The non-ineffability of "strip" as a measure word

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The Guardian published an article on "10 of the best words in the world (that don't translate into English)" (7/27/18).  Calling on nine of their correspondents, they introduced a bouquet of beautiful words, each one of which I am enamored:

SPAIN: sobremesa (Sam Jones in Madrid)

PORTUGAL: esperto/esperta (Juliette Jowit)

ITALY: bella figura (Angela Giuffrida in Rome)

GERMANY: Feierabend (Philip Oltermann in Berlin)

FINLAND: sisu (Jon Henley)

IRAN: Ta’arof (Saeed Kamali Dehghan)

RUSSIA: тоска (toska) (Andrew Roth in Moscow)

JAPAN: shoganai (Justin McCurry in Tokyo)

NETHERLANDS: polderen (Jon Henley)

CHINA: tiáo 条 (Madeleine Thien)

While I am rather dubious of the premise that these expressions cannot be translated into English, I would agree that it is unlikely there would be complete equivalence between them and the English words used to convey the same meanings, feelings, and nuances.

I will leave it to others to comment on the first nine items if they wish and will concentrate only on the tenth and last term, tiáo 条, which is covered by Madeleine Thien.  We have encountered Madeleine Thien before on LLog:

"'Arrival is a tree that is still to come'" (10/10/16)

Here is her little essay on "tiáo 条":

How do we categorise or classify things, thereby imagining them as one thing and not another? Unlike French or German, gender does not provide categories in Chinese, which groups things by something else entirely: shape.

Tiáo is one of at least 140 classifiers and measure words in the Chinese language. It’s a measure word for long-narrow-shape things. For example, bed sheets, fish, ships, bars of soap, cartons of cigarettes, avenues, trousers, dragons, rivers.

These measure words embrace the ways in which shape imprints itself upon us, while playfully noticing the relationships between all things. The measure word kē 颗 (kernel) is used for small, roundish things, or objects that appear small: pearls, teeth, bullets and seeds, as well as distant stars and satellites.

Gēn 根, for thin-slender objects, will appear before needles, bananas, fried chicken legs, lollipops, chopsticks, guitar strings and matches, among a thousand other things. “Flower-like” objects gather under the word duo 朵: bunches of flowers, clouds, mushrooms and ears.

It’s endlessly fascinating to me how we attempt to group anything or anyone together, and how formations change. Philosopher Wang Lianqing charts how tiáo was first applied to objects we can pick up by hand (belts, branches, string) and then expanded outward (streets, rivers, mountain ranges).

And finally tiáo extended metaphorically. News and events are also classified with tiáo, perhaps because news was written in long vertical lines, and events, as the 7th-century scholar Yan Shigu wrote, arrive in lists “one by one, as (arranging) long-shaped twigs”.

Onwards the idea broadened, so that an idea or opinion is also “long-shaped news,” and in the 14th century, tiáo was used for spirit, which was imagined as straight, high and lofty. In language, another geometry is at work, gathering recurrences through time and space. Madeleine Thien

What Thien says fundamentally makes sense, but I wish to point out that the tendency among many speakers of Mandarin is to forego precise, specific measure words (also called numerary adjuncts or classifiers) such as kē 颗 ("kernel" — for objects having a granular shape), suǒ 所 ("place" — for houses), bù 部 ("unit" — for novels or cars), liàng 辆 (for vehicles), zuò 座 ("seat / base / pedestal" —  for large, fixed objects), and so forth in favor of the general / universal measure word gè 个 ("piece / single item").

It is also worth noting that we can use "strip" in English in a manner that is quite similar to the usage of tiáo 条 as a measure word in Mandarin.

a strip of bacon

a strip of cloth

a strip of paper

a strip of pH paper

a strip of metal

a strip of land

a strip of fabric

a strip of acid / LSD (e.g., "ten strip trip")

Still, the frequent, obligatory use of measure words is a characteristic feature of Sinitic languages that lends charm to their rhetoric, but also pose challenges to translators who are often tempted to express them overtly in the target language, whereas they are usually best left covert.


"Italy is a dollop" (9/8/16)

"A [class.] zoo" (1/18/15)

[h.t. Peter Conn]


  1. Max Wheeler said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 9:30 am

    Noun classification systems (not necessarily shape-based) inspired the title of George Lakoff's famous book: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind.

  2. Max Wheeler said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 9:32 am

    Victor: bouquet of beautiful words, each one of which I am enamored -> bouquet of beautiful words, each one of which I am enamored of. :-)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 9:42 am

    Yes, Max, I thought about putting it that way too, and in retrospect should probably have gone ahead and done so. But somehow it just felt awkward….

  4. Frans said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 10:12 am

    Polderen is basically just consensus-based decision making: in short, a compromise. The difference is that the connotation is mostly positive, while I'd say for the word compromise it seems to be negative. Perhaps cooperation is a better English translation.

    Some use polderen negatively, to mean that every insignificant issue can be raised or something to that effect.

  5. julie lee said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 11:28 am

    "…Chinese, which groups things by something else entirely: shape".
    (Madeleine Thien)

    True enough, though I wonder why Chinese uses 項 xiang ("neck", "back of neck") to classify things, as in the following (where I've inserted the classifier in brackets):

    一項新聞 "a [neck of] news"

    一項特徵 "a [neck of] characteristic"

    一項事業 "a [neck of] undertaking

    一項邀請 "a [neck of] invitation"

    一項責任 "a [neck of] responsibility",

    where 項 xiang "neck" means "item", and where

    "a [neck of] responsibility", "a [neck of] characteristic"
    simply means

    "a responsibility", "a characteristic".

    Shape doesn't seem to figure in here.

    English of course has "a neck of the woods" where "neck" means "part, section".

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    " a strip of land" — performed a coal company in W Virginia/Kentucky?
    "a strip of fabric" –performed by an ecdysiast doing the Dance of the Seven Veils?

  7. Marnanel Thurman said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

    The Finnish "sisu" seems to correspond pretty closely to the English "bloodymindedness".

  8. the other Mark P said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

    "The sobremesa is a digestive period …"

    Er, so it can be translated into English in two words. Hardly untranslatable. (Assuming you don't use siesta, which is fairly well introduced into English now.)

    Sure the connotations aren't there, but that's true of all words all the time. Try to explain the connotations of "bathroom" to a non-English speaker some time — it sure isn't just a room with a bath.

  9. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    The unstated but obvious premise of the article is flawed: an adequate translation must consist of a single word that is always the perfect translation equivalent of one of those words, no matter the utterance in which the latter appears.

    Linguists, translators, interpreters, and compilers of non-monolingual dictionaries know that adequate translation equivalents do not necessarily consist of a single word and that an adequate translation equivalent in one utterance may not be suitable in another utterance.

    The Spanish word can easily be translated into English, by one word or by more than one, and the translation equivalent would not necessarily be the same for any two utterances.

  10. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    Among nouns that take the classifier tiao, ming 'a life' deserved mention… speaking of the inadequacy of one-word translational equivalents…

  11. Tom davidson said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

    Thien is the Romanizaion of which Chinese surname?. Please reply. Thanks.

  12. Lupus753 said,

    July 28, 2018 @ 10:49 pm

    @Suzanne: The Japanese "shoganai" is THREE words long and literally means "there's no way", so I don't know why they called it "untranslatable".

  13. Lai Ka Yau said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 1:14 am

    As a Cantonese speaker, I was taken aback to find that 條 was chosen as a 'beautiful word' because to us, it's probably the least beautiful classifier. While there's nothing wrong with using it to literally mean 'strip', it is also used before people in a scornful, somewhat dehumanising way.

  14. Thorin said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 1:26 am

    I'm pretty confident using "quitting time" or, in some instances, "closing time" for the German "Feierabend".

  15. Andrew said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 3:37 am

    "each one of which I am enamored" should surely be "each one of which I am enamored of". Or, for diehard preposition-stranding-avoiders, "of each one of which I am enamored".

  16. Len said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 4:27 am

    I edit academic papers written in English by Chinese-speakers. Before I started this work, I knew nothing about measure words in Sinitic languages. Now that I have some idea how ubiquitous they are, I'm impressed by how well the Chinese writers prevent them, by and large, from intruding into their written English. Just occasionally they do crop up in phrases like "10 pieces of ball-bearings" instead of "10 ball bearings" (as a made-up example).

  17. J. Silk said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 5:01 am

    Weird; maybe it's a dialect thing, but I would definitely have said enamored 'with'; ngram viewer, however, indicates that this is significantly less common than the expression with 'of'. Any thoughts?

  18. Bart said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 5:08 am

    Poldermodel is a Dutch term meaning that different parties in society collaborate in an enlightened way on political decision-making.

    That is a pretty specialised usage. The verb ‘polderen’ is rarely used outside politics. You’d be unlikely to hear (eg) a Dutch equivalent of ‘My old schoolfriends have poldered the details of our forthcoming reunion’.

    As Frans implied above, a problem with the term (and a reason for avoiding it in non-political contexts) is that it may not be clear whether it is meant positively (ie excellent thing that the details of the reunion were settled democratically) or negatively (ie ill-structured debate that could have been reached better conclusions more quickly if there had been a strong moderator).

  19. B.Ma said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 7:08 am

    @Tom davidson, Wikipedia and Wiktionary will answer your question. It seems to be Hakka, although I would have assumed it was Vietnamese.

  20. Jonathan Silk said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 7:13 am

    @Lupus753: shoganai does not mean "there's no way". If you wanted to (I would say, unidiomatically, since I don't think English speakers normally say this casually) translate it, it could be something like "It can't be helped." Maybe something closer to 'tough luck,' or 'that's just the way it is,' or 'that's karma', but also 'we'll just have to do it that way after all,' etc etc.
    I've been trying to think of a circumstance when "there's no way" would actually even work, and at least right now nothing springs to mind…

    @Bart: I'm sure my experience is less rich than Bart's, but my impression of 'poldermodel' is that is (also?) used to mean endless gabbing so that everyone feels they get their say, and–as he says in closing, what results is a discussion (I think debate is optimistic) which rather than leading to a conclusion often ends in exhaustion and, if anything at all, the agreement that the tentative decision reached before all the gabbing took place is ok after all. Perhaps it once was intended positively, but I can't recall ever having heard it used that way in my 11 years in NL.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 8:28 am

    Instead of shō ga nai しょうがない, I learned shikata ga nai 仕方がない, which has the same meaning: "it cannot be helped" or "nothing can be done about it".

    Both these Japanese expressions seem to evince pretty much the same mentality as Mandarin "méiyǒu bànfǎ 沒有辦法" ("there's no way"). Yet there's a slight difference that's difficult to tease out. Whereas the Japanese phrase suggests dignified resignation, the Chinese expression hints at hopelessness or conveys what the speaker considers to be an inescapable statement of fact.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 8:43 am

    @Tom davidson

    Sorry you had to wait so long for an answer. The Chinese character for her surname is 鄧 / 邓, full name 鄧敏靈 / 邓敏灵, MSM pronunciation Dèng Mǐnlíng. She was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1974 to a Malaysian Chinese father and a Hong Kong Chinese mother.

  23. krogerfoot said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    Shō ga nai, as commented above, is a sentence rather than a word, and it's always odd to see it imbued with ineffability by people learning Japanese. As Jonathan Silk notes, it's a pretty pedestrian response to a request, meaning "can't be helped/nothing we can do"; as a transition to a new suggestion, it matches "oh well . . ." pretty closely.

    Dare I say: a better candidate for Japanese would be the adjective 懐かしい natsukashii. It's not untranslatable in any sense but doesn't have any close equivalent in English. "Nostalgic" doesn't begin to cover the way natsukashii is used to describe the speaker's reaction to any pleasant memory that the listener is expected to understand, share, or be about to learn about. Depending on context, translators reach for sentences:
    Those were the days . . .
    That brings back memories . . .
    Haven't heard that in awhile!

    These can be rendered sarcastically as well: Ah, that old chestnut.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 9:35 am

    From Wang Tong:

    The measure words Madeleine Thien writes about must be quite confusing to beginners. Even if one could understand the general principle of using 条, he will still be wondering why 条 is the measure word for a dog, but not for any other animals. Hahaha… now I feel at peace with French and Sanskrit gender. To add to what Madeleine writes, there is still a difference between 条 and 条儿. We will say 一条儿消息/新闻 (a piece of information/news), but never 一条儿河(a river) or 一条儿皮带 (a belt).

    The Iranian Ta'arof also arouses my interest. I am not sure about the Chinese word (maybe 客套?) for this sort of etiquette, which was quite common for the generation of my grandparents. The lunch example sounds very familiar and it still happens nowadays. The most common relics is a contest to pay the bill at the end of a banquet.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 10:13 am

    From Mi Xiuyuan:

    Hmmm, yes, but liàngcí 量詞 ("measure words") are much more complicated than this. For example, a more literary way to say 一條魚 is 一尾魚. Or 棟/幢;臺/輛, 首/ 曲 /支 (song, distinction of use can be very subtle) and it changes when the number increases e.g., 一本書–一摞書. A countable object can become a counter of n as well–箱,櫃,樹 (一樹梨花), 池. Such counting can be extended to something intangible, e.g., 一身正氣. Or for events –一場比賽,一場音樂會 (space), 一場運動( time)….

    More metaphorical cases: 一眼泉水 ( comp w/一汪–sensory quality), 一口井 (an interesting comparison would be x口人); 一篇文章、書法–can't be used for poetry, but people do say 詩篇, yet the counting noun is 首 (same as 歌, yet for 歌 one can use 支, which is never used for poetry).

    A bar of soap is almost always counted with 塊–tiao is definitely wrong.

    I think measure words reflect Chinese language's general sensitivity toward psychological impressions. Sometimes it's associated with a verb, e.g., 一把椅子, 一把頭髮(comp w/一根頭髮), 一把鎖, 一把劍/刀/剪子–many potentially dangerous tools, 一束花 (comp w/ 一朵花), 一串珍珠 ( comp w/ her 顆); 一行人,xx一行. 一夥人 (connotative difference with 群), in classical, 騎 is also a counting verb.

    Anyhow, that's what i can think of off the top of my head. I have heard numerous people complaining about measure words — I don't think Chinese consciously choose them in daily conversations though.


    Additional thoughts:

    What I wrote above is quite discursive and by no means exhaustive of the use of 量詞 ("measure words") — actually it just came to my mind that their uses also differ across regions. People from my hometown in Yuyao tend to use 件 (instead of 塊/個–even for snacks), 貫 (instead of 串), and a word pronounced similar to guang I'm not sure how to transcribe in character–I suspect it's 根 though. Other localities must also have their unique ways of use.
    Also–a counter-intuitive example: carpet/mat is almost always 塊, not 張.

  26. Lupus753 said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

    @Jonathan Silk: I was giving a LITTERAL translation, not an idiomatic one.

  27. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 1:24 pm

    @ J. Silk

    The answer to your question about why "enamoured of…" rather than any other preposition is that "enamour" comes from French and the French etymon takes the preposition "de," as here:

    "[Que] (…) Zola et Mallarmé aient été pris et se fussent tant enamourés de son art, ce peut être pour lui [Manet] un grand sujet d'orgueil (Paul Valéry, Pièces sur art, 1931, p. 206).

  28. Beverley Charles Rowe said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 2:04 pm

    This sort of foray into comparative linguistics always seem to carry the implication that English is in some way inferior. But with its huge vocabulary English must often have words lacking in other languages. But so what, they can generally be translated by short phrases.
    But I am always puzzled how the French can have no word for 'shallow'.

  29. speedwell said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

    Someone I know overheard me talking to my mother-in-law. MIL and I are both in the habit of using the expression, "but you know, it is what it is". The bystander apparently thought that expressed Shō ga nai pretty closely.

  30. Thaomas said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

    Not beautiful, but intriguing in Spanish is "estrenar," to use or show off something for the first time and the noun "estreno" that first use/showing. I also like the Spanish distinction between inside corner (of a room, say), rincon" and outside corner (of a street, say), "esquina."

  31. loonquawl said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 2:21 am

    @ Thorin: 'Feierabend' not only points to the time after work, it can also mean the activities therein, the finishing of work, general endings, and much more. But i agree that it is not untranslateable, you'd simply have to pick the contextually right translation.

  32. Bart said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 4:53 am

    'Feierabend' can also mean something like 'end of story';
    eg (in German) 'Once the tanks broke through the enemy's front line, Feierabend!'
    'As soon as the interviewer asked if I'd ever been in prison, that was Feierabend!'
    In that sense I see no one-word English equivalent.

  33. Krogerfoot said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 6:07 am

    @Bart, something like “Game Over!”?

  34. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 8:06 am

    @ Beverley Charles Rowe. At least in Catalan, French, Italian, and Spanish,
    the equivalent of "shallow" in the literal sense of the word consists of two orthographic words: poc profund, peu profond, poco profondo, and poco profundo respectively (literally, 'little deep').

  35. Ellen K. said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 9:32 am

    I think there's a difference between "untranslatable" and "unexpressible". Some things are hard or impossible to translate without trying to guess at the mindset of the speaker or writer. Not necessarily the things that get labeled "untranslatable", mundane things like pronouns. Difficulty in translating a word or phrase used by someone else, though, does not make the thought unexpressible. And unexpressible seems to often by the idea behind calling something "untranslatable.

  36. raempftl said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

    When I studied "Translotologie", the very first thing we were taught was "Words of one language do not have 1:1 equivalents in another" (with some rare exceptions) and the second which followed from the first was "We do not translate words, we translate texts".

    Based on this way of thinking, these words are indeed untranslatable because all words are.

  37. BZ said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:22 pm

    I'd say "longing" is pretty close to Russian "toska", Sure, it's not an exact translation, but there's no Russian word that means "longing" precisely either.

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 5:09 pm

    Bart : "'As soon as the interviewer asked if I'd ever been in prison, that was Feierabend!'. In that sense I see no one-word English equivalent."

    Well, German is somewhat freer than English when it come to forming nouns by agglutination, so I would expect that to be the case for a number of words, and therefore (IMHO) Feierabend is not especially unusual in that respect. Elsewhere, others have cited Sprachverliebte, Fahrtrichtungsanzeiger and Fernstraßenbauprivatfinanzierungskonzept (!).

  39. Rodger C said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 9:20 am

    "Sobremesa" doesn't mean "siesta" because it involves conversation, not sleep. Also I don't think it's limited to early afternoon.

  40. Chas Belov said,

    August 3, 2018 @ 3:05 am

    I was going to ask whether measure words varied from one Chinese language to another when I read Mi Xiuyuan's comment that there is even regional variation. Has anyone recorded these variations in one place?

    @Lai Ka Yau: Interesting that in Cantonese 條 when referring to a person is insulting. I would have guessed 隻 (Yale: jek) to behave that way, as my understanding is that it is used to count animals.

  41. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    August 3, 2018 @ 7:48 am

    @ Rodger C. You're right about "sobremesa." Contrary to what another poster wrote, the word does not mean 'digestive period' either, which in Spanish is "periodo digestivo."

  42. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    August 3, 2018 @ 8:00 am

    The original meaning of "sobremesa" was 'desert'. The word is no longer used in that sense.

    Rather, it appears typically in such idioms as:

    estar de sobremesa 'be sitting around the table (after a meal), as in

    estaban de sobremesa cuando de repente oyeron un estallido 'they were sitting around the table (after breakfast / lunch / supper / coffee break etc.) when suddenly they heard an explosion'.

    charla de sobremesa 'after-dinner chat, after-dinner conversation'

    Raemptfitl is of course right: one translates texts, not words.

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