Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Improving your Chinese by translating from another language

Translation into the target language (Chinese in our case) is a very powerful way of improving mainly writing ability, but also speaking and vocabulary in general. It’s a method that works best for intermediate or advanced students. In fact, the better your Chinese is, the more you will benefit from translation. In this article, I will discuss why translation is so good, along with some tips on how to do it right. I’ve separated the first part of the discussion into two parts: beginner and non-beginner.

enchdictTranslation for beginners

Actually, translation is extremely hard to avoid as a beginner. When you see things around you, the first thing that pops up in your head is a word in your native language rather than a word in Chinese. This needs to be translated. The same goes for abstract thoughts or feelings. In general, this is something we want to avoid The goal for the beginner is to use less translation, not more! Thus you should wait until you reach an intermediate or advanced level before deliberately using translation as a tool to learn Chinese, because you’re likely to translate a lot even if you don’t want to.

Translation for intermediate learners and above

For the purpose of this article, I consider you to be an intermediate learner when you feel that you can express most of the things you want in Chinese, even though it isn’t always right or the best way of putting it. You feel relatively comfortable speaking about familiar topics, you have a solid foundation in general.

For the intermediate student, translation is an excellent way of widening your horizons and forcing you to explore unfamiliar territory. One problem with having achieved basic fluency in a language is that it feels quite good and we tend to stick to the words and patterns we already know. This means that our language will stagnate, so practising translation can be an impetus to your learning.

More than just writing about different topics

When I said “unfamiliar territory” above, I didn’t simply mean “new topics”. You don’t need translation for that, you can just write about different topics in Chinese without involving translation at all. No, I meant that you will be forced to use Chinese in ways you aren’t used to. If you write an article on your own, you can always rewrite a sentence if you encounter a structure you’re not sure how to use or a word you don’t know. When you translate, you can’t just skip an idea because it’s hard to express.

Research shows that both native speakers and second language learners are very good at using whatever language they have to express what they want. This is very good for communication, but not so good if we want to make our language richer. Thus, from a grammar/vocabulary perspective, translating is harder than writing a new text. Not only do you have to express something in Chinese, you also have to take the original into account and not deviate from it too much.

Don’t translate directly

We all know what happens when you translate directly from one language to another. It might work okay between related languages, but it doesn’t work at all when translating English to Chinese. Here’s a simple method you can try if you don’t want to get stuck in English grammar when writing Chinese:

  1. Locate the core concepts of a sentence
  2. Translate these words based on the context
  3. Put the translated words in random order
  4. Combine these words according to Chinese grammar
  5. Read the sentence and add elements that are lacking

Because of the scrambling in step three, you avoid being stuck in English grammar. You have the core concepts, now you need to combine them into a grammatically correct sentence in Chinese. When I started doing translations many years ago, I used to write down the core elements of a sentence in a list and then ignore the original and just think about how I could express the items in that list.

A closer look at the translation process

Translation is an immensely powerful tool for advanced learners. One of my favourite courses in university was Swedish to English translation. Now, you might think that my English is adequate, and you’d be right as long as I can choose topics myself. I still have gaps in my English ability and translation would be a very good way of addressing that problem, only if it weren’t for the fact that I care much more about Chinese these days.

This is what we used to do for our translation class. Before each lesson, we were sent one article written in Swedish and were asked to translate it into good English while keeping as close as possible to the original text. The articles were typically newspaper articles about different topics.

In class, we were divided into groups and each group was responsible for one paragraph. In essence, we were supposed to compare and discuss our translations and decide on the best possible translation of our paragraph. Then, all paragraphs were put together and the teacher went through the whole article with us, all in a very open atmosphere.

Students were encouraged to suggest changes, ask questions (would it be possible to use x here, I think y is a better choice than y in this sentence) and discuss. Inevitably, many discussions revolved about the meanings of different patterns and the usage of near synonyms. This is the kind of discussions advanced learners really need.

Every single step in this process taught me a lot. Not only did I spend time translating the article myself, I also had to motivate my choice of words, I received numerous other suggestions and had to decide whether they were sound or not. I encountered many new ways of expressing the same thing. Finally, I received feedback and had the option to ask question about some of the more interesting questions related to the article.

You can do all this on your own without paying a cent

Even though I would love to replicate this for learning Chines, it’s going to be very hard to find such an environment. Instead, I’ve been doing similar things on my own for several years now. As a result, I think my writing ability in Chinese is probably my strongest side. The process can be modified and changed in any number of ways, but this is what I normally do:

  1. Select a topic – This step is incredibly important. If you feel that it’s hard to get going, you should choose a topic you’re really interested in. Spending hours translating an article you think is boring is… well, boring. Don’t do it. If you feel up to it, select a topic you’re not familiar with. If you aim for proficiency in a certain area (language, business, technology) you can and should choose this kind of articles more often.
  2. Select a text – This is relatively straightforward, but there are two things you should keep in mind. First, if you want feedback, it’s helpful to choose articles in a language that your tutor, friend or language exchange partner can actually read. If you plan on doing this online, using English is by far the best choice, so do this if you can (I assume you can, otherwise you probably wouldn’t read this). Second, choose short articles, partly because this allows for more diversity, but also because it’s easier to get feedback from native speakers if you don’t write too much (I think you can guess I have some personal experience with this).
  3. Translate the text – This is what I’ve discussed above, so I won’t repeat myself. Depending on how advanced you are, you can set your goals slightly differently. Very advanced users should focus on making good translation, whereas intermediate students should focus on making adequate translations (i.e. expressing roughly the same meaning, but not necessarily in the same style).
  4. Receive feedback – Even though I think that the process of translation is very useful in itself, it would be a poor method without any kind of feedback. You need to know if the Chinese you’ve written makes sense, if you’ve violated any grammar rules and if a native speaker can understand your text in general. What looks like rock solid logic in your mind might be complete gibberish for a native speaker. This fact isn’t limited to translation, though. If you can’t get feedback from people around you, I suggest using Lang-8.
  5. Process the feedback – Once you know where you went wrong, you should correct your article. Make sue you understand most of the problems (but avoid perfectionism), add new words to your review software, look up relevant grammar if you need, post really tricky questions on Chinese Forums or Chinese Stack Exchange. Make sure you provide adequate information as well as your own attempt to solve the problem.

Chinese-English translations

Translating Chinese into English is also useful, but I don’t think it’s as important as translating into Chinese, mostly because it’s much easier. Another problem is that it’s much harder to receive proper feedback. To get feedback on a translation into Chinese, you need a native speaker who can read English at a decent level (this is not uncommon); in order to get feedback on translations into English, you need someone who is much better at English and whose Chinese is better than yours. There are much fewer of those people around.

If you’re interested in Chinese-English (or Chinese to other languages), you should check this guest article by Julien Leyre of the Marco Polo Project in which he talks more about the benefits of translating in the other direction.


I think translation is one of the best ways of keeping on improving writing beyond the intermediate level. Translation forces you into linguistic environments you wouldn’t have ended up in if you wrote the article yourself. Lastly, translation never becomes easy. It doesn’t matter how good your Chinese is, translating from one language into another will always be a challenge and you’re bound to benefit handsomely from the process.

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  1. Julien Leyre says:

    Another great post! Translation is often cast aside by language learners and teachers as ‘something you should avoid’. Conversely, it is often seen as a very specific skill, and I’ve heard many very fluent people tell me ‘I can’t translate’. Strange. I think, like you do, that it can be really useful to learn a language – and is also, generally, a useful skill to develop.

    I’d like to add a point to what you wrote. I think you’re perfectly right in underlining the value of English to Chinese translation to improve ‘Chinese writing’, and language skills in general. Still, I’d like to explore the value of Chinese to English translation a bit more.

    I think translation to your native language is not just ‘easier’ (it definitely is); it also develops different skills from translation to Chinese. I think, mostly, translation from Chinese develops in-depth reading and interpretation skills. When translating a text into your native language from Chinese, you suddenly find yourself struggling with many nuances of meaning. These nuances can be lexical (what does this word actually mean, in this context, and in itself) or grammatical (how am I going to translate 了, 着, etc). Typically, you find yourself paying much more attention to the actual structure of the Chinese sentence than you would if you were just reading it. You also become more aware of the gap between Chinese concepts and English ones.

    In that regard, the practice of translation can be really useful to train critical thinking. I studied Arts and Humanities in France, and ‘translation to French’ exercises were a core part of the exam package (English and Greek in my case). Later, I studied some theology, and in that setting, translation was even more central. These exercises were a very important part of my intellectual formation (and that of all my class-mates). They made me aware of how easy it is to misinterpret a text – in a foreign language, but even in your own – and project my own assumptions onto it, rather than try to understand the meaning for its author, in the context of its production.

    Would love to hear more about your thoughts – and others’ – on the value of translation to and from Chinese. Meanwhile – thanks for linking to Marco Polo Project! If you wish to practice translation to Chinese, one resource worth looking into is yeeyan.org

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi Julien,

      Interesting comment! I know I overlooked translating from Chinese to English (or other languages) in the article, partly because the article was already quite long, but also because I really think translating to Chinese is more challenging and therfore more rewarding.

      That being said, I do agree with what you say. Your comment prompted me to spend most of this week’s newsletter talking about translation in the other direction. I couldn’t find your e-mail address on the mailing list, but if you want a copy, let me know and I’ll send it to you manually!

      1. Julien Leyre says:

        Hey Olle, thanks for that! I actually already receive the newsletter (I’ve been following your blog with great interest for a while, though I only started commenting more recently).
        The credo of ‘teach 100% in the target language’ goes beyond English and Chinese. I experienced that when teaching at Alliance Francaise – where I ruthlessly disobeyed official guidelines, and my students were very grateful for it. But I had never so explicitly made the connection to ‘you must train students to ‘communicate’, because they must be able to do business in that language – idealist and language-lover that I am. But then, as all businessmen in my family said, you don’t actually need a lot of language to do business – mostly, you need cash to buy, and a good product to sell. Might be true.
        * the teacher may not know the language of the students. Beside, I think none of the students I taught at Alliance Francaise studied the language for business reasons, but that’s a different story.
        I’m also interested in how students might not speak the same language among themselves. I’ve always thought, for ESL classes, that grouping students from the same language background would probably be a good idea – after all, Mandarin natives will probably have different phonetic, grammatical and lexical difficulties from, say, Russian natives. But it doesn’t seem to be the done thing. Do you know of any good ‘teaching English difficulties to native Mandarin speakers’ book or resources around?? They would probably teach a lot about Chinese too.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Just a quick comment about why some institutions favour target language only (apart from the fact that ther might be no common language between teachers and students). I think that some institutions fear the opposite, that teachers habitually use the students’ native language because it’s easier that way. By having a 100% target language policy, they don’t need to worry about a slippery slope. I think this is just a sign that they don’t trust teachers to do a good job, though.

          And sorry, even though I have taught English to a fair number of native speakers of Mandarin, I haven’t got any good resources for you.

        2. Maozhou says:

          The students that I have taught are a subset of the typical Chinese students studying English. They tend to be ‘Taitais’. By that I mean highly educated upper income women who travel internationally with disposable income. The generally have huge English vocabularies and good knowledge of basic English grammar rules. They were educated by local instructors with little or no English speaking experience. Most of their training involved rote memorization. Thus they need conversational practice and in most cases a large part of this is building confidence in their spoken skills. I spend a great deal of time working of accent modification since this is often the main obstacle to being understood by foreigners.

          One of the words my students universally have problems pronouncing is the word “usually”

          Most of them desire a standard American accent similar to the news readers on US television.

  2. Sara K. says:

    Recently, I got a comment saying that what I write in Chinese reads like foreign writing in translation i.e. it’s grammatically correct (after correction, that is). I don’t necessarily think I need to fix this, at least not in the near future, as long as the nuts and bolts (grammar, vocabulary choice) are correct, but it’s the kind of thing where translation would not help (unless it’s translation from a language really different from English, such as Japanese-Chinese, but I can’t pull *that* off). Maybe your scrambling exercise would help though … and I think reading lots of works written originally in Chinese helps too, but is not the most effective way to focus on this issue.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think the only way to learn to write the way natives write is to read, read, read, read, read. It does help to discuss what you write with native speakers who know your goal, though (I’ve done that a lot). It also helps to highlight things you read that you would never have written yourself.

      However, it might not be good to mimic native speakers completely. Most native speakers I’ve spoken don’t really like the way Chinese academic writing works (it is changing, though). Traditionally, academic writing in Chinese is very roundabout about (actually, I didn’t do anything, it was all my teacher, who got it from his teacher, who got it from his teacher, […] who got it from Confucius. This is, objectively speaking, not very good if scientific accuracy and clarity are the goals.

  3. Mary says:

    Hi, my native language is spanish, of course I speak english too (I´ve Oxford Dictionary English – English because I have a good level of English) but I want to know if you have Dictionary Chinese Spanish because I want to learn chinese.

  4. Gary says:

    Translating is a great way to learn Chinese, but it is more effective if you have an understanding of Chinese word order and grammar first.

    1. Sara K. says:

      Which is why Olle does not recommend it for beginners.

  5. Thor May says:

    Both the author and the commenters are focused very much on their own language learning. That’s fine as far as it goes. Teaching English in China and South Korea I was mindful that my students were dispersing into populations where English skills were thin on the ground. If they had any English competence at all, sooner or later they would be called upon to interpret or translate, perhaps in a small company, perhaps in a hospital, perhaps for a foreign tourist, and so on. I also realized from direct experience (e.g. with a student interpreter and a Chinese doctor) that most of them were walking catastrophes. Words and grammar were not enough. They had no idea how to go about it. Considering that this was the main use that most of them would ever put their shaky English to, it seemed worth paying serious attention to. Yet somehow this pragmatic need had never occurred to either teachers or administrators…

  6. Will says:

    I like your point, thanks for the article! I think translation is a good way to learn Chinese but read as more articles as you can is also the way I recommend.For example this site: http://www.chinese-stories.com/bookshelf/paragraph.php?bid=12&aid=26
    I try to read the short article, although I can’t understand all the vocabularies, but I can guess the meaning which is really helpful for my reading ability.

  7. Julian says:

    Can you recommend any good books with conversational to specialized English phrases accompanied with mandarin translation?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “conversational to specialized English phrases”?

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