Learn to write idiomatic English
[ 2007-04-13 14:45 ]

Translators should try to avoid Chinglish like the plague.

Chinglish is Chinese English, idiomatic Chinese forcibly rendered into awkward English, often literally and word for word.

In translation, it's sometimes a good idea to forget about the words in the original language in order to put across the meaning. The ideas to convey are often more important than what particular words may have been used in the original language.

"Did you eat?" (吃了吗?), for example, is a piece of Chinglish expression, innocuous as it may look.

The purpose of someone asking you "Did you eat?" is just for them to say "Hello" most of the time, rather than to seriously probe into your dinner menu. Its English equivalent therefore will be "How are you doing?" or simply "Hi!"

In these cases, don't bother to translate verbatim, unless you want to achieve an extra effect. "Long time no see" (好久不见)is another piece of Chinglish gem. This one, however, is simple, short and funny, and may yet creep its way into accepted English on the strength of its peculiar comical-sounding effect. English is flexible, you see, so don't be surprised if one day "long time no see" becomes part of Standard English as a Chinese import.

I'm kidding. Don't wait for that day. It may never come. At any rate, you as a translator for the time being should try to ensure that your English writing read fluent, natural and idiomatic.


Yeah, like, idioms. An idiom involves "a group of words with a meaning of its own that is different from the meanings of each separate word put together" (Longman). In the same way Chinese idioms lend color to Chinese writing idiomatic phrases and expressions have the same effect in English.

This is an area where most Chinese translators are found wanting. I often hear translators excuse themselves saying their English sounds awkward because they have to "explain Chinese things" to the ignorant foreigner. But that's just another lame excuse they give. I think Chinglish scribes write the way they do due not to their overwhelming love for the motherland, but to their very lack of skills in navigating the muddy waters of English as a foreign language, plain and simple.

Plain and simple, indeed, translators should learn to write idiomatic English. If they do that, they'll have put their best foot forward.

Keep clinging to Chinglish, on the other hand, they'll keep doing their clients, as well as themselves, a disservice.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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