Translation and Language Learning

June 19, 2009, 08:46 AM posted in General Discussion

Hello, all

This post is intended as a place where people can exchange their thoughts on translation as it relates to language learning. Please share your own suggestions and experiences in learning Chinese or any other language. Here are a few suggestions for discussion:

  • Is it effective to literally translate every word in an article or story as you read? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
  • How do you choose the appropriate meaning, when a given character has many interpretations?
  • What is the role of cultural knowledge in understanding a phrase or story?
  • How do you preserve tone and clarity? 
  • How do we deal with profanity and slang? For example, a recent discussion dealt with the curse word 王八蛋 wángbadàn. Would a literal translation be effective here? How do you store the word in your mind?

This discussion is open to everyone, at all levels of Chinese. I'd be very interested to hear from people whose native language is not English. How did you learn English? How did that process differ from the way in which you are learning Chinese?

I hope that this discussion will shed some light on the ways in which we learn and, ultimately, master, foreign languages. I have my own opinions and methods, but I want to hear and learn from you.

Any thoughts you share will help me and the CPod team to understand your thinking better, with the goal of helping you learn Chinese.

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June 19, 2009, 08:48 AM

pete, thanks for posting this. I'm sure I'll be unloading sharing my thoughts here (got to run to class now)!

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June 20, 2009, 05:10 PM

To be fair, slangy, fancy, and strange expressions have been in use at CPod for eons - long before Pete came over.  I still remember Amber explaining me what a "post jock" is ("80th valley girls' slang) and before Amber there was Aric...


In retrospective there seem to be "complaining fashion" that change over times. For a while it was the fear of losing manliness because of all the female role models, now it is slang translations (This is no judgement, just an observation.).

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June 19, 2009, 10:31 AM

As a non-native speaker I find (English) idioms / slang (Kapla?!, Koronis, Smug, Magic Chen etc...) and the discussions here in general very useful.
I started learning English around when I was 6-8 years old and still learn new things, very often here especially from users with different backgrounds (US, UK, OZ). I can only say thx for that!
For Chinese:

  • Both ways of translations have pro's and cons. Literary translations help me better discover structure / rules / grammar etc. Chunky translations have richer cultural background and help me grasp the language better and on a "higher" level and give cultural insights (light bulb).
  • Context
  • Very important especially in Chinese since the language is so context dependant and things are never what they seem to be."You're Chinese is PERFECT" (i.e. "nice try").
  • I do not care too much about tone and clarity but focus on human interaction and other ways of communication (I think 80% of communication is body language I do not have a REF handy). Works "like a charm" for me. And I always think: No Chinese in their right mind expects a blond blue eyed laowai to do it perfect. So no worries and talk.
  • The more profanity and slang the better :-P


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June 19, 2009, 11:31 AM

We're off to a great start.

Hi zhenlijiang,

Looking forward to your remarks.

Hi bababardwan,

You've made a good case for understanding both literal and contextual and idiomatic translations.

I liked your example about the idiom "bats in the belfry." This is an area that sometimes causes friction among the English speakers from various areas. Each is convinced that their own version ("nuts," "one oar in the water," etc.) is the correct version. Or at least, they take exception to seeing the phrase rendered in a way that they would not think of.

But this obscures the main point-- "bats in the belfry" is really a cute, oral, non-clinical way of saying that someone is insane or at least eccentric. As long as they match this description, any of the English variations would be fine. I use the American English version, but like chanelle and many other users, I'm always interested to hear how other people think.

Finally, I agree about the merits of a literal understanding of each word in a phrase. I have found that a dictionary, paper or digital, works best for this. We try to point out as many of the interesting or quirky things about the lesson vocab as we can in the discussion boards. But in the end, the burden is mostly on the poddies to do their own research to discover the meaning of the words outside the lesson context.

Of course, we at CPod are always happy to answer specific questions on vocab and grammar, and we love it when you ladies and gents help each other out, as well.

Hi chanelle77,

I strongly agree with your comments about human interaction. That is really the point of language, whatever form it takes.

And as for slang and obscenity, let's see what we can do... ;-)

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June 19, 2009, 11:59 AM

Thanks Pete.Not to belabour the point too much,but while there are many idiomatic expressions for describing someone as nuts,to miss out on the literal description/metaphor/imagery of the specific expression chosen would be to miss out on the richness of the language.To me it would be like saying that one painting of a sunset is the same as any other.Sure they may convey the same essential meaning,but if you only see a painting of a sunset,you will have missed so much.Which is also why I agree with you and Chanelle and welcome others different ways of expressing their ideas.

I also was amused with Chanelle's insightful comment:

"You're Chinese is PERFECT" (i.e. "nice try").

..hehe,jiushi.What fun people to interact with too.

Actually,perhaps a better example from literature would be to take Shakespeare and to translate it to a version a 5 year old could understand and then say that they are basically saying the same thing.Sure the plot would be roughly the same,but how much an adult would miss reading the child's version..all the magic/or at least much of it.To use a Shakespeare quote against him:

"that by which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet".

...I tend to agree with L.M.Montgomery:

"I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called thistle or skunk cabbage"

..of course in reality they're approaching it from different angles.Shakespeare was specifically referring to the fact that the scent doesn't change [and was more pondering/exploring...what's in a name? extension of the problem with Romeo's name/family],whereas Anne of Green Gables was referring to the emotional reaction to that scent.

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June 19, 2009, 12:28 PM

At this point I feel like we are beating a dead horse, but my opinion is that we need both literal and common generic translations. The first time I see something I want to know where it comes from and after that I try to use it functionally as a lexical chunk. When I learn "xi shou jian", I want to know not only that it means "bathroom" but that xi means "wash" so when I hear "xi lian" is "wash face" I can make the connection. It helps me remember all 3 things and when I hear "xi tou" or "xi wan" I know we are probably washing something. All helpful. Dictionaries are great and I do use them extensively but I would not want to give up the roll-over because it is a good start, and it saves time and effort.

As for slang, I too enjoy learning global slang, but I think that should come mostly from the boards. The problem with some slang expressions is that they are representative of a very small demographic or may even be out of date. Overall this is not a problem as long as the literal roll over is there. I think this is more of a disagreement about "style" for me, and I realize that is a subjective thing.

Again, some of us are more analytical than others. Right brain vs left brain kind of a thing. Thats a fact and everybody does not learn the same way so its dangerous to discount another approach simply because its not the way you do it. Neither is right or wrong. Adamant defense of either makes little sense. Lets understand and embrace the fact that we need them all.


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June 19, 2009, 01:48 PM

Pete - thanks for starting what should be an interesting discussion. 

My question/comment has been raised before but I'd like to give it another airing.  In the more advanced lessons presenters explain the meaning of words in Chinese - I must admit I prefer this, and if necessary look something up in a dictionary.  Can this approach be pushed down a bit into the lower levels?  Why do you restrict this to the more advanced lessons?  By using level-appropriate language it should be possible to explain pretty much anything in Chinese shouldn't it? I think this is a fair question because in a class room setting I was always confronted with explanations in Chinese, at anything above CP-style 'newbie' or 'elementary'.

Supplementary question - do you have a recommended Chinese/Chinese dictionary, for the 1st time user of such an approach?

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June 19, 2009, 02:25 PM

@BABA I believe there is even a name for that and it is commonly referred to as the "你的中文说得很好 phenomenon" :-)

Once I was in a Nanjing cab and the driver said my Chinese sucked. I was shocked by his honesty because I always expect something nice. My ayi later said it probably was a joke. OR maybe not and I should stop trying (if he was being "nice" ) haha!

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June 19, 2009, 02:26 PM

I don't feel strongly on the translation issue, though I'm generally of the opinion that less is morre.  (Personally, I preferred it when the Advanced lessons lacked English.)  However, I did have two points:

  • Dictionaries:  Online dictionaries are great, convenient, and all that.  But, as Pete pointed out, there's no substitute for using a print dictionary to look up character meanings and that means via the radical, not pinyin.  It really helps to, say, once a week, go through some print material with a print dictionary and using pinyin only as a last resort.  Also, the definitions listed in online dictionaries tend to be far from comprehensive.
  • English Slang:  If you're doing a translation of Chinese slang into English slang, what's the problem with using American slang?  Sure England is the mother country (well, maybe Germany if you count the Angles und Saxons), but the great preponderance of native English speakers (and poddies) are in the United States.  In language/customer base, "Size does matter."  (I think that's a universal idiom.)

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June 19, 2009, 02:28 PM

@Chanelle77, I alway get the, "你的中文很棒" comment right before, "你说什么."

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June 19, 2009, 09:44 AM

Ok,since you've asked Pete,I will try and explain my reasoning on why I want to understand both the literal and the idiomatic by using an example from English: "bats in the belfry".One could explain to a learner of English to just remember this as a phrase meaning the person being referred to is crazy.Sure this would work.They could go away and memorise this phrase and learn to use it appropriately.However,this way,they have not got a clue what the individual words mean ,nor how they were put together to arrive at the meaning.Sure they are likely to eventually learn [or may have already learnt] all the words elsewhere except perhaps belfry which may come much later as it's an uncommon word.But this was a missed learning opportunity and they don't really understand the origin of the saying.Also,I think learning such colourful expressions really helps consolidate the learning as you have a little story to go with it.It also gives insight into the thinking that arrived at that expression.Sure when most people use this expression ,or similar ones [like the Aussie ...he's a roo short in the top paddock] they aren't thinking in a very literal sense but they do understand what they are saying [in most cases].Of course,if they only learnt the literal and not the idiomatic here,they are not overly likely to make the connection to the true meaning in an expression like this...they may guess at it...but there would be possibly be uncertainty.That's why both are important.Ok,so Chinese is an ancient language and in some cases the link to the literal may have become obscure.I'm sure it's usually there though,perhaps via a number of links.I agree about thinking in Chinese.It's just nice to have those building blocks so you can understand where you've come from.For example,with ni hao I'm probably not thinking "you good" specifically when I say it.But if I stop and think I know how I got to that greeting.I've even had dreams in Chinese,so I think the stuff you've become familiar with does become ingrained and natural.But I think there is a process to arrive at that point and it's nice to know how you got there.To me it means a deeper understanding of the language,not a lesser one.

Having said all this,I am very happy with your translations as we do have both the literal with the rollovers [and online dictionaries],and I personally think you're doing as good a job as possible in the idiomatic,which it seems to me ,by it's very nature [being idiomatic] lends itself to win situation.I'm merely making the point that I don't think literal translations should be so dismissed ,and that once understood,one can then be in a better position to think in Chinese without further analysis...the expressions/lexical chunks will be better owned.

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June 19, 2009, 10:42 PM

I think literal tranlations should be always be given - but honestly, mainly because otherwise its frustrating to learn the written form.  To use your example 王八蛋 - without a literal transition, are we expecting people to memorize these charecters as a combination?  And not for what they individually mean?  That would be horribly inefficient.  Now, of course this is a bad example, because those are very basic charecters, but take 钻牛角尖 - its less likely a listener will know all of these charecters.

Also, without literal translations, you are passing up an easy oppurtunity for further learning.  In 钻牛角尖, you can basically give the listener a chance to learn the words "drill" "cow" "horn" etc as well as the total expression, or you can just have them learn the meaning of the expression - all for about the same expenditure of time and effort on the part of the listener.  I'd rather pick up the extra vocab for the same amount of time.

Of course, a better solution would be, that at the end of every pdf have a list of all the individual charecters that make up all of the selected vocab of the lesson, with their individual meanings as characters.  Because the same problem arises to a lesser extent with many multi-charecter words.

In my opinion, this would go a long way to making CPod a viable vehicle for learning the written language, as well as better expand listeners' vocab. 

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June 20, 2009, 02:34 AM


Mate, I enjoy your posts and appreciate the knowledge you bring to CP, but ...OUCH! Did you really say that about American (sic) slang and 'size does matter'??  

Having said that, Pete's idiosyncratic style usually makes me smile (when I understand it), with his 'buddy this' and 'buddy that'.  Sounds like a comic script from the 1960s.  Before Pete revealed his roots I wondered if I had tuned into radio in Lake Woebegone.


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June 20, 2009, 05:45 AM

Hi bodawei,

Thanks for an interesting suggestion, re: using Chinese to introduce Chinese vocab. Getting a firm grasp on the language means understanding it on its own terms. Many of the best Chinese immersion programs do indeed offer no Chinese in the classroom from a very early level.

Having said that, students in a physical classroom have the opportunity to view a teacher's body and facial language, and to get other concrete input about the teacher's meaning (writing on the chalkboard, etc.) Since our medium is stricly audio podcasts, the Chinese immersion generally has to wait until a higher level, because if you don't understand what you are hearing, you're basically out of luck. But still, Chinese explanations are valuable. We can explore ways to incorporate them at lower levels.

As for a dictionary, the gold standard (in the PRC) is the 新华现代汉语大词典. I believe the most recent edition is 2005.

Hi tvan, tim, henning,

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I don't have the time to reply to each one of you now, but the CPod team has plenty to discuss now.

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June 20, 2009, 06:06 AM


Thanks for your feedback - and for your dictionary reference. 

I take your point about body language etc. helping. I hope you can also consider the point about level-appropriate language for explanations.

Eg. I have a child's book of poems in which there is an explanation of the 'hard' words at the bottom of the page - that is the kind of thing I imagine could be done at CP.  

Also, I recently did entry level French at a Syd uni a couple of years ago - that is, absolute beginners; no prior knowledge of French required.  Neither the text book nor the teaching contained one solitary word of English.  Except 'false friends' :-).

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June 20, 2009, 07:38 AM

i all

Great  discussion, I believe we will not get CPOD to change re idioms so I will continue to get my Chinese friends to do it for me!

Re language learning, immersion etc. just for the debate... I learnt French at school (nearly 50 years ago) by formal rote methods to conjugate verbs etc. and I also learnt German by immersion (i.e. Gap year) You know what? I can remember all my French but the German has long since gone. I also have friends who learnt formal Latin and they say the same, it makes learning a new language so much easier becasue they have the basic building blocks in place. I know that was at an age in your (their) life when schooling was probably easier than in later years but it's food for thought.

And to add another tuppence worth, (unless doing it for professional translation) then .. language is for communication not examination !

I advice you all to watch Chinese soap operas and put on the subtitles and see how much you know, it's actually more than you think (the best being the eloquant Ji Xiaolan TV series! Films too esp. CTHD and Hero etc.

Cheers (Have a nice summer solstice)


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June 20, 2009, 08:02 AM

Slang terms best translated into comparable contemporary slang. The country doesn't matter. Sorry to bring this term up again, but 'cruising for chicks'......what is this, the 80s?

We can get character by character translation from pinyin tools; I don't see value in adding another layer of char by char at the lesson level.

Since this is a language learning site, background and cultural context is important. I would prefer a more literal style of translating, that takes a bit of attention and patience to understand, rather than reducing Chinese to grade 8 level English. The point is to understand Chinese, not show us the most beautiful or easy to understand English.

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June 20, 2009, 08:11 AM

For what it is worth, I look up translations for individual words and characters that I don't recognize, but I don't use the whole sentence translations any more, in fact I prefer not to look at them.  When trying to keep up with a native speaker's pace, translation into English is a mental ball and chain.

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June 20, 2009, 01:01 PM

I would like to point out that all those that are in favor of less english, or explanations in Chinese, are advanced students. I hope one day to feel exactly the same way. Having said that I do see the merit in using Chinese to explain Chinese, but it may be tough to continually find level appropriate words to explain new vocab. It would also make study tougher and there are complaints already that intermediate is too big a jump. There is a reason this technique is ramped up gradually through the levels. Isnt there?


I think you said it well.

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June 19, 2009, 04:25 PM

Pete, you are undeniably busting your hump with your translation efforts! :-P


I would like to differentiate:

Like chanelle I learn English idioms, slang, and interesting new expressions from the dialogue translations, the intros, and the discussions.

It is a different matter, however, for the Vocab section that also feeds the Audio Review. As I listen to the Audio Review in free-hand-mode and on the move I usually cannot on the spot look up an English term. So common terms are welcome for that part. This is not that problematic in the Expansion section, because there I can usually derive the meaning of rere idioms from context (or from the following Chinese part).


Where did I learn most of my English? From reading and writing and looking everything up again and again. Still doing this. And I constantly feel those invisible non-native-walls that confine my verbal leeway, especially when it comes to vocab and subtleties - which can be a significant disadvantage at times.