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Trying to translate terms like chabuduo, more or less

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2020-11-20 07:44
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Erik Nilsson [Photo/China Daily]

Sort of. Kind of. More or less. Roughly speaking.

Basically. Essentially. Approximately.

Almost. Nearly. Good enough.

All these words and phrases can be translated as the meaning of the Chinese phrase, chabuduo-literally, word for word, "difference not much".

However, none of them accurately convey the meanings of chabuduo, an extremely useful phrase that simply doesn't translate well into English much if not most of the time.

It often only kind of means "kind of", sort of means "sort of" and more or less means "more or less". Indeed, the precision with which chabuduo can be translated into English is itself chabuduo.

I constantly sprinkle it into otherwise English-language conversations I have in China, where even foreigners who don't speak much Chinese are likely familiar with the phrase.

That's because, despite the fact English has more words than any other language and possesses a unique propensity to absorb from other tongues, it simply doesn't contain a comparably useful word or phrase with that meaning.

It's one of several such Chinese words that just can't really translate well into English and I'd presume likely many other languages.

That can be said of the fuzziness of many words and phrases translated across many languages. But it seems especially pertinent to chabuduo and English.

It's a similar situation with jiu, which is perhaps most often translated as "exactly". Sometimes, jiu exactly means "exactly". Most often, it doesn't.

It often serves more as an emphasizer. For instance, wo zai san lou would translate as,"I'm on the third floor."

But wo jiu zai san lou would emphasize the location, although it would literally translate as, "I'm exactly on the third floor"-something a native English speaker would never say.

That said, it can translate directly sometimes, such as when answering the question,"Is it this one?" In this case, jiu shi zhe ge would precisely translate as "precisely that one", or, simply, "precisely".

This brings us to a word that can actually work across languages but only maybe about half of the time-rang.

It's typically translated as "to permit", "to allow" or "to let".

It would directly translate as such in the case of,"My boss let me take the day off" (wode laoban rang wo xiuxi yitian).

But it also can mean "compel", "request" or "demand".

That is, as in, "My boss made me work overtime" (wode laoban rang wo jia ban le). No native English speaker would say, "My boss let me work overtime", unless they'd requested extra hours.

However, soon after I first arrived in China 14 years ago, I often noticed Chinese friends saying this exact phrase in English.

After I started learning Chinese, I later came to understand they were literally translating from Chinese in their heads before speaking to me in English.

I do the inverse when speaking Chinese.

A phrase that threw me off during my first few years in China is zuijin, which is typically translated as "recently".

However, it actually refers to the recent past, present and near future.

It initially mostly confused me when Chinese friends would use "recently" in English, since I thought they only meant in the recent past as opposed to also in the next few days or so.

Now, even if they ask in English, I answer as if they'd formulated the question in Chinese, since they likely did so in their mind before interpreting it out loud.

Even if it's not exactly what they meant, it still answers their question-at least chabuduo.

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