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.

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