Lost In Translation

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Languages are an interesting phenomenon. Simultaneously uniform in their composition yet distinct from one another, both constricted by grammatical rules and vocabulary yet flexible enough to say whatever you want to say in whatever way you want to say it. Languages are both shaped by, and shape, the conditions in which they evolve. It’s for this reason that you’ll find examples in other languages of words and phrases that describe concepts that we simply don’t have in the English language. This is part of what makes learning a foreign language so interesting. The German word ‘Schadenfreude’, for example, is one you may be familiar with, meaning a pleasure that’s derived from another person’s misfortune, a wonderful concept that somehow escaped being boxed up and packaged into being a part of our lexicon. The Indonesian word ’Mencolek’, the act of fooling someone by tapping them on the other side of the shoulder, is another that – to the detriment of the English language – never made the cut.

For anyone who’s in the process of learning a foreign language, you’ll have become aware that there are certain words, phrases, or idioms that, when translated, lose a little something, a little je ne sais quois, a little – as Thierry Henry might usher to you in his dulcet tones through your television screen – vavavoom. We’re referring to the nuanced stuff, the stuff behind the letters (or characters) that you don’t see at first glance, the carefully woven cultural fibres that –  over a period of sustained etymological evolution – the word or character has come to represent. 

When you first learn a new language, however, you go in blind. You’re in new territory. The pathways previously carved out through years of intimate familiarity with your Mother Tongue are no longer reliable reference points in your new terrain. Nonetheless, as a way of making sense of the new language you’re discovering, it is of course completely natural to take these new words and phrases that you’re learning and attempt to understand them through the lens of your own language.

This is compounded by the fact that whatever textbook you use will invariably give you translations in your own language for all the words and phrases you’re learning in your new language. Of course, this is a two way street. So when the Chinese take the word 玩 (wán), a ubiquitous concept that can simultaneously mean to play, to have fun, to amuse oneself, to joke, to enjoy oneself, as well as a whole number of other nuanced meanings, and translate it to simply to ‘play’, a degree of what we’ll refer to as ‘semantic degradation’ is unavoidable.
So when you’re confronted for the first time with a Chinese English learner saying things to you like ‘Do you want to go out and play together?’ or ‘Let’s go out and play’, it might well sound to you as though you’ve become the subject of an erotic proposition. The thing is that, in Chinese, the phrases    men chū  wán  (‘let’s go out and play’) and     men   wán  (‘let’s play together’) are extremely common. 玩 (wán) is “play”’s adaptable Chinese cousin. While in the English language ‘play’ is generally used in the context of sports, music, or conversations between or with children, in Chinese ‘玩 (wán)’ is a word that can be used in a whole manner of situations that generally refer to going out to enjoy oneself, seeing friends, and having a good time. While there are, of course, certain every-day usage nouns and verbs that all languages contain and can therefore be directly translated from one language to another without any semantic degradation at all, it’s important to be mindful that, in many cases, as soon as that translation happens, you just might lose a little something. 

Are you looking to improve your Chinese? Whether you want to come to China or want to study online from wherever you are, we’ve got you covered.

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