Chinese Word Formation and Terminology Translation Challenge

&tBy Yu Zhang

One of the unique challenges in the translation of Chinese terminology relates to the ways in which Chinese words are created. Discover how words are formed, from the basics of the language to technical terms, and why their translation, and the task of maintaining consistency, is often so difficult.

The written Chinese language has a history of over 5,000 years. Today, it is the only modern language that is entirely based on ideographic characters. The total number of Chinese characters is over 60,000, of which about 6,000 are commonly used. With few exceptions, each Chinese character has one, or more than one, complete and independent meaning, in accordance with the fact that in the early history of the language each word consisted of one character only.

Multi-character words developed over the course of the language’s evolution, and two-character words became the preferred word form by the time of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220), when fu (), a classical Chinese prose genre, flourished. Fu works were written using gorgeously stylish words, of mostly two-characters, that were articulately arranged to create a strong but elegant sense of metrics. Today, two-character words dominate in the written Chinese language, although words with other numbers of characters are not uncommon. Most modern Chinese words are thus compound words, because each single character in a multi-character word still has its own meaning and still is a single-character word.

There are a number of ways to arrive at two-character word formation. One common way is to use two characters of similar or identical meaning to form a word that has a meaning similar to, or the same as, that of these two characters, as illustrated in Table 1. (Since we are addressing only the basic language features common to both Simplified and Traditional Chinese, these two versions of the language are not distinguished in this article, although the examples are all given in Simplified Chinese characters.)

In another type of two-character word, the first character modifies, specifies, or describes the second one, as illustrated in Table 2.

In a third class of two-character compound words, the first character is a verb and the second is a noun; together they form a mini verb-object structure. Table 3 shows several of these words.


 健康 (jian-kang)      strong-well    health  
 和平 (he-ping)     harmony-peace     peace
 会议 (hui-yi)     meet-discuss     meeting
 现实 (xian-shi)     appear-real     reality
 变化 (bian-hua)     change-transform     change
 显示 (xian-shi)     appear-show     display


 生物 (sheng-wu)       living-thing     organism
 铁路 (tie-lu)       iron-road     railroad
 电压 (dia-ya)       electric-pressure     voltage
 化学 (hua-xue)       transform-study     chemistry
 飞机 (fei-ji)       fly-machine     aircraft
 火车 (huo-che)       fire-vehicle     train

Higher level compounds
In yet another class of two-character compound words, the first character is a verb and the second character indicates the result or status of the action specified by the verb, as shown in Table 4.

Three-character compound words can be formed by combining two of these two-character forming methods or using one twice, as shown in Table 5.

Since each character has at least one independent meaning, reversing the character order of a two-character word often forms a different word with a meaning that can be similar to, or very different from, the original word. Table 6 shows the four words formed by reversing the character order of the first four words in Table 1.

Listed above are only a few of the many ways multi-character Chinese words can be formed. Because each character can combine with dozens or even hundreds of other characters to form multi-character words, using the character modules to create multi-character words is like a puzzle game that can be played with almost unlimited possibilities.

This can be illustrated by a series of Chinese characters such as this: 中国家访问题目录取消… The meanings of these ten characters are: center, nation, family, visit, ask, question, item, record, take, and eliminate, respectively. Each two adjacent characters form a two-character word which in turn means China, country, home visit, visit, question, topic, table of contents, admission, and cancel. Randomly picking up almost any Chinese character, one can start a long or endless series of overlapping words such as this one. In ancient times, Chinese poets enjoyed the game of writing reverse-text poems that can be read forward or backward for each line and the entire poem, all making perfect sense. 


 救火 (jiu-huo)       rescue-fire       fire-fighting
 开会 (kai-hui)       open-meeting       run/attend meeting
 唱歌 (chang-ge)       sing-song       singing
 搬家 (ban-jia)       carry-home       moving (relocating)


 完成 (wan-cheng)       finish-completed       complete
 放大 (fang-da)       let-large       enlarge
 关紧 (guan-jin)       close-tight       close tightly
 改进 (gai-jin)       modify-improved       improve

A Multitude of Combinations
Combining characters—each of which has a more general meaning—creates compound words that have more specific meaning. For example, Chinese does not have characters that mean bull, cow, rooster, or hen. Instead, Chinese uses characters that mean male, female, bovid, or fowl to combine into words that mean bull, cow, rooster, or hen. To describe how crowded an open place is, Chinese uses a four-character adjective that literally means “people-mountain-people-sea.”

Two-character and multi-character Chinese word formation can be largely considered a matter of range and combination in the mathematical sense. In an English-speaking country, only a small percentage of people have a vocabulary of 30,000 English words. To form this many two-character Chinese words theoretically would take only 175 Chinese characters. As mentioned earlier, there are about 6,000 Chinese characters that are commonly used. With this many characters, one has the theoretical potential of creating about 36 million two-character words. Although the number of compound words that are in practical use must be considerably smaller than the number of mathematical possibilities, it’s still much more than the common vocabulary of any other language. The Chinese-English Dictionary by Shanghai Jiaotong University Press lists about 10,000 characters—but 400,000 multi-character words. Using this 40/1 ratio, the 6,000 common characters would convert to 240,000 compound words. Non-native Chinese language students are often told that they can be reasonably functional in China with as few as 1,000 characters. This of course does not mean 1,000 single-character words; based on the 40/1 ratio, someone who knows 1,000 characters should be able without trouble to read 40,000 multi-character words.

With these numbers in mind, one can easily see that translating into Chinese involves considerably more complicated mental processes than translating into other languages. And as the number of choices in word combinations increases, the level of difficulty both in translating and in maintaining consistency also increases—not in a linear, but in a geometric, progression.

A Chinese translator has to face these exceptional linguistic challenges if he is chosen for a translation project. The challenge for a translation project manager, on the other hand, is to identify and select only those few professional Chinese translators who have this ability, which is a necessity for ensuring on-time, on-budget and high-quality delivery of technical Chinese translation projects or multilingual projects that include Chinese. Even without considering the factor of source language reading comprehension ability, the challenge of terminology translation alone requires that Chinese translators have the highest level of linguistic capability. Since most professional Chinese writers, journalists, or translators have an educational background in language or literature, they have natural difficulties in using technical terms correctly and precisely. For this reason, an educational background in science or technology is also a must—in addition, of course, to proven professional experiences in technical translation practice.

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      CHINESE TERM     CHARACTER MEANING       ENGLISH TERM  生物学 (sheng-wu-xue)       living-thing-study       biology  无线电 (wu-xian-dian)       no-wire-electricity       radio  计算机 (ji-suan-ji) count-compute-machine       computer  显示器 (xain-shi-qi)   appear-display-device       monitor  电压表 (dian-ya-biao) electricity-pressure-meter       voltmeter  救火车 (jiu-huo-che)       rescue-fire-vehicle       fire engine


      CHINESE TERM     CHARACTER MEANING       ENGLISH MEANING  康健 (kang-jian)       well-strong       health  平和 (ping-he)       peace-harmony       peaceful  议会 (yi-hui)       discuss-meeting       congress  实现 (shi-xian)       real-appear       realize

This article is also available non-abridged, as published in LISA’s Globalisation Insider, at

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