Translation Rules and Difficulties (English & Chinese)

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By Darkgaia, In progress

Chinese and English are two of the world's most-spoken languages. First and second place, respectively. (See: Wikipedia:List of languages by total number of speakers) Being able to translate between these two languages effectively places one at a significant advantage, considering the astronomical demand for such a service. However, quality translation between English to Chinese is, irritatingly, a very difficult task. Internet memes have been made of poor Chinese -> English translations in China. High school and college students undertake multiple-year courses in order to specialize in the field of English-Chinese language-pair translation. As of this writing, the best method to translate the English-Chinese language pair is through professional human translators. I have not yet found any machine translation programs that can produce even a decent sentence-based translation of the English-Chinese language-pair.

This page attempts to describe and explain the challenges of English-Chinese language-pair translation, and, hopefully, Apertium might be able to build a prototype for this revered language pair in the future. Technical rules are left in their Chinese forms to assist any future Chinese linguists/developers working on this language pair.

Common Translation Mistakes

Meaning Errors


Word flow


Vague Translations (生词词义不明)

This occurs when the translator fails to capture the meaning of the source text accurately because words used in the target text are vague, nonspecific,or ambiguous.

Contextual Errors (熟词望文生义)

This occurs when the translator understands the words individually but did not take into account the context.

For example:

(zho) 番茄 1粒 → 1 tomato

(zho) 花椰菜(花碎) 少许 → A little broccoli

(zho) 蟹柳 1条 → 1 crab meat (willow)

The last one is an example of an error.

Lexical Selection Errors (因词害义)

This occurs when the translator chooses the wrong translation for a word that has more than one translation in the target language.

(zho) 干菜类 → Dried vegetables :: F*** vegetables

"干菜" means dried and "类" means type. The translation should read "dried vegetables". However, "干" is also colloquial slang for "f***". The translator's poor lexical selection resulted in a widely-circulated internet joke.

Sentence Formation


Word Usage (词法)

Sentence Structure (句法)

Cultural/Shared Knowledge


Logic Relationship


Expression Errors


Inappropriate Word Usage


Flawed Sentence Construction


Modifier-Head Construction (定中结构)

Subject-Verb Agreement (壮中结构)

Logic Flow (逻辑顺序)

Wrong Grammar Transfer Rules


This occurs when the translator translates the sentences according to the wrong grammar rules. For example, when translating from English to Chinese, the result is written according to English Grammar (which is wrong).

English and Chinese Translation Rules

Sentence Structure

English (Verb oriented sentence structure)

  • SV (intransitive)
  • SVO (transitive + object)/(Prep + verb + object)
  • SVOO (direct + indirect object)
  • SVC (linluing V / transitive V / verb to "be" + Complement)
  • SVOC
  • SVOA (Adverbial [壮语]) 壮中结构
  • SVA

Chinese (Subject + Predicate single sentences) (主谓单句)

  • 动词谓语句 (SV, similar to English)
  • 名词谓语句 (No verb, N + N)
  • 形容词谓语句 (主)(谓) (Theme and Rheme)
  • 主谓谓语句 [(主)( 谓 ) ]

Missing Subject Sentences (零主语句)

Chinese sentences need not necessarily have a subject (the subject can be omitted, or defined implicitly according the context). However, English sentences usually do. The translator must remember to replace the appropriate subject (also known as a "dummy subject") into the English sentence after translation.

Connecting Sentences (流水句)

These are Chinese sentences used to connect ideas in a Chinese paragraph. When translating into English, one must remember to observe the appropriate English sentence structure: The first clause followed by additional supplementary information.

"Is" Sentences (“是”字句)

The Chinese equivalent of "Is" is the word “是”. A translator must take note of the words before and after 是 in order to produce the correct equivalent logical translation in English.


English -> Chinese

SVO[C] -> [(话题),(说明)]

(eng) Subjects are usually noun-based.

  • Noun Phrases
  • Infinitive Verbs
  • "What"
  • "That"

They can also be descriptions about time or locations (Proper Nouns)

(eng) English contains the use of Marked Themes/Sentence structures to convey emphasis 英语也有“话题--说明”句子.

(zho) The subjects of Chinese Sentences need not necessarily be a noun/noun phrase

Tree Structures vs Branch Structures

(树式结构 vs 竹式结构)

(eng) Simple sentence structure: Subject + Predicate (基本的主干 → 主语+谓语)

  • Any further sentences or supplements branch from this basic sentence structure.

(zho) Do not conform to to one specific sentence structure

  • Relies on meaning and context to deliver a message implicitly