Tips for translating from Chinese to English Part 1: Avoiding overtranslation

When translating between languages and cultures as different as Chinese and English, the problem is the inadequacy of the target language to express the source. Chinese, with its incredible succinctness, can often express in a couple of characters what seems to need a phrase to say in English. It’s not surprising that sometimes, like the translator of the photo above, people just give up altogether!

Overtranslation has a range of meanings in translation theory, but here I will talk about translating things that don’t necessarily need to be explicitly translated. This is something we see quite regularly when we carry out quality reviews. Avoiding overtranslation can help your text read more naturally in English and make it more useful to the client.

For example, one phrase that’s used a lot in Chinese is baokuo 包括, which means “including” and deng 等, which means “etc.” or “so on”. A common mistake made by translators is to use “etc.” in the English translation when that can inadvertently change the meaning of the sentence.

Original text: 亞投行在網站公布13個新成員名單,包括香港、加拿大、阿富汗等
Overtranslation: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank published a list of 13 new members on its website, including Hong Kong, Canada, Afghanistan, etc.
A more natural translation: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank published a list of 13 new members on its website, including Hong Kong, Canada, and Afghanistan.

In more formal contexts such as this one, or when you are dealing with long and complex sentences, it is much better to leave “etc.” out of the translation. None of the meaning of the source text is lost (“including” is all that is required in English), and the register of the source is preserved.

Another example is the word yijing 已經, or “already”. Given that Chinese does not use inflection to express tense like English does, this word often fulfills the same function as the past tense in English. That means the word “already” doesn’t need to appear in the translation. For example, the following sentence is far better without it:

Original text: 甲方保證已經閱讀和理解了如上文件
Overtranslation: Party A pledges that they have already read and understood the above documents.
A more natural translation: Party A pledges that they have read and understood the above documents.

Of course, there are also many situations in which yijing 已經 does need to be translated as “already” such as:

By the time she had rushed to the gate the plane had already taken off.

As with most things in translation there are no hard and fast rules. The best way to avoid overtranslation is to ensure that you don’t translate character by character: read the whole sentence before beginning to translate, determine the function each character/phrase plays in the sentence as a whole, and, if necessary, translate according to this function rather than the literal dictionary definition. Be ready to adapt your translation strategies to the specific text you are working on.

Few people have “overtranslated” as much as Ezra Pound (1885-1972), the modernist poet who freely translated the works of Li Bai and others into English despite having little knowledge of Chinese. On occasion, he even translated each of the component parts of Chinese characters into English, as in the first line of the Analects:

Original text: 學而時習之,不亦說乎?
Overtranslation: To study with the white wings of time passing, is not that our delight?
A more natural translation: Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals?

Here, he has understood the character xi 習 (to practice) in terms of its components yu 羽 (wing) and bai 白 (white) to get the translation “white wings”. This is wonderfully poetic, but unfortunately means that the emphasis on “repeated practice” in the original is missing. Compare renowned scholar D.C. Lau’s far more natural yet less poetic translation of the same phrase.

Can you think of any examples of Chinese phrases that are commonly overtranslated? What do you think of Pound’s approach? Let us know in the comments!

Find out more about Gengo’s professional Chinese to English and English to Chinese translation services.

Main image by Ewan Macdonald


Ewan Macdonald

The author

Ewan Macdonald

Ewan joined Gengo as a Language Specialist in 2011 and has seven years of experience as a freelance Chinese–English translator. Based in London, he enjoys playing the fiddle in his free time.

  • BarrySu

    Do you take English to Chinese translation job or not?

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