Newbie needing help with first proper translation "techniques".

August 16, 2009, 09:09 PM posted in General Discussion

On my holidays to Hong Kong, I bought the novel Twilight in Chinese. Although it's in Traditional Chinese and I'm learning Mandarin, I thought learning the traditional characters alongside the simplified would be of some advantage.

Anyway, I'm ashamed to say I've only got to the first real page and I'm already having trouble >< I think I have probably bit of more than I can chew, but I guess I won't learn without making mistakes (and I'm sure they'll be numerous ones! lol)

So here's the first paragraph. I don't want you guys to really translate for me (cos then I wouldn't learn :P) but to help me with some problems I'm having understanding the context, if you get what I mean. This is going to sound rather stupid but bare with me: How do you know when one word finishes and another begins? I mean, it's all very well knowing what each individual character means, but each character has several different (well, most do) meanings. So how do you know what meaning to apply in a sentence? Because to work out the meaning of the another character, you need to know the meaning of the other characters and so on. So where do you start when translating a paragraph like the one below? Because the first character of the sentence I looked up had numerous different meanings. I then logically looked up the second, thinking I'd give a clue but again, it gives numerous meanings. So where do I start? :S Or am a just looking too deep into this and being too pedantic? Anyway, here is the paragraph in question. It was originally printed in traditional but I've hopefully typed it out properly in simplified:

就在这个时候, 坐在餐听里, 试着与七位对我充满好奇心的新同学聊天时, 我看见他们了..... 这是我第一次看见他们.

So how would I tackle translating this? Where would I start? :S

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August 16, 2009, 09:48 PM

Hi doodlemonster, don't know how long you've been studying now, but I think you really just have to have more experience (= keep at it a bit longer, build vocab and become familiar with collocations and patterns, the same ones will keep coming up) to "know" what you want to know--and I know what you mean. We Japanese are used to characters in a much different way, and this endless chain of hanzi in Chinese is initially rather overwhelming for us too.

There are certain words we can think of as "markers" to help us understand when visually encountering Chinese:

这个时候, 坐厅(typo), 试着七位我充满好奇心新同学聊天, 我看见他们了..... 这是我第一次看见他们.

Many of these are prepositions. You can see they set off the descriptions of nouns and actions--where is this person, what is he doing, in what sort of company.

But that's my inexpert opinion.  Stay tuned, for real useful advice hopefully arriving in 2-3 hours!

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August 21, 2009, 06:39 PM

Hi doodlemonster

There is no easy language to master in the world, but that being said, I think you would feel that Chinese is easier to learn than Japanese, at least in the early stage of learning. Anyway, you have to learn a certain amount of Chinese characters whether you take Chinese or Japanese, and the name of the game is memorizing Chinese characters when you learn Mandarin. Love your dictionary. I wish you "happy learning"!

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August 16, 2009, 09:57 PM

Thank you so much! ^.^ Both of your advice was very helpful. I think you're right and that I just really need to learn more Chinese and that I'm just being impatient. >< But there's just so much to learn and I really don't know where to start! I'm only 15 and sometimes it really boggles me. I did start learning Japanese a while back but I stopped because it didn't have any relevance to my daily life (wheras I have Chinese friends/visit Asia) but it made so much more sense! lol Japanese words have spaces between them, each character (well the Kana ones anyway) have just one "sound" and it all made a lot of sense to me lol but I'm still completely confused about where to start with Chinese.

Should I first concentrate on word order, tenses, vocabulary, measure words or what? :S I'm really not at all sure where to start and I'm lacking any kind of structure in my studies at all and I think it's holding me back. >< Could you perhaps very quickly put together some sort of plan for me? Just something really basic (I don't want to waste your time!) like learn 10 characters a week, start with sentence structure etc. Just something very short and simple just to get me started please?  

And yeah, maybe I could do this as a series! lol The thing is, I deliberately chose this book to buy in Chinese because I have the same book in English and I thought it'd help having the translation side by side. The thing is, this paragraph is one that doesn't appear in the English version! lol I was most confused when I got it home and thought I'd got a totally different book! Because the blurb on the back and the first sentence of the real first chapter match the English copy but the other bit didn't! lol 

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August 16, 2009, 10:06 PM

doodlemonster--before I have to run for now--I want to quickly say that being only 15 is a DISTINCT ADVANTAGE, it's not like a setback or something!
You'll understand when you're closer to my age, hahahahaha

I'll think about your question and promise to get back later, but perhaps by then some people who really know what they're talking about (teachers maybe?) will have given you good answers.  (^v^)

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August 16, 2009, 10:10 PM

Thank you so much zhenlijiang ^.^ I'm going to bed soon anyway so no worries ;) I'll look foward to some much needed advice in the morning! 再谢谢! ^.^

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August 16, 2009, 10:22 PM

Don't worry, the scale of it boggles us all. But actually, it's not that bad. I learn much quicker on CPod than I did learning languages at school, and I think Chinese gets bad press for being difficult, when actually it's not that it's hard, there's just a lot.

I would listen to lots of newbie lessons, say for a month, and then you have a good chance with Ellie lessons. Try the Newbie lesson sets. I bet once you've listened to all them, you'll find moving up to Ellie a doddle.

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August 17, 2009, 02:15 AM

Hi doodlemonster,

Zhenlijiang and sebire have already offered some good tips, and I hope you're feeling at home in the ChinesePod community.

I would add that at least you're not learning classical Chinese, which had no punctuation!

The main thing for you to do now is keep building your vocabulary. You may want to start with something more "bite-sized" such as a news article around 1000 words or so, as this will 1) be written in a clearer way, with fewer chengyu 2) be easier for you to grasp than a long story which develops over hundreds of pages.

I don't mean that you couldn't understand a book, and in fact congratulate you for trying. It's just that when you are first learning, it is good to read something where you can get the whole meaning in a page or two. It will help you understand the logic and rules of the language better, I believe.

When you have more questions, please let us know. We will be glad to help.

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August 17, 2009, 03:03 AM

Hi doodlemonster

Actually, it's not difficult for you to know when one word finishes and another begins, provided that you have a Chinese dictionary and paitience to look up words in a dictionary. They are all shown in it as a word as follow,

(at once, then, right away, only)
(at, in, exist)
这个 (this)
时候,(time, length of time, moment, period)
坐 (to sit)
(at, in, exsit)
餐厅 (dining-hall)
,(inside, interior)
试 (to test, to try)
(particle that indicates a continuous action)
(and, with, give)
七 (seven)
位 (position, a measure word for persons)
(couple, right, toward, to)
我 (I)
充满 (full of)
好奇心 (curiosity)
新 (new)
同学 (classmate)
聊天 (chat)
,(when, hour)
我 (I)
看见 (to see)
他们 (they)
..... (complete action marker)
这 (this, there)
我 (I)
第 (prefix before an ordinal number)
一 (one)
次 (number, n-th)
看见 (to see)
他们 (they)

Chinese grammar is not so complicated, so you can roughly understand what a sentence means by word-by-word translation. The problem is that some important (grammatical/functional) words, such as ,and , often have several meanings and usages, and newbies/elies don't know which one to pick.

Good luck!

P/S. I recommend you learn basic Chinese grammar first, which would make your word-by-word translation much more easier.

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August 16, 2009, 09:52 PM

Hmm, how long have you been learning for? It's a bit of a toughie for a noob. Chuck it in Adostrans, if I were you... Plus, the first word is 就, and that's a bit of a pain! 就 is one of those words that doesn't really have an easy direct translation into English - you have to work out what it's doing from the context.

Unfortunately, working out which characters make up which words comes from experience. You'll soon pick up the really common stuff, so it'll make working out the other stuff much easier. It doesn't take long to learn the nuts and bolts of the language, and then you can come back to this and it'll make a lot of difference.

Saying that, I'm not really sure what's going on in the above. It looks to me like a bit like "then this time, sitting in the canteen, trying to chat to the 7 really confident new students facing me, I saw them... this was the first time I saw them". (I'm a bit confused as to who exactly has all the confidence - the narrator or the students). Sound very mysterious! Maybe you should have this as a running series...


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August 17, 2009, 08:35 AM

再谢谢 everyone! ^.^ Your advice really is very useful. At the beginning of the school holidays (which are almost over >< but cos I'm cool, I've spent my summer learning Chinese :P) I started listening to every Newbie lesson whether the subject matter was relevant to me or not (like baby talk! lol) and now reading snippets from grammar books/dictionarys/vocab books, I'm starting to find that some of the pinyin (I can only assosiate sound with very few characters at the moment!) I recognise as words such as "bread" and "child". It's also helped me with pronunciation because it's like being in a foregin country; when I went to Hong Kong, you end up pronouncing not only your Cantonese but your English with a Chinese accent (not to mention their mannerisms. It's been a month now and I still can't resist bowing my head every time I thank the people at the cashier after taking my purchase :/ lol It's starting to get a bit embarrassing now! lol) but because you're constantly exposed to their chatter in Hong Kong, you pick up the accent. It's the same with constantly listening to ChinesePod, you eventually pick up Jenny's accent! lol And what a lovely one it is! :D

I don't have a tutor or a class I can go to unfortunately :( The closest thing I've got if ChinesePod and some native friends at school who are boarders from China and Hong Kong. Although they're back home in Asia for summer, I can't talk to them and Fei's starting to get very slack in answering my emails lately! lol I've had this long list of questions to ask her about Chinese questions which she's been really helpful with ^.^ She says she's never met a "western" person her age who wants to learn Chinese so I guess that makes me kinda special ^.^ lol Well I'm the only one at school anyway but I bet there's hundreds on ChinesePod and in China! But I think attending a saturday chinese school or something would really help me progress in my Chinese but my mum won't have it as she's convinced this is just another of my weird fads. Plus, she says she doesn't want me learning Chinese because I won't revise properly for my GCSE exams (which are in May :S) but this can be hobby, I keep telling her! Just because learning Chinese might be seen as unorthodox for someone my age, doesn't mean I can't do it. Loads of kids my age have hobbies AND revise for their exams so I don't see what her problem is >< I've had to fight a lot of grief and stick at school (not that I've been bullied! lol) for learning Chinese. They just don't get it >< At least my Chinese friends do! They're almost thanking me that I'm learning Chinese because they say I want to learn more about Chinese culture and stuff whereas a lot of the kids at school are quite ignorant and sometimes quite rude about it which drives me crazy ><

But thank you guys ^.^ At least you're helpful! And yeah, I've just looked in my dictionary and as changye mentioned, the words where characters are "combined" are listed in the dictionary *duh* which I've only just discovered! lol Like if I look up one character, below it are possible characters that join to the end of it to make a word (not sure what that's called in English; a prefix or suffix maybe...?). So I think I just need to spend time getting to know my dictionary and learning lots of sentence structure and grammar :D I'll let you know how I get on :D 再谢谢

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August 17, 2009, 08:50 AM


Zhen is right, starting at your age is an incredible advantage. Oh how I wish I had. Tell your mum (I never thought I would use that word) Chinese will be extremely relevant in your lifetime. In the states many high schools are offering Chinese now, Im surprised the UK is behind in this. I would suggest a textbook to follow, such as integrated chinese level 1, and when the time is right, a class of course. Maybe it is a passing fad, but I hope for your sake it is not. I think you will be very glad one day that you started down this road. Good luck.

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August 17, 2009, 11:53 AM

Don't worry Doodlemonster, GCSEs are easy. Just memorise the revision guide and regurgitate. Then you can spend the rest of your time learning Chinese which is much more fun.

RJ, they couldn't possibly offer GCSE Chinese to UK state school pupils - that would mean offering an exam that was mildly challenging and of economic use to the country. Don't be silly! (Though from a practical point of view, there probably aren't that many qualified teachers around, whereas there are probably more in the US).

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August 17, 2009, 12:53 PM

Haha sebire, you're right! I mean, I'm doing GCSE ICT and it's the easiest thing ever! lol My teacher was like "I was thinking last lesson that we should do some more challenging questions from the text book. But then I realised that there's so point because they'll never come up in the real exam, so we won't bother" which is so true! The practice exams we've done (well for ICT anyway) have been dead easy! I didn't revise that hard for my mock-mock and I got an A*! lol 

I don't go to a state school but I do agree! Without trying to sound patronizing, I don't think the schools would be up to finding the right teachers to teach Chinese, the right source materials, organizing the extra examinations etc. I've heard about schools in Scotland making learning Chinese compulsory and it's apparently doing very well! And to be honest, I'm not really looking forward to doing A Levels. If they're going to be a walk in the park because they've dumbed them so much, then they're not really worth anything if everyone's getting As and A*s in them! Just because they're dumbing them down for the "less articulate" students!

And I'm not being funny, but if my school teaches Ancient Greek as a major subject, then why can't they teach Chinese?! It's always annoyed me because no one even speaks Ancient Greek anymore! Everyone learning it is about as relevant as teaching a plumber how to paint! He's never going to need it! Whereas if you learn Chinese, you can so use that in the future! I bet you everyone will need to have some basic knowledge of Chinese in about 10 years time. I've hedged my bets and I'm going to get ahead before everyone starts panicking because they're not proficient in Chinese. It's going to be my little plan :P lol

I'd suggest to my headmaster that he should consider offering Chinese as a subject (and not just at GCSE and A Level) but he's not really open to suggestions, from pupils or parents. He's under the impression that it's his "business", his budget and he'll spend it on what he likes. Like building a 300 seat auditorium?! I don't think so. It was the most ridiculous waste of money he could have come up with. Thank god the council denied he planning permission! He wanted to knock that this listed building on the school site to make room for the auditorium but the council denied him permission. That news on top of the news that some of our pupils failed the IB, is not going to make him a happy bunny in September... :P lol

So sorry, off topic but yeah. I'd suggested Chinese lessons at school but it's really not worth the effort. Headmaster doesn't listen to pupils or even many of the parents so we kinda hate him :P

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August 17, 2009, 05:37 PM

Don't worry, A levels are much more interesting than GCSEs, however, yes, they are rather easy to pass as you can keep taking most of the modules over and over again. What you'll find is that the A level syllabus will cover a year of GCSE material in about a term, and the university syllabus will cover an A level in about a term. So quite frankly, you can easily get up to GCSE Chinese listening standard in about 6 months flat on CPod (though the "school" vocab that you get in GCSE language exams is probably less evident here: "penpal" is not a word I come across regularly, whereas "zombie" does crop up a few times). I hear that language A level is much trickier than GCSE though.

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August 18, 2009, 01:43 AM

Hi doodlemonster

Being skilled in using a (paper) Chinese dictionary is very beneficial for you. It's a rather tough job for beginners, who usually don't know how to pronounce characters, but looking up them in a dictionary guided by a component of a character would definitely help you understand and memorize Chinese characters.

Actually, there're a lot of Intermediate/advanced learners who are still not good at using a Chinese dictionary. I also sometimes encounter a character I don't know what component I should use to find it in a dictionary. However, learning how to use a Chinese dictionary is not so difficult if you learn it systematically.

Just Google "how to use a Chinese character" now!

On a side note, using a Japanese dictionary should be a nightmare for foreign learners (and even for some Japanese). Japanese dictionaries have a unique characteristic. You can't find a target word unless you know how to read it beforehand. If you don't know it, you have to use a Japanese Kanji dictionary. In short, you need both kinds of dictionaries for learning Japanese. Not so economical, hehe.

Good luck.

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August 21, 2009, 05:51 PM

Thank you changye :) 

Yeah, I found learning Japanese a bit overwhelming and as interesting as it was, just not very relevant to my everyday life or even that relevant to my interests! I think I was just curious but I'm glad I'm learning Chinese instead now; I've got on a lot better with it and I'm really enjoying learning about their culture and history alone the way.

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August 17, 2009, 07:32 AM

OK I'm back, but don't unfortunately have anything useful to say--except, listen to everybody else up here, their advice is all good!

Are you in a class now? Do you have a tutor? Can you get one?

I spent my first six months of Chinese study mostly on pronunciation and very little grammar. I was taking a weekly class (six of us, nice size) and our teacher was very good at teaching beginners. It was her tried-and-true method I guess. We had a strange little basic starters book assigned to the class, which we did open and read from sometimes. But after we went through the pinyin chart numerous times (she taught us vocab words for all the sounds) and learned to say our own names correctly--believe me, that alone took weeks--mostly she wrote down simple dialogues at the start of every class and had us repeat them to death, then kept adding line by line to the dialogue. We were given famous Tang poems to learn by heart and recite--these too we repeated to death. Oh and we learned basic number stuff--how to count and tell the time. At the end of the course we were able to sort of "say things" and introduce ourselves.

Now that may sound like nothing to show for six months of classwork to you and many other people. But at your age I promise you, you're going to learn more for the same period of time than us older folk. Of course, being Japanese, we already know characters (they're different and we do have to learn, but the advantage we have there is obvious) and can already "read" to some extent from day one.

But anyway, in my experience this starting slow has only been good. I don't think you have the fuel or foundations you need to sprint or do a grueling triathlon when you're just beginning--there will come a time (several times) later when you have the bones and muscles and can really push yourself to go further faster. I think I'm going through such a period myself now, when I have to push myself.

A healthy amount of impatience will pay off for you too, if you don't let it get you down!  If you're forever satisfied with the slow comfortable pace you may miss those growth-spurt opportunities.

If I were you, I'd be grinning at where I can expect to be by the time I graduate university (in about 7 yrs)!
Sounds like you're enjoying the ride so far, so it's all good.