When we read a source text for the first time, occasionally there are some words emerge at places where we may think not appropriate for them to appear. In this circumstance, the first idea across my mind is that there must be something wrong, because putting this word here does not make sense. Especially when I meet idiomatic phrases seldom used by Chinese, these words drive me crazy.

Then I start to wonder why this happen, and whether there is any solution to solve the problem.

In my opinion, there can be three main reasons for this phenomenon:

The first reason is vocabulary. Generally speaking, most of us know a word not more than three meaning, which is the reason that a “common word” showing up at an “uncommon place” perplexes us so much. Chinese characters and English characters differ from each other so much that memorizing English words has being the most headache task for Chinese English learners. However, in order to improve English language level, building your vocabulary is inevitable. Even memorizing one meaning of each word is difficult for us to meet the basic vocabulary requirement to become a foreign language master. So, to ease the memorizing work, we tend to remember the most common meaning of a word. From this point, no wonder why those “uncommon words” confuse us. In Chinese this phenomenon is called “熟词偏义”.

For example, the common word “close”, which is familiar to us as a verb referring to change from being open to not being open, such as the sentence “Could you close the door?” and also as an adjective when we want to describe something near or intimate, like “My brother and I are close.” Then, how to comprehend the following three sentences:

(1) It is so close today – I’ve just had a shower and I’m already sweaty.

(2)You’re so close to your past — what are you trying to hide from me?

(3)He lives at 83, Barker Close.

The word “close” in the first sentence is used to describe a kind of weather that makes you difficult to breathe and feel uncomfortably warm. So it can be translated as “今天真闷 — 我刚冲了个淋浴,但已经一身汗了。”

It is not difficult to guess the Chinese meaning of the second sentence in light of the latter half part. When you are unwilling to talk about things to other people, this word is available. So it can be translated as “你对过去守口如瓶,到底要向我隐瞒什么?”

And the third one is a little weird. You can feel that it has something to do with address, but the problem is you do not know the exact meaning. I have to say, this meaning is truly not common to meet, because it is used in British English referring to a road, which usually with private house, not open at one end. Kind of like “死胡同” in Chinese. So the sentence can simply translated as “他住在巴克街83号。”

Another example, like “red date” means “红枣”. English words like these are too numerous to mention one by one. (All word explanations and sentence translations mentioned above are borrowed from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.)

The second reason is jargon words. Same word in different professional texts can mean variously. Even if you can remember every meaning of a word in the dictionary, sometimes it is still not easy for you to read a technical article. Despite of professional knowledge required to understand, jargon words are a big challenge.

For example, the word “voice”

In linguistics, it means “语态”;

In filming, it means “画外音” or “旁白”;

In physic, it means “嗓音”;

In politics, it means “发言权”;

In phonetics, it means “浊音”.

Considering industrial field is necessary when choosing the fittest meaning of a word. From this, we can see that a excellent translator is not only a master of language, but also a know-it-all

Last but not least, culture play an important role in English phrase comprehension. Due to different knowledge to the objective world and disparate social life, some English words or phrases contain unconceivable meaning to English learners. Let’s take a look at following examples:

“Cheesecake” refers to a picture of a strong and handsome woman who exercises bodybuilding, in Chinese we say “女性健美照”. As to such picture of a man, the word is “beefcake”.

Halfway house — recovery hospital

Blue boy — a person who transferred to be a woman from a man through a transsexual operation

Pink lady — one kind of cocktail

Language learning cannot go without culture awareness, or you may make ludicrous mistakes. To avoid making a fool of oneself when translating, you’d better read extensively about foreign cultures in your spare time.