Matching the Differences in Grammar


23 Mar 2015

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Matching the Differences in Grammar and Lexicon in Translation Process


In Nida's view, "Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style" (Nida, Eugene A., 1975: 14). In other words, translation is the process of transformation from a speech product (or text) produced in one language to a speech product (or text) in another language. During this process of transformation the level of content in the source text should remain unchanged. However, the modes of thinking and expression of English and Chinese are very different. The influential European-born American literary critic, translator, and educator George Steiner remarks, "The difficulties of translating Chinese into a western language are notorious. Chinese is composed mainly of monosyllabic units with a wide range of diverse meanings. The grammar lacks clear tense distinctions. The characters are logographic but many contain pictorial rudiments or suggestions. The relations between propositions are paratactic rather than syntactic and punctuation marks represent breathing pauses far more than they do logical or grammatical segmentations. (George Steiner/After Babel, 1998: 271)" Chinese is a refined language with a tightly knit structure. Though it is one of the most ancient languages in the world, it still has strong expressiveness and utility value. During the process of translation, various differences between the grammar and lexicon are very common. The Chinese translator can never be so cocksure of what an English sentence or passage really means without being crystal clear about its syntactic and textual structure as well as the lexical and grammatical meanings of the expressions it contains. And a well-trained bilingual translator should have the ability to handle all these differences and give out a compete transcript of the original work, making sure the style and manner of writing are of the same character as that of the source text.

In the following part, I will analyze some features in the grammar and lexicon of English and Chinese and give some translation strategies.


English has a large vocabulary. Historically, it absorbed a giant number of words from other languages, i.e. French, Latin and Greek. Given the various origins and the synonyms already existed in English, the English speaker always have several choices to express a certain meaning. Hence there are many synonyms and near-synonyms in English. Also, polysemy appears widely in this language. Chinese has copious synonyms as well as near-synonyms, too. So the translators need to carefully consider the differences between all of the options and find the right word to use in particular situations.

There is no change of forms in Chinese vocabulary. The Chinese language users mainly express the meaning of a sentence through the words, the word orders and their internal logical relations. The English vocabulary has copious changes of forms, for instance, the nouns have singular and plural forms; the verbs have different forms when the person, the case, the tense, or the mood is changing; the adjectives and adverbs both have the comparative degree and the superlative degree; many words also can add the prefix or the suffix to change its meaning. While translating English to Chinese, the translator needs to add some words or change the form of Statement to show the change of forms in the English text. While translating Chinese to English, the translator should change certain forms to match the tense, the mood and the voice in the Chinese text. Here are two English sentences and their Chinese translations. His being neglected by the host added to his uneasiness (????????????). With defenses rigidly constructed in our own childhood and beyond, we can become frozen in our ability to adapt to the new role of caring for our children in a consistent and clear manner. Normal aspects of our children's experience such as their emotionality, their helplessness and vulnerability, and their dependence on us can feel threatening and become intolerable (???????????????????????,???"??????"?????????????????,??????????????????,????????????,?????) In the first sentence, "added to" is translated as "????" not "???" which is translated word by word because "uneasiness" means "???" which does not fit well with "???". The second sentence comes from a psychological book about parenthood named Parenting from the Inside Out which was translated to Chinese by me. There are two "children" in the text, I translated the first to "??" and the second "???". The reason is that the first one is in the text of "the new role of caring for our children", it is improper to say "???????????????" which is too redundant. Based on the code of the Chinese language, I omitted "?" which stands for the plural form and "???" which is a part of the  subject that needless to mention.

Generally speaking, in English, nouns, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs are more active and can express more meanings in the sentences while in Chinese, verbs, phrases and clauses are more powerful. Some adverbs in English are very informative which can be translated as a separate Chinese sentence or clause. In contrast, some Chinese clauses can be translated as a certain English word. For example, ?????,??????(He is a greenhand).


The overt cohesive relationships between parts of the texts are necessarily linked to a language's grammatical system (Halliday and Hasan 1976: 44). Thus, grammatical differences between languages will be expressed by changes in the types of ties used to mark cohesion in the source and target texts (Shoshana Blum-Kulka, 1986: 18). I will analyze the grammatical differences between English and Chinese in terms of sentence word order, sentence structure and paragraph awareness.

Sentence Word Order

There are some similarities in the word order of the sentences between English and Chinese, for example, the orders of the main part of a sentence (the subject, the predicate, the object and the predicative) are the same. The differences lie in the positions of the attribute and the adverbial.

Position of Attribute

In Chinese sentences, the attribute is always in front of the modified noun. As for English, if the attribute is a word, it is placed in front of the modified noun too; if the attribute is a phrase, then its position is always behind the noun. For example, The man you saw yesterday is his cousin(?????????????).

Position of adverbial

If the adverbial is a word, it should be placed in front of the modified adjectives and other adverbials, no matter in English or Chinese. For example, He works very hard (?????).

While the adverbial (a word) is modifying a verb, for Chinese, it should be placed in front of the modified word; for English, the position is more flexible. For instance, IT industry has been developing rapidly in these years(???IT?????????).The molecules of a gas are moving about extremely fast in all directions (??????????????????).

If the adverbial is a phrase, when it is modifying a verb, in English, the position of the phrase is flexible while in Chinese, in most cases, the phrase is in front of the modified part, e.g. William left the shop without a word (????????????).

Sentence structure

The English sentences value hypotaxis while the Chinese sentences pay more attention on parataxis. The English language always use morphological changes, conjunctions, prepositions, attributive clauses and absolute structures to indicate the grammatical relation between sentence elements. Having no morphological changes, attributive clauses and absolute structures and few conjunctions and prepositions, the grammatical relations between elements in Chinese sentences are often indicated implicitly. The Chinese sentential form is more casual than English. For instance, They are striving for the ideal which is close to the heart of every Chinese and for which, in the past, many Chinese have laid down their lives (??????????????,??????????????,???,?????????????????????).

Paragraph awareness

In English, if the whole paragraph only mentioned one person or a certain thing, the subjects seldom change which keeps coherence of the text. As for Chinese, there is no such rule for maintaining the subjects in a paragraph. Hence, while translating a Chinese paragraph to English, the translator should pay attention to the subjects. Here is an example. ????,???,????????,??????,?????,?????? (She got into her chair and was soon carried through the city wall. Peeping through the gauze panel which served as a window, she could see streets and buildings more rich and elegant and throngs of people more lively and numerous than she had ever seen in her life before) (Yang Hsien-yi/ Gladys Yang, 1995: 72). This sentence comes from the Classical Chinese Literature A Dream of Red Mansions and the English version was translated by Chinese translators Yang Hsien-yi and his wife Gladys Yang. The Chinese paragraph does not even mention the subject, but we can define that there are two subjects in this paragraph - the person and the street. As for the English version, in order to keep the coherence, the translator skillfully merges the second subject into the text by taking it as the object.


One of the translation standards put forward by Chinese translator and reformer Yan Fu in the 19th century is faithfulness (and the rest two are comprehensiveness and elegance). It is obvious that faithfulness is the most important standard among the three. However, there are disparities between one language and another - disparities in lexicon, in grammar and in linguistic structure, etc. So it is impossible to achieve the 'absolute faithfulness'. But a professional bilingual translator can achieve the real faithfulness in a possible sense - a faithful translation in good formality with not only the original context, but also the original form and style. Though there are many differences in lexicon and grammar between Chinese and English, as long as the translators mind these differences and take the related translation strategies, they still can contribute very profound translations and help people speaking different languages communicate with each other.

(1,942 words)


Halliday, M. and R. Hasan, 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman.

George Steiner, After Babel, 1998. Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Nida, Eugene A., 1975. Language Structure and Translation. Stanford: Standford University Press, California

Shoshana blum-kulka, 1986. Interlingual and Intercultural Communication: Discourse and Cognition in Translation and Second Language Acquisition Studies. Tubingen: Narr

Yang Hsien-yi/ Gladys Yang, 1995. A Dream of Red Mansions. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press

12/16/2009  Page7 of 7


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