Stylistic preferences in English and Chinese

« previous post | next post »

This is from an ad for a new apartment building in University City next to Penn:

Wèi nín xià gè rénshēng jiēduàn ér zuò de gōngyù


"Apartments made for the next stage of your (honorific) life"

Here's the English version from the same website:

Apartments for the next phase in life

Note that the English version doesn't have "made" (ér zuò 而作) and "for you" (wèi nín 为 您) in it.  This makes the Chinese sound more prolix than the English.

The terseness of English in comparison to other languages is something we've often noticed on Language Log, e.g., "French vs. English" (8/2/15).

Here are remarks on the ad by a Chinese graduate student who has lived for six years in a much plainer and cheaper apartment about three blocks away from the new one:

The apartment looks so cool and… expensive! It is surprising that the company has a Chinese webpage! I think "Wèi nín xià gè rénshēng jiēduàn ér zuò de gōngyù 为您下个人生阶段而作的公寓” ("Apartments made for the next stage of your [honorific] life") sounds very odd. I would put something like “Wèi nín de qiúxué shēngyá liángshēn dìngzuò de gōngyù 为您的求学生涯量身定做的公寓” ("Apartment tailor-made for the period while you are in school") or simply “Wéi xuéshēng shēnghuó liángshēn dìngzuò de gōngyù 为学生生活量身定做的公寓” ("Apartment tailor-made for student life") if I were the manager. The phrase “xià yīgè rénshēng jiēduàn 下一个人生阶段” ("the next stage in life") is more likely to refer to starting one’s career or retirement in a Chinese context, not the years as a student in a university.

The phrase does not need a verb in English, but it sounds better to have “ér zuò 而作” ("made") in Chinese, although “nín xià yīgè rénshēng jiēduàn de gōngyù 您下一个人生阶段的公寓” ("apartment for the next stage in your life" — without a verb) is not grammatically wrong.

Every language has its genius.  It seems to me that one of the genius aspects of English is its brevity.

[h.t. Ross Bender; thanks to Jing Wen, Zeyao Wu, Jinyi Cai, and Xinchang Li]


  1. Tanya said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 7:50 am

    I assumed it was intended for retirees (because of 下个人生阶段, next stage of life). I know I'm not a native speaker, but that's not a phrase I'd associate with student living at all!

    I think Chinese can be very brief, but prefers to be poetic. Why say "keep off the grass" when you can say "little grass have life, please watch your step"??

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 8:05 am

    From another Chinese graduate student who lives in University City:

    I don’t think it would work grammatically if they drop off the “而作” part. I feel like there has to be a verb after “为sb.” – translated as “do sth. for sb.”, otherwise there will be no verb in this sentence.

    I do understand your concern because I also don’t like this sentence. It doesn’t have grammatical mistakes but it also doesn’t sound good enough to me. I can’t really figure out a better way to translate it, perhaps “给下个人生阶段的公寓” or “给您下个人生阶段的公寓”, then we don’t need the “为您而作” structure and it looks more compact.

    Actually this whole Chinese version looks a little bit like “google translation”. This ad is really American style – it works fine in English but not in Chinese. For example, the “寻找” part (寻找清静-Find clarity; 寻找社区-Find Community) seems really weird to me. First, it would sound better if they used “找到” instead of “寻找”, because the later means closer to “search, look for”. Second, nobody would understand “寻找社区” if there were no explanations afterwards. This whole expression is too English. A typical Chinese way in an ad could be “优质的社区环境”.

  3. DaveK said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 8:46 am

    At least when I was in school a generation ago, “student apartments” implied shabby, noisy, overpriced accommodations. “Next phase in life” has a touch of snob appeal, (“you’re moving up in the world”) and also will draw in those who really are starting off in their careers, and want to avoid being surrounded by undergrads.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 11:04 am


    There's a gentrification effect in student housing around Penn, with wealthy students (whose parents can afford to pay Penn tuition) from all around the world moving in to these fancy, new, expensive buildings that are springing up all around Penn.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

    Better would be 为您下个人生而作的公寓 :P

  6. Lugubert said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

    Terseness of English vs. other languages?

    When translating computer manuals from AmE into Swedish, the first requirement from the household name customer was that our translations should be about 30% shorter than the English.

    Made up example for German but retaining the style of the English we were fed:

    Now please press button A.

    A drücken.

  7. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

    @Victor Mair

    It seems odd that the English version would drop the pronoun "you(r)", especially given that, in advertising, the "personal connection" to the consumer is the ultimate desideratum. As it is, it sounds, not only impersonal, but stilted, which is why I'd agree that it's likely a machine translation of some sort.

    P.S. Sorry to hear about Penn gentrification; I lived on 40th & Walnut while in undergraduate school, as G-d intended! Past 40th street was deemed to be "proceed-at-your-own-risk" territory.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

    From yet another Chinese graduate student who lives in University City:

    Either way, with or without the "而作" part, it sounds strange.

    为您下个人生阶段而作的公寓 definitely sounds like an awkward translation of an English sentence. If you switch the subject and verb in this sentence around, you will see why it's awkward. One can't really 作一个公寓. You can say "打造一个公寓" “建设一个公寓”, etc. Maybe 为您下个人生阶段而打造的公寓 sounds more native, but it's a bit too long for an advertisement.

    为您下个人生阶段的公寓 sounds even more strange. It sounds like something is missing.

    If there is no "您“, it's harder for people to relate to, I guess (comparing to 为下个人生阶段而作的公寓). They all sound weird.

    To me, the Chinese version of the website is not carefully written. For example, these two sentences:


    Neither of these lines makes sense. I don't understand why an apartment in University City needs a website in Chinese while almost all Chinese students who will live there are somewhat English proficient.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

    "Now please press button A."

    That would be regarded as unnecessarily wordy in English. We would normally say just "Press A".

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 7:53 pm

    From still another Chinese graduate student who lives in University City:

    I will live in this apartment next year, but I did not notice it has a Chinese ad!

    I think this Chinese version is translated from the English ad "Apartments for the next phase in life (literally, 为人生的下一阶段的公寓 or 为下一人生阶段的公寓)." I think both these two Chinese translations are unnatural (or incorrect) because of "for." I think "for" which is commonly translated as “为了/为" is used as an adverbial clause of purpose in Chinese. But in English, the usual ways to express adverbial clause of purpose are "in case, so that, in order that, for fear that etc." I think all these phrases require subordinate phrases (at least a subject and a verb). Similarly, "为了" also requires a subordinate phrase (a subject and a verb), but it is common that there is no subject in a Chinese sentence. Thus, I would say, when we translate "for" as "为了", it requires the translator to add a verb, otherwise, it is unnatural.

    But I think except the verb "而作,” there are many other choices such as "而造,而建,而盖,而设计." At first, I think 而作 is not a correct phrase, but after checking its meaning in Xinhua Dictionary, I find it makes sense. One meaning of 作 is 举行, 进行 (proceed), and it represents a condition that this building is in progress. The manager told me that it will complete at the end of August. So I think 而作 makes sense here.

    If I have to drop 而作, I would also drop 为 and make it become a noun phrase “您下个人生阶段的公寓." But I think 为(您)而作 implies a service of the apartment which highlights the constructors that they build the apartment for the clients.

    Thus, I think 为您而作, as a subordinate clause makes this translation more common and natural. But for the character 您. It is common in ads because it implies a respect for clients.

  11. Lugubert said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

    My (obscure) point was exactly that, reinforced by the mentioning of the abbreviating requirement. Even for more "normal" texts, I find it not too difficult to express the meaning of the original in significantly fewer words. I wouldn't be surprised if a study of terseness in several languages would find that the average differences between indviduals are greater than between languages

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 8:23 pm

    "I wouldn't be surprised if a study of terseness in several languages would find that the average differences between indviduals are greater than between languages".

    Pure speculation.

  13. AG said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 11:26 pm

    Hm. Interesting… as a complete outsider I have long had a strong preconception that Chinese is much "briefer" than English.

    To someone like me, (again, an outsider looking in) Chinese has always seemed self-evidently much terser than English in at least three ways that spring to mind: grammatical complexity (I mean things like conjugating verbs, plurals, etc.), physical space it takes on the page, and number of syllables per word. The only way in which I'd have thought Chinese could be described as "longer" than English would be in number of strokes per character.

    Were all of my assumptions wrong? (Now that I think about it, my very first attempt personally to look at a facing translation of something from Chinese to English and figure out what was going on was the Dao De Jing, which obviously is not a representative text in any way and led me to think "wow, these people are VERY laconic".)

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 24, 2018 @ 6:31 am

    The Classical Chinese in which the Dao De Jing is written is almost like a code. It is a long dead book language in which people cannot have spontaneous, unrehearsed conversations. This is in contrast to a vernacular Sinitic language like Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), which has a completely different grammar, lexicon, and syntax, all of which are more expansive than those of Classical Chinese and Literary Sinitic.

  15. NatShockley said,

    August 24, 2018 @ 6:37 am


    From experience of working as an in-house translator at a translation company, I can say that the English version of a text tends to be shorter than the German or French version. But the Swedish versions are usually shorter still. So yes, English likes to be succinct, but Swedish probably even more so.

  16. liuyao said,

    August 24, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

    您下个人生阶段的公寓 from one of the comments may be the closest to the English. 为…而作 is not needed (and a bit awkward), just like "made" in English. True, it doesn't convey the sense in the proposition "for".

    That the translation of "phase in life" as 人生阶段 is not much longer. One more syllable, which is compensated by the shorter word for apartment. By the way, I just heard an American use "my house" when he meant "my apartment", and he admitted that he did it because house was shorter.

    I personally find the English word "phase", as used in various contexts in physics, is terribly confusing. You may hear "phase factor", "in/out of phase", "phase transition", without seeing any apparent relation to phases of the moon, which presumably is the original meaning. By contrast, if one wants to parse 阶段 or 公寓 into its constituents, it's fairly easy for any literate Chinese. (Just to be clear, one doesn't think about these when speaking, or maybe even writing.)

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    August 24, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

    '"Now please press button A." That would be regarded as unnecessarily wordy in English. We would normally say just "Press A".

    Not true in the days of pre-paid telephone boxes in the UK — the use of the word "button" was mandatory :


    1) Lift receiver, listen for "burring" sound (the dialling tone)
    2) Dial the number required
    3) a low pitched "burr-burr—burr-burr" (the ringing
    tone) indicates that your number is being rung
    4) When your correspondent answers and not before
    (unless you press button A you cannot be heard)
    5) If there is no reply or you hear an interrupted high
    pitched buzz (meaning line engaged) or a continuous
    high pitched buzz (meaning number unobtainable)-PRESS
    6) Do not touch receiver hook until conversation is
    ended or you will be disconnected.
    7) In case of )
    DIFFICULTY ) Lift receiver listen for "burring" sound
    or for ) DIAL "0"
    INFORMATION) (Do not insert coins)
    If money has been inserted regain it
    by pressing button B before dialling

  18. Victor Mair said,

    August 24, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

    "the days of pre-paid telephone boxes in the UK"

    How long ago was that?

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    August 24, 2018 @ 10:07 pm

    Maybe 60 years ago — I remember them from my childhood (say 1952+) but by the time I started work (1963) I think the U.K. must have switched to tone dialling, since 'fone freaking' was in vogue at that time. The fore-runner to 'fone freaking' was 'tapping it out', using the receiver rest to 'dial' the call and thereby avoid any necessity to "Press button A".

  20. Serbo-Canadian from Macau said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    With my limited Chinese, I would probablky phrase it something like "if you [are a] new student, these top end appartments [are] available"

RSS feed for comments on this post