Is Translation Easy?

Some English learners think translation is easy: as long as you know some grammar rules of a foreign language, you can translate with the help of a dictionary. Some people tend to think a word in one language may always be turned into a corresponding word in another language.

Is it really so? Now look at the following seemingly easy sentences and see if you can translate them easily.

1. The stranger robber his wife. (那个陌生人抢了他的妻子)

2. Do you have a family? (你成家了吗?)

3. He is easily the best student in the class. (他很容易就成了班上最好的学生)

4. They gave the boy the lie. (他们对男孩说谎)

As you can realize, there doesn’t seem to be any new words and none of the sentences is very complicated grammatically. But can you see what’s wrong with the translations provided in bracket?

Read Also: Long sentence translation skills

Now, let’s analyze them one by one.

1. The meaning of “抢了他的妻子”is ambiguous. It may mean the stranger took away the woman and made her his own wife. But what was actually taken was not the woman but her money or personal belongings. So a clear translation should be “那个陌生人抢了他妻子的钱(东西)”.

2. Some people may think “你成家了吗” is quite a good translation of sentence as it sounds much better than “你有家吗”. But the word “family” has different reference with Chinese “家” and “家庭”. The question “do you have a family” is not intended to asked about a person’s marriage status but about one’s duty to a family, usually emphasizing the duty of a parent. So a proper translation should be “你有孩子吗”.

Many Chinese English learners say “I have a big family” when give introduction to themselves. Foreigners might get surprised and wonder “how come that they have got many children at such young ages when China takes family planning as basic national policy”. By the way, “family planning” does not refer to any planning about the financial management of the family.

It is also different from “birth control” (a way of avoiding pregnancy). The word “family” here also emphasized children, and the term refers to how many children a couple would like to have and what the ideal interval between them are. Actually it means “计划生育” but not “节育”. So if a couple want to have five or more children, they still can have a “family planning”.

3. The word “easily” in sentence 3 is not of the usual sense and can’t be translated as “容易地”. It means “by far”. So the sentence should be translated as “他绝对/无疑是班上最好的学生” or “他比班上别的学生要好得多”.

4. Sentence 4 is an idiomatic way to express certain ideas. Here “give” doesn’t mean “make somebody possess something” but rather “scold” or “punish”. So the correct translation of the sentence is “他们指责男孩说谎(他们指责男孩编造这个谎言)”.

Bilingual translation between Chinese and English is a kind of transformation between the two languages. But as either of the languages has different ways to express an idea, so nobody can say there is any absolute version for any translation.