English and Chinese are significantly different in a number of areas including arrangement of subject-verb agreement, lexical tools, and nuances and so on (Li, 2010). To effectively express meaning of a text in a different language, these differences must be factored in, in order to avoid translation errors. The most common errors in translation include non-idiomatic usage, distortion, and unjustified omissions and insertion. In this report, a number of publicly available posts are used to show how translation problems may lead to the creation of different meanings, while some are outright hilarious, others may be offensive or completely create new meanings altogether. Overall, translating every Chinese character separately leads to mistakes in the equivalent of an English translation, including distortion of original and intended meaning and common errors that may lead to a different interpretation from an audience.
Lexical Translation Error
Lexical simply denotes a relationship to the vocabulary or words in a language (Enkvist, 1978). A lexical meaning is the definition of a root or base word without a consideration or attachment of the suffix or prefix. For example, the word port in portable and import shows the lexical meaning. In image 1 below, a sign in a public park is meant to deter smoking in the park. The Chinese meaning is very clear as accompanied by the visual presentation. However, lexical errors emerge in the translated English version of the same. The translation uses Chinese pinyin to directly translate each word in the post, which has created lexical errors and degraded the quality of the translated meaning. A sign that reads “please do not smoke” has been translated to “please do not attracts the smoke”. The alternative translation would have been “please do not smoke”. This is justified through the lexical rules of the English language that considers lexical definition and meaning.
Image 1: Example of a lexical error in translation
Syntax Errors in Translation
Markedly, the Chinese and English languages have different systems in the phrasing of sentences and their syntactical structures. Syntax refers to the way words are arranged in phrases, sentences, and clauses to create meaning in an orderly and connected system. It refers to the harmonious structural arrangement of words and parts of language to form general meaning. For example, syntax can be seen in the following sentences:
The young man shouted joyfully.
The young man joyfully shouted.
Joyfully, the young man shouted.
In the above examples in English, syntax is shown through the grammatical structures of the sentences, showcasing different formats where the arrangements of words and phrases create meaning.
Syntax errors may occur in translating Chinese to English where the translator directly inputs individual words from the former to the later without consideration of the arrangement of words and structure (Xiao et al., 2011). Image 1 below shows a message posted in public area requiring people to remain courteous and not to make noise. However, the literal translation of individual words from the Chinese language have led to poor arrangement of the words and consequently to a syntax error. The translation “polite language and no noising” may make little or no sense to an English native speaker. The correct or alternative translation should have been “Please be courteous and do not make noise.” This translation is justified by the arrangement of the same words in the Chinese language to an equivalent in the English language, considering the proper use of syntax to ensure the individual words are arranged in a way that makes sense.
Image 2: Example of syntax error in translation
Pragmatic Translation Error
Pragmatics is a subsector in semiotics and linguistics that looks at how the context adds to meaning. A pragmatic translation error means that there were significant differences between the intended meaning in relation to the context or situation (Pellatt & Liu, 2010). In short, wherever pragmatic errors occur, it is usually because the translator lacked a basic assessment of the function of the use of words in the context and the intention of the message (Ardeshiri & Zarafshan, 2014).
Image 3: Pragmatic translation error example
In image 3 above, the translation “special for deformed” is very offensive to an English speaker who lacks general skills of reading Chinese. The sign is a posting showing special consideration for handicapped customers in a public establishment. The sign is in a public restaurant guiding people living with disabilities on where to access amenities. The intended meaning and alternative translation should be “accessibility for disabled people”. The English translation comes out as very rude and insensitive. The use of pragmatics in the Chinese translation lacks a consideration of the way phrases and words are used and arranged in speech and writing to express meaning based on context. The translation “special for deformed” is too literal and leads to distortion of the intended meaning.
In another example, the sign used in an electrical shop shown in image 4 below creates quite a hilarious translation in English. The English translation creates a sexual meaning referring to self-pleasure. The sign further distorts the intended meaning by adding that the establishment will help the customer to “touch yourself”. This is a pragmatic error that uses literal and word for word translation from the Chinese language to create an equivalent meaning in English. The sign should read “Please do not touch the items. Ask for assistance from the staff. Thanks.” Here, the translated meaning is not literal but considerate of what the speaker intended to convey through the arrangement of the phrases and words in the Chinese language, based on the context and situation.
Image 4: Pragmatics translation error example
In summary, difference factors such as incompetence in English language, negligence, and a general lack of the understanding of the English language structure leads to the errors identified above. It is important that translators pay attention to the rules of writing, both in Chinese and English. Due to the differences in the structure and arrangement of words and the general system of the two languages, this may be difficult to achieve. That said, linguistic signs play a vital role and should be prepared in a better manner.
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Ardeshiri, M & Zarafshan, M 2014, ‘Students’ causes of errors in translating pragmatic senses’, International Journal of English and Education, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 238-254.
Enkvist, NE 1978, ‘Contrastive Text Linguistics and Translation’, in L Grähs, G Korlen & B Malmberg (eds), Theory and Practice of Translation, Peter Lang, Berne, pp. 169-188.
Li, M (ed.) 2010, An English-Chinese Translation Course for Business, Shanghai Foreign Languages Education Press, Shanghai.
Pellatt, V & Liu, ET 2010, Thinking Chinese Translation -A Course in Translation Method: Chinese to English, Routledge, London.
Xiao, T, Zhu, J & Zhu, M 2011, ‘Language modeling for syntax-based machine translation using tree substitution grammars: A case study on chinese-english translation’ ACM Transactions on Asian Language Information Processing (TALIP), vol. 10, no.4, pp. 1-29.