The translator’s job is arduous in of itself. Translating Chinese comes with additional challenges not present while translating western languages. This entry will mention some of the hardships
a translator of Chinese language must face.

Is there “Chinese language”?

The term Chinese language doesn’t actually refer to one language; it is used to describe a group of various dialects, such as Cantonese, Wu, Hakka, Mandarin and many others. Focusing on the “main” dialect: Mandarin, spoken by the biggest percentage of the Chinese population, translators come across further obstacles. From innumerable, complicated characters, and differences between traditional and simplified script to completely alien grammatical structures, all this means that interpreters of Chinese often work from dusk till dawn to accurately render a particular text.
One of the biggest hurdles translators encounter while translating Chinese works is the fact they are filled with metaphors, proverbs and idioms grounded in Chinese culture, many of which will be indecipherable for foreign readers.


The word “Chengyu” (Chinese simplified – 成语, phonetic transcription – chéng yǔ) is usually translated as “Chinese idioms” but its meaning is slightly more complex than that. Different dictionaries define it in different ways but essentially it refers to four-character, fixed expressions most often originating from classical Chinese literature or certain events in the country’s history. The Chinese are very fond of such florid, metaphorical expressions and, as a result, Chengyu appear in spoken as well as in written language. And that makes being familiar with them a prerequisite for translating Chinese.

Chengyu can trip up even advanced Chinese learners because of the sheer number of them: there are thousands of them! And while in some cases the meaning is pretty self-explanatory, like for example 孤芳自赏 which literally translates to “a lonely flower in love with its own scent” and is used to describe a conceited, narcissistic person, in others, without context, the characters can seem completely unconnected. Such is the case in the idiom 乱七八糟 which means chaos/big mess, but the literal translation for each character in order would be “chaos”; “seven”; “eight” and “bad”. The meaning is a reference to two rather chaotic periods in Chinese history and somebody unaware of that fact would presumably struggle quite a bit while translating this idiom.

Translation strategies

Once the translator identifies a phrase as Chengyu, all that’s left is to apply some translation strategies. They can try and find an idiom of similar meaning in the target language, translate the original idiom adding a short explanation if it doesn’t disturb the text as a whole, replace it with
a plain, non-idiomatic expression, or completely remove the idiom from the target text. The application of the last two for Chinese works, usually particularly rich in idiomatic, metaphorical language can completely change the tone of the text and impact the readers’ reception of it. For this reason, strategies which include removing idiomatic expressions from the target text should be used only as a last resort when other methods prove ineffective.

A translation will never be an exact copy of the original, but it is the translators’ job to preserve as much as possible, not only the meaning of the source text but also its tone and character. That’s why it is so important while learning a language to also study the culture of its country of origin, which will help note correlations that make translating difficult stylistic devices like proverbs, metaphors and idioms easier.

(translation E.S.)

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