English translation difficulties for Mandarin speakers

Many of our users are native Mandarin speakers practicing translation into English. This post is for them – pointing out a few difficulties of the English language. But hey, if you’re a native English speaker translating into Mandarin, some of these may be problems for you to! 

Bilingual stone

1. Focus on word-level translation rather than sentence or text level.

This one is the worst killer. Translators often try to seek word-for-word equivalence, i.e. match each Chinese word with an English word or vice versa. As a result, the translated text may sound like a machine translation. The reader can get the general gist reading is difficult, and the actual meaning may be lost.
2. Figures and digits

Isn’t it annoying? When a figure exceeds 10 thousand (which is in Chinese expressed as 1 ), digits between both language no longer align. The reason is that in Chinese, people often organize 4 digits as a unit, while in English, the arrangement is 3 by 3 – i.e. one million will be written as 1,000,000 in English, but 100,0000 in Chinese.



You know that, unlike their Mandarin counterparts, English verbs come in different forms – look, looking, looked; do, doing did, done. The tense of verbs in English indicate the specific context when the event happens. Consequently, when translating into Chinese, the translator should not only translate the word meaning but also the tense, i.e. complement the time element.

Example  We were best buddies.

“Were” cannot be just translated to “是” (“are”) but should indicate that this event happened in the past. The translation should be “我们曾经是最好的朋友”, which employs “曾经” to translate the past simple tense “were”.
4.Negative word/sentence

Sometimes in English negative sentence can convey positive meaning.

Example 1:  I could not agree with you more.

It means “I totally agree with you”. In Chinese 我完全同意你的意见(我简直不能同意更多)

Pay attention to the difference with “I couldn’t agree with you any more”. This sentence indeed expresses negative meaning.


Sometimes in English negative words should be translated to Chinese as positive to make sense.

Example 2:  -You don’t know I love you, do you? (你并不知道我爱你,是吗)

– No, I don’t. (是的,我不知道)

Can you think of any other common mistakes? Please share them in the comment section! 

This post was prepared by Jingzi Li, Master student in translation and interpretation at Monash University, currently completing an internship with Marco Polo Project as Education Officer and Editorial Scout. 


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