English and Chinese are two different languages, there are quite differences when expressing, it will have some positive effects if we understand the difference when translating, and how to minimize the negative effect caused by these differences in translation, by analyzing a lot of examples.

English and Chinese belong to entirely different language systems. Being a Germanic language, English belongs to the Indo-European language family. The Indo-European language family not only includes English but several other languages that are spoken in Europe. These languages are Spanish, German, French, and Russian.

Chinese, on the other hand, is a Sino-Tibetan language, therefore belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. This family includes multiple languages widely spoken in East Asia. Including, but not limited to, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, and more.

Despite English and Chinese being popular languages in the world, there are vast differences between the two. Each language has a different linguistic root, writing system, grammar system, cultural content, and more.

One of the areas where great differences exist between these languages is sentence structure. Mandarin sentence structure is nowhere as the English sentence structure both are totally different with a different arrangement of subject object and verb. 

This article examines and analyzes these differences from the four perspectives, mentioned in detail below.

Then proposals are offered as to how to bridge the gap in the above aspects in translation (mainly from English into Traditional Chinese).

Table of Content

  1. Chinese (Topic-Prominent language), English (Subject-Prominent language)
  2. English is a form (hypotactic) Language, Chinese is Consensual (paratactic) Language
  3. The Objective and Subjective Tend between English and Chinese
  4. As to content, English Focus on the start, the Chinese focus on the Rear
    1. In The Complex Sentence

Chinese (Topic-Prominent language), English (Subject-Prominent language)

Let’s start with the first few sentences

1. What happened when I was crying, I can’t remember clearly.

2. The book I have already read.

3. The job I took up this summer vacation I like very much.

Even if the words, and grammar haven’t the obvious problems, it’s not so authentic when we read. Obviously, the three sentences above are not in line with the general English expression, but why do such sentences appear? That’s because our people are influenced by their mother tongue when writing.

Chinese is a Topic oriented language (Topic-Prominent language), while English is a subject-oriented language (Subject-Prominent language)

This means the “subject” is mostly related to topics in Chinese sentences. The role of the predicate is to make narrative comments about the topic.

Also, when we talk about Chinese syntax Vs English syntax, the differences are obvious considering the Chinese language has hundreds of characters and one needs to be proficient in at least 3500 characters to get the roots and nerves of this language. 

Due to our expression habits, here comes out sentences 1, sentence 2, sentence 3. So how do modify it to meet the English language expression way? We can amend the sentences as follows

●I can’t remember clearly what happened when I was crying.

● I have already read the book.

● I like the job I took up this summer vacation.

English is a form (hypotactic) Language, Chinese is Consensual (paratactic) Language

“Nida” an American translation theorist once said: “The most important difference between Chinese and English is the contrast between form and consensual.” So-called “form language” refers to the use of conjunctions (coordinating conjunction and, but, or other, or subordinating conjunction that, who, when, if, etc.) to express the logical relationship between sentence elements or sentences; while “consensual” refers to use context to reflect the logical relationship between sentences not by conjunctions.

For example: “You come, and I left.”, Translated into English is “If you come, I’ll go.” Or “When you come, I’ll go” and so on. Here English sentences express the logical relationship using conjunction which is hidden in Chinese. So we should express the hidden logical relationship between sentence components or sentences when translating Chinese to English, herein to make the conjunction particularly important. This is one of the major differences between Chinese and English.

The Objective and Subjective Tend between English and Chinese

We always use an alive person or animal as the subject in Chinese, obviously, there was a clear subjective tendency by using an active voice. English often uses inanimate things as subjects, so passive voice becomes dominant.

When we write English articles, we usually follow the tendency of Chinese subjective tendency thinking way, we often use “I think”, “we must”, and “someone says”, an expression of subjective tendency, but less using inanimate nouns as subject and passive voice.

For example, translate the following sentence into English:


e.g1. We must take proper measures to limit the number of foreign tourists and we should make great efforts to protect the local environment and history from the harmful effects of international tourism.

e.g2. Proper measures must be taken to limit the number of foreign tourists and great efforts should be made to protect the local environment and history from the harmful effects of international tourism.

We can easily tell which one is better.

So we should try to use inanimate nouns as the subject and the passive voice when translating, and get rid of our Chinese speaking habits.

As to content, English Focus on the start, the Chinese focus on the Rear

Chinese vs English sentence structure also varies with the emphasis on the content. The English nation tends to express their views, feelings, and attitudes directly, therefore, they always put the important information at the beginning of the sentence, while the Chinese handle it in the opposite way. This comparison between English and Chinese is mainly reflected in three aspects:

In The Complex Sentence

In English, the main clause is the important information, and secondary information is the subordinate clause. The main clauses are often placed before the secondary clause, which focuses on the start.

The Chinese are generally logical and in chronological order, the important information is put on the back, that is the focus is on the rear. So while writing the English sentence, remember to put the important information should be placed before the secondary information, and try to avoid the interference of Chinese characteristics. Chinese sentence structure hence is complex and somewhat challenging if you are not a native speaker. Take a look at how we helped our client by localizing their project to the Chinese language. Click here to read the complete case study

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