Metaphors in English to Chinese Translation

In capturing the surprisingly fast emergence of something, Chinese and English languages possess different metaphors based on their respective culture. In Chinese, it could be expressed in “如雨后春笋般涌现” (emerge as bamboo shoots after rain in spring), while in English, the metaphor lies in the spring jumping up at a fast speed. Thus, in English to Chinese translation, the sentence “Numerous new projects have been springing up in Beijing.” Could be translated into “很多项目如雨后春笋般涌现于北京”. Understanding the differential metaphorical extensions between the two languages, English to Chinese translators could improve the quality of their Chinese translations, and also move on to another level of appreciating the differences between these two languages and cultures. A little treat for us, isn’t it?

Tip for English to Chinese translator: Translating Metaphorically

One difficult challenge that many English to Chinese translators encounter is the translation of words that are used not exactly literally, but rather metonymically or metaphorically. Such creative use of language, perhaps not surprisingly, is often not indexed or documented in most English to Chinese dictionaries. Let’s take a look at the following example:

  • It is all very well, again, to have a tiger in the tank, but to have one in the driver’s seat is another matter altogether.
  • 当然油箱里装满优质汽油倒是好事,但是驾驶室里要是坐着横冲直撞的司机就完全是另一回事了。

In the above example, “tiger” was translated very differently from its literal or dictionary meaning of “老虎” in Simplified Chinese. The first instance of “tiger” refers to “premium gasoline” while the latter implies “reckless driver”, both of which don’t mean the carnivorous animal, but certain (interestingly, both desirable and undesirable) quality or character of tiger. Thus, good English to Chinese translation of such sentences need the translator to carefully assess not only its literal meaning but more importantly, its metaphorical extensions, by examining the context meticulously.

In the above example, the two instances of “tiger” are used very creatively, and represents semantic mappings across domains. Such creative use of language is ubiquitous, and poses a huge challenge to translators. However, quality translation of this kind can only be achieved by human translators. Machine translations, such as Google Translate or Microsoft Translator, rely on statistical data mining, and in term always relied on (quality) human existing translation, and obviously lack creativity and can’t handle situations that goes beyond searching and matching.

Translating English verbs as Chinese nouns

Tips for English to Chinese translator: Convert Verbs to NounsAs translators, we frequently encounter the selection of words, especially words in certain grammatical categories when translate one language into another. Such selection can be difficult, when its equivalent do not offer much choice in the target language. For example, many English verbs are derived from their respective nouns. The verb “characterize” is derived from “character”. It’s easy to translate “character”, but not so easy to translate “characterize” (please let me know if you have a good translation for it). We illustrate this with the following English to Chinese translation sample:

Formality has always characterized their relationship.
他们之间的关系,有一个特点,就是以礼相待。

As you see, here the verb “characterized” is translated as its noun form “character”, or “特点” in Chinese.  This make makes the translated sentence much more readable, and natural.  Fellow English to Chinese translator, I hope you’ll find this tip useful. Please don’t hesitate to share yours.