Before I started my PhD project, I worked as a part-time translator for a reading club, and my major task was to translate British detective fiction into Chinese which would be sent to the small-scale, in-group “publication”. When I was asked about my work, some annoying people believed that the job was rather easy; to put it in their own words, “if you give an English-Chinese dictionary a typewriter, it will do all the work for you”, which, I think, is a prejudiced and unfair comment, not only on the translator, but also on the task of translation. When the nature of translation is finally presented to us, we will find that it is not a simple “word-matching” game. Actually, translation involves a more complicated mechanism which may cause great frustration, because we will finally get lost in translation no matter how hard we struggle. Today, I would like to name a few issues that are notable if we analyse “translation” from the perspective of semantics and pragmatics, and, due to my knowledge and preference, I will focus on the translation between English and Chinese.

The basic form of translation, if we follow the common belief, is to find a group of words in the target language that correspond to the words in the source language, and then form the sentence using all these words. That is also the basic practice of students who are starting to learn how to translate. The fundamental problem, then, comes from “finding the corresponding words”: Is there any degree of correspondence? For an ideal translation, we need to find the words between the two languages whose meanings are strictly equivalent to each other: they will have the same, fixed, unambiguous meaning, or, if the words are ambiguous, they need to be ambiguous “in the same way”, and the ambiguous meanings should form a one-to-one match between each other.

At this stage, polysemy can only make matters worse, so we should better limit our discussion to the words with “fixed, unambiguous” literal meaning. Not a lot of words hold a stable and unambiguous meaning in English; definitely we could name a few, but the number is rather small compared with the vocabulary of an average native speaker. One simple idea for the selection of such type of words is to refer to David Kaplan’s (1989) concept of character and content. Briefly, the character of a word is the “meaning” of a word which is set by the linguistic conventions, while the content is the “meaning” of a word which is determined by the character in a particular context. Following that definition, words with a stable character are suitable for our requirement. In Kaplan’s categorisation, that class only includes indexical expressions (e.g. I, here, now) and proper names (e.g. Chris Xia, University of Cambridge). If we extend the definition of proper names, we can also include a number of abstract scientific concepts, for instance helium and Higgs Boson, but the limitation is clearly shown: Only a limited number of words can have a very definite literal meaning across different languages, and we can only expect that other words will only have “roughly the same” counterparts in another language.

Even if we can successfully identify a set of words that can have strictly the same literal meaning (namely the same character) between English and Chinese, the situation is still more complex than we might expect. Take the pronouns as an example – pronouns are usually the perfect illustration of indexical terms, but the conventional use of pronoun differs between languages. Standard Chinese clearly differentiates two second person singular pronouns, ni and nin. Nin is the honorific form, which is generally used to address strangers and seniors, while ni is more casual and can be used between family members and friends. When a piece of Chinese text with the different use of ni and nin is to be translated into English, the translator can only reduce the two forms to a single word “you”, if she does not want to bother her readers with the archaic form “thou”. Although both “you” and ni/nin constantly refer to the person who is targeted in the conversation, the appearance of honorific form conveys additional information that will be lost in the translation. I do not intend to complain that English finally lost the plain form of second person singular pronoun, but it does create obstacles during the process of translation. Finding the strictly corresponding words is far away from an ideal readable translation, and that is also the reason that a strict literal translation never really exists.

Let’s take one step back and select some words that are “roughly the same” among different languages; that is much easier for the translators, and is the common practice by both professional and amateur translators. The notion of “roughly the same” already implies that the definition of a particular word in two languages is different, which indicates that the actual concept represented by the selected words can be slightly different across two languages. In the usual case, such a difference will not cause any comprehension problem, but it will still lead to miscomprehension or difficulty of understanding in the translation of certain text, and such miscomprehension is clearly language-related, or even culture-related. Imagine an excerpt of conversation in a British story book for kids: A mother said to her son who is extremely picky about his food, “you should eat more vegetables and fewer potatoes – here, eat some sweetcorn.” That utterance is perfectly natural in British English, because British people categorise potatoes as starchy food rather than a kind of vegetable, while sweetcorn is classified as vegetable. If, however, a translator follows the literal correspondence and translates this piece of advice into Chinese as “you should eat more shucai, and fewer tudou – here, eat some yumi“, the Chinese readers will surely be confused. Chinese language regards tudou (potatoes), but not yumi (sweet corn), as a member of shucai (vegetable), and how can a child eat more vegetable by eating more sweetcorn rather than potatoes? That does not make any sense in Chinese. The sense of the text is distorted by the mismatch between concepts, although the translator makes a perfect and conventional literal translation. The variance of concept encoding is another problem that translation can hardly solve, and this problem is definitely beyond the simple translation of literal meanings.

Even if we manage to overcome the difficulties of word selection and concept matching, some more complicated situations still await us. To give you a taste of such a situation, I would like to present a case that has happened to me before. When we discussed the conversational maxims proposed by Grice in my masters programme, one of my classmates, who is born and raised British, told us that “I am washing my hair” is a poorly-formed excuse if you want to reject someone’s invitation on the telephone. Later I described the setting of the conversation in Chinese to my friends from mainland China, “if you phone your friend to ask her whether she would like to go shopping with you on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and her reply is ‘I am washing my hair’, what would you think about her reply?” To my surprise, 80% of them told me, “That’s fine! She is asking me to wait for her, and we will go after she finishes washing her hair.” The difference in that example comes from the derivation of implicatures in different languages, which is totally beyond the words and sentence structure, and cannot be eliminated even if we carefully control the selection of words and the formation of a single sentence in the process of translation. The difference will still exist if you change the wording, unless the translator chooses to spell out the implicature.

Following my analysis, you may feel that an ideally faithful translation is almost a mission impossible; and trust me, it is. Since the emergence of literal meanings of words as well as, potentially, implicatures of utterances is conventional within a particular language, it is difficult to balance these conventional meanings cross-linguistically. Any form of translation will lead to the loss of some information, and the only difference is the form and the amount – either explicit information or implicit information, either more or less. Not just a matter of  study for translation theories, this is also a long-term question in the field of second language comprehension and cross-linguistic pragmatics, and I believe that some relevant research may finally help to rescue this kind of loss in translation.


Kaplan, David. 1989. ‘Demonstratives’, in Joseph Almog, John Perry and Howard Wettstein (eds.), Themes from Kaplan (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 481–563