy (mistranslation)
English-into-ChineseChineseFluency (idiomaticity, expression)
English-into-ChineseEnglishFluency (idiomaticity, expression)
Chinese-into-EnglishEnglishAccuracy (mistranslation)

#15 Most Common Mistake: Problems with Political Correctness


x The hotel accepts businessmen from all over the world.
x One must recognize his mistakes, then he can correct them.

x Many old people do morning exercises to keep healthy.

x He is a mixed blood.

x He has never worked with handicapped people before.

Sexual orientation
x He is a gay.
x He is a homosexual.

#14 Most Common Mistake: Inconsistent Variety of English

Do you write…

  • Downtown or city?
  • Cell phone or mobile phone?
  • Sidewalk or pavement?
  • Gasoline or petrol?
  • Candy or sweets/lollies?
  • College or university?
  • Freshman or first year uni student?
  • Globalization or globalisation?
  • Color or colour?
  • Mom or mum?
  • December 18th, 2017 or 18 December 2017?

#13 Most Common Mistake: Redundancy

x She stared at my face.
x She used her finger to point at me.
x We connect with each other by texting messages.
x I went with him together to the shops.
x Environmental pollution is a major problem.
x Does he drink alcohol?
x Her stomach is very hungry.
x The people’s living standards have improved.
x The phenomenon of hygiene situation in schools has improved a lot.

#12 Most Common Mistake: Logic Problems

It is not the case that Chinese is not a logical language, or that the Chinese are not a logical people, but rather that logic is understood in a different way compared to languages which have a Greco-Roman/Abrahamic heritage.

x With the development of China, more and more countries are beginning to learn Chinese.
x She is a Master of Business of the University of Sydney.
x Are the teachers in their dormitories?
x I like her, but she is too realistic.
x My nationality is China.
x Xiaoming: I’ll see you next Friday. Robert: Where are you?

#11 Most Common Mistake: Syntax Problems

The words in the sentence are put in an unnatural order, often in a Chinese-style “theme-comment” structure.

x They think they do these things can improve their knowledge.
x My toys are more than you.

#10 Most Common Mistake: Misspellings

  1. abroad (as opposed to aboard)
  2. accommodation
  3. argument
  4. benefit
  5. broaden
  6. cannot (not can not)
  7. chef
  8. convenient
  9. definitely
  10. embarrassing
  11. flexible
  12. lifestyle (not life style)
  13. maintenance
  14. maybe (as opposed to may be)
  15. modern
  16. necessary
  17. opinion
  18. permanent
  19. principle (as opposed to principal)
  20. pursue

#9 Most Common Mistake: Violation of Readership Expectations

x She is the most beautiful sales director in the company.

x In our factory, there are women workers who do the final binding process.

x Many of our salespeople are elites in this industry.

x This product is suitable for people who have rheumatism in the south where it is really moist.

#8 Most Common Mistake: Register Issues

Too formal
x It can volatilize into the air easily and quickly in a well-ventilated environment.

Too informal
x We also help clients with government approval and construction, etc.
x The factory contains lots of machinery.
x I understand your booking service is very hot, but could you please respond to my email as soon as possible?
x China has become a big supplier of mineral resources.

Too dated
x I take exercise in the evenings.
x How beautiful the scenery is!
x Don’t get upset about such trifles.
x I seldom go to the cinema.
x The teacher scolded me.

#7 Most Common Mistake: Punctuation Errors

Consider the difference between:
Joanne says Mr Smith is the best teacher in the school.
Joanne, says Mr Smith, is the best teacher in the school.

Two most common problems:
Use of a comma when a full-stop or semi-colon should have been used
x Our factory was established in 1992, we manufacture a large range of products, including…

Direct and indirect speech
x Jane said “I never want to see you again”

#6 Most Common Mistake: Grammatical Errors

Countable nouns
x We provide various service for real estate project.
x In last year September, we knew each other a year.
Part of speech
X Healthy is the most important thing.
Lack of sensitivity to the copula
x There will have many people at the meeting today.
Subjunctive mood
x If I know, I will tell you.
x His is my mother. He is a teacher.
Lack of sensitivity to gerunds
x Bring in foreign tourists would greatly boost the economy of the host country.
And many more…

#5 Most Common Mistake: Expression Issues

Problems with synonyms
even though vs even if
package vs packaging
firstly vs at first
interest vs profit
value vs values
service vs services

Problems with collocations
x He has rich experience.
x John and Jane have a stable relationship.

#4 Most Common Mistake: Sign Translation

“Sign translation” – i.e. overly literal translation – is a terrible trend in both C-E and E-C translation. Consider for example:
x The professional team will follow every steps of your money management, ensuring your assets are always under the best state.
Reference: Our team members monitor individual investment portfolios from beginning to end to ensure optimal levels of asset distribution.

  • This goes hand-in-hand with an over-reliance on dictionaries. For example, 大厦 is not a mansion, 别墅 is not always a villa, apparently does not mean 明显, recite does not mean 背诵, etc.
  • Many time adverbs are left out in C-E translation e.g. 已经、当时、目前 etc.
  • Some words have connotations in English but not Chinese, e.g. x We provide a one-stop intimate service for the customers.

#3 Most Common Mistake: Chinglish

Chinese-Flavoured English
x Enterprises always attaches importance to technological research and development.
x It was beyond my expectation.
Differing Metaphors
x It is like a book from the heavens to me.
x Libraries contain oceans of knowledge.
x A child is like a black piece of paper.
x The stone in my heart dropped on the floor.
False Friends
x What impressed me most was the story about the man who got cancer.
x I bought some poker cards at the shops.
x Speak out. Don’t be afraid to lose face.
And many more…

#2 Most Common Mistake: Violation of Text-Type Norms

Different countries have different norms when it comes to different types of texts.


  • Newspaper articles in China and the West
  • Company introductions in China and the West

Also note:

  • The dangers of a Chinese text using English terms

#1 Most Common Mistake: Formatting Errors

Using spaces

Selecting fonts

Being wary of writing styles (i.e. standards)
For example:
x He has worked in the real estate industry for 3 years.
x Our factories are equipped with French high speed quilting lines.

What if the source text is ambiguous?
Of course there are some situations where you can’t blame the translator, especially when the source text is ambiguous or unreliable.

e.g. 我的中短篇小说都有很多实验的文本
Me: ???

As we say, garbage in, garbage out.

But resolving ambiguity is a key task of all translators and interpreters.

In every case, you need to determine your meaning hypothesis.

So how can I prevent making these mistakes?

Your focus should be on improving your 语感 yugan, i.e. your intuitive sense for the language you are working with. For example, you could:

  • Read more and take notes (vocabulary, collocations, sentence structures, key concepts)
  • Talk more and take notes (ditto)
  • Translate more and get feedback from teachers and native speakers

When in doubt, ask a native speaker or check a parallel text (e.g. Google and Wikipedia).

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