Englishy Chinese

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In a moment of whimsy, I concluded a note to a friend thus: 

wǎng qiánmiàn kànzhe 往前面看著 ("looking forward")

Whereas, the usual way to express that idea in idiomatic Chinese would be:

qídài 期待 ("expect; look forward to; await; wait in hope")

I referred to my intentionally deformed Chinese as Yīngshì Zhōngwén 英式中文 ("English style Chinese") and asked some friends what they would call that kind of writing (I was searching for a parallel to "Chinglish").

Zihan Guo replied:

The closest thing I can think of is "fānyì qiāng 翻譯腔" (VHM:  "translatese"). It has a fuzzy definition but usually refers to a literal rendering of idiomatic expressions from the source language, resulting in almost laughable unnaturalness in the target language (people enjoy it though). Classic example:

"Wǒ xiàng shàngdì fāshì yào hěnhěn de tī nǐ de pìgu"


I am sure you know what the original English would be.* With translation from Japanese into Chinese, it can lead to an ungrammatical omission of subjects and a stream-of-consciousness style of narration. These all start from unprofessional translators or too much faithfulness to the original, but somehow contribute to some stereotypes Chinese people hold for foreign languages.

This strayed too much away from your question, but I happened to have watched a hilarious video last week, dubbing a Qing dynasty palace drama in different kinds of fānyì qiāng 翻譯 ("translatese").

[*VHM:  "I swear to god I'm going to give you a swift kick in the ass; I swear to god I'll kick your ass hard "]

I suspect that this kind of playful mistranslation or intentionally awkward, unidiomatic translation occurs with all languages, but it is very common in Chinese, where native speakers seem to have honed it to a fine art.


Selected readings


  1. Laura Morland said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 2:08 pm

    It seems to me that what you've done is a fun game that many bilingual people like to play with each other. (I'm assuming that your correspondent speaks colloquial English, and would instantly get your little joke.)

    My version of "Franglish" is to say, for example,"Oh, it's too far to walk — I'll have to *displace myself* in the bus."

    Or sometimes I like to sign off a casual communication to a friend by writing, "Big kisses," or (more rarely) "I kiss you," which are phrases one would reserve for a spouse or lover in English, but are direct translations of "gros bisous" and "je t'embrasse" — expressions which women friends, at least, exchange in emails or texts all the time here in France. (The second one is only used for close friends, however.)

    I'm curious why 我向上帝發誓要狠狠地踢你的屁股 happens to be a "classic example"?

  2. tom davidson said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 3:12 pm

    Hi everyone,
    In my 60 years as a C2E translator (mostly military, trade/commerce, economics, all kinds of contracts, legal documents, news articles, advertising, Excel spreadsheets, TCM papers, Chinese history, Chinese idioms, etc.), I've run across too many examples of Chinglish and outright laughable translations, especially after Google came out with its translation software, and Chinese tranlation companies and myriad C2E/E2C dictionaries sprang up on the internet; some just give you the pinyin as the answer. To counter this, I go to Reverso C2E or an on-line English thesaurus, and have the online translation software translate them back into Chinese to see if they match. Have other suggestions? Email me anytime. Thanks!!

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 3:42 pm

    I know that "embrasser" can mean "kiss", but I would tend to think of it more as "embrace", though apparently it is dated in that sense. What, then, is the difference between "embrasser" and "baiser" in the sense of "kiss", and how and when did "embrasser" displace — so to speak (see Laura's comment) — "baiser" to convey the idea of "kiss"? I must say that now I am acutely embarrassed (!) by the nuances of contemporary French terms for osculation. When I learned high school French more than sixth years, it was "baiser".

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 3:52 pm

    "Baiser" as a noun means "kiss." As a verb, however, it means "fuck".

  5. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 9:46 pm

    Of very weak relevance, but I remember a post here on importing scientific terms or upbringing (a way to) reference to the concept in language. As it also happens with Turkish, this awkward expression is, in my opinion, prevalent when you instead go all-in phonetically borrowing or just morpheme-by-morpheme copying the original term; I remember trying to make this point back then.

  6. David C. said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 11:04 pm

    A parallel that I can think of for this kind of English-y unidiomatic Chinese is media reporting of court cases and occasionally government policy announcements in Hong Kong. This is very real with court judgments written originally in English where snippets are rendered into Chinese for news reporting. The most glaring involved taking English expressions and translating them literally into Chinese. Struggling to think of a particularly good example now.

    Re: 翻譯腔
    Western films dubbed into Mandarin, particularly those from several decades ago, are unmistakably "foreign", with heavy use of expressions that the Chinese would never pronounce in daily life. The likes of "親愛的, 真是太棒了!" (Dear, that's really wonderful!), "好極了" (Excellent), "我簡直不敢相信我的耳朵" (I simply can't believe my ears) in a sing-songy voice.

    From a prescriptivist perspective, 歐化中文 (Westernized Chinese) is now very common. Through influence from English, the use of XX性 (-ness) and XX化 (-ize) is pervasive, as well as the use of the passive voice where the more idiomatic active voice would have done the trick.

    Cultural translation can be difficult as well, when it goes beyond looking for the idiomatically equivalent expression. You may have to express the idea in a completely way to make it culturally appropriate.

    @Laura Morland
    To this day, I am not sure what is the best way to express the idea in English "Je me suis fait contrôler" – in Franglish "I got myself controlled".

  7. liuyao said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 2:38 am

    The classic example has to be 不能同意更多 (lit. Can’t agree more) to express complete agreement.

  8. KevinM said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 11:57 am

    At least in the NYC area, children/descendants of Yiddish-speaking immigrants will use unidiomatic translations either jocularly or as an in-group signal — e.g., "I don't know from x" to mean "I don't know anything about x." BTW, Corey L, I got the indecency warning about "baiser" (verb) in H.S. French class as far back as the 1970s.

  9. KevinM said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 11:59 am

    *Coby* – sorry!

  10. VVOV said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 8:09 pm

    @KevinM, as a non-Yiddish-speaking non-New-Yorker, I was aware of "I don't know from x" and vaguely thought of it as a "New York" thing, but never knew that it was a calque from Yiddish – interesting!

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 8:32 pm

    From Zachary Hershey:

    I have seen the English "my hands are tied" translated as "我手被綁住” instead of "無能為力" in subtitles, which does not cause much in terms of semantic confusion, but still sounds a bit strange to a Chinese speaker/reader.

    Another one: We were watching a British drama with Chinese subtitles, and one of the characters said "Spill the tea!" meaning basically the same as "Spill the beans!" in American English (tell me the news/secret/gossip). The Chinese translation said "茶翻了”. We had a good laugh.

    Another one: For the English "sit tight," meaning something like "please wait," I've seen 坐穩了, which to a Chinese speaker probably means something like "get ready" more than "please wait."

    Not directly related to this topic but perhaps tangentially, there are some Chinese phrases that you don't really see being directly translated into English so often but present rather humorous translations when they do: "I'm about to grow mold." 我要發霉了 (I'm bored),"I had my pigeons released." 我被放鴿子 (I was stood up.),"I was greened" 我被綠了 (I was cheated on.), or "They gave me a green hat to wear" 他給我戴綠帽子 (They cheated on me.).

  12. a s said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 9:45 pm

    Extremely literal and poorly written Japanese->English media translations are still common in games (some because amateurs are faster than pros, some because they underpay translators.)

    The effect is people now complain when you /don't/ do it; they'd rather see every character have the same voice and say "it can't be helped" all the time than see a modern kid use actual modern slang.

  13. RachelP said,

    January 11, 2022 @ 12:35 am

    @Laura Morland
    But you do need a very firm grasp of idiom in both languages.
    A French-speaker friend recently tried to "Franglish" in this way, for "If I'm not mistaken" using the French expression "Si je ne m'abuse".

    Yeah, maybe don't say "If I don't abuse myself" …

  14. ktschwarz said,

    January 11, 2022 @ 12:27 pm

    The comment by "Chairs" is spam, copied from a real comment earlier by KevinM — but the real comment has disappeared, leaving only the spam!

    If the Loggers need help with spam cleanup, I'm sure a lot of us would be happy to volunteer.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2022 @ 2:38 pm


    Thanks for pointing out the spam. I'm trying to clean it up.

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 11:58 am

    “Spill the tea” isn’t a British expression, and I had never seen it before, although “spill the beans” is.

  17. ktschwarz said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 9:34 pm

    Thanks for removing the spam, I appreciate it.

  18. Terpomo said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 2:30 pm

    Isn't this sort of Englishy Chinese essentially to English what hentai kanbun is to Japanese? Not precisely, but roughly.
    I'll also say that as a bilingual, I've done this sort of thing even unintentionally. One fun bit of Esperanto-influenced English I accidentally produced once was "Not all? Does that imply some yes?" as well as "In order" for "alright". I also (ROT13'd because NSFW) bapr nppvqragnyyl pnzr hc jvgu "fr pbheve" va Serapu vafgrnq bs "wbhve", pnydhrq sebz Fcnavfu.

  19. Laura Morland said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 10:13 am

    @RachelP – that's very funny!

    However, I'm not clear: was your friend being deliberately amusing, ou bien est-ce qu'elle parle un anglais approximatif ?

    As for SPILL THE TEA, I am a native speaker of American English, and I've never heard that expression in my life (used in a non-literal way), but I just found it here, at Hi Native:

    The most revealing explanation is below:
    "yeah spill the beans is more a straight white people thing.
    Spill the tea is a drag/gay scene/black people thing."

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