Over the years, there are heaps of jokes spreading online regarding some weird Chinese to English translation found in China. Many of them are the result of a literal interpretation, character by character.

Recently, Mella Robinson and Mellissa Stanger from businessinsider.com.au listed “18 Chinese expressions with bizarre literal translations”. They believe those peculiar expressions are derived from the fact that the Chinese “characters that make up each word or phrase individually carry different meanings based on the context in which they’re used”, thus “when translated character by character into English”, they could sound bizarre, poetic and, sometimes, hilarious.

Now let’s look at the Chinese origins of some of the bizarre or poetic expressions that the article mentioned.

A cheer = add fuel (加油):

Meaning of the expression: It urges someone to exert more energy into his/her performance.

So-so = horse horse tiger tiger (马马虎虎):

Origin of the expression: It first appeared in a classic short story about an ancient artist who added a horse’s body behind a tiger’s head that eventually cost the life of his son as the young man later identified a tiger as a horse when hunting in the wilderness. Unprofessionalism sometimes could have a deadly consequence.

United States = Beautiful Country (美国):

In the earlier years, when Chinese translated a foreign name, they often tried to pick characters that not only have a similar pronunciation but contain positive connotations, just like when they name babies. So for a Chinese character shown in a translated phrase, it contains very little or no original meaning. Character 美 has been made part of the translated Chinese name of the US only because its pronunciation is close to Me in America. In fact, the UK’s Chinese name (英国) can also be read as Heroic Country, France (法国) as Lawful Country and Germany (德国) as Ethical Country, but which does not mean Chinese think the UK is a country full of heroes, France respects law better than any other nations or Germany indeed stands on a moral high ground.

Being cheated on = wear a green head cloth (戴绿头巾):

The expression emerged since the Yuan Dynasty 700 years ago. When the Mongols occupied and ruled China, they got upset over the practice of Chinese brothels because they charged men for sex. In the old Mongol tradition it was perfectly okay for a man to sleep with any woman he wanted for free, thus brothel’s existence was seen as a defiance against Mongol custom, so they ordered Chinese men running brothels to identify themselves by wearing a green coloured head cloth as the way to publicly shame them. Since then green head cloth has been used in China to indicate a man with an unfaithful wife.

Sexual harassment = eat tofu (吃豆腐):

Possible origin of the expression: Chinese tofu stores were traditionally run by husband and wife, with the man making tofu in the back of the house (a hard manual labour) and wife selling tofu at shopfront. Tofu is known to contain wonderful skincare benefits, as the women selling tofu consumed the product daily, their skin often looked tender and white, just like tofu, thus the jealous wives of the men who were keen to pay a visit to tofu store would confront the husband by questioning: are we going to eat tofu again today? Meaning: are you going to harass the tofu store lady again?

Computer = electric brain (电脑):

Computer literally means a device for computing, which is what it initially did. In Chinese there is a word just for computing tool: 计算器, meaning a device for calculation. As for computer, since it does more than calculation but acts as extended human brain, therefore it is called electric brain.

Trite language = wind flower snow moon (风花雪月):

Origin of the expression: Wind, flower, snow and moon in China are traditionally associated with four seasons (wind in summer, flowers in spring, snow in winter and moon in autumn). In the classic ages, the ability to composing poem was seen as a basic literature capability of a scholar. For some who lacked talent in creative writing, these four elements would become a constant theme in their verses.

A threat or warning = show you some colour (给你点颜色看看):

Possible origin: When one is bashed and bleeding, the black eye and red blood could become visible.

10 thought on “8 Bizarre Chinese to English Translation”
  1. Very interesting, thank you for the introduction of background info. I guess when we translate Chinese into English, we may also get the same problems, and Chinese may also laugh at us LOL

    1. I believe that is exactly the case. But generally speaking, Chinese are more willing to put up with bad Chinese language spoken or written by foreigners, as they view it is a kind gesture for foreigners to speak their language.

  2. I have a good laugh, boy, it’s so funny. I once visited a website, they have collected a large number of strange English signs from China, very amusing.

    1. There are a few websites created by Western expatriates working in Shanghai, this might be one of them LOL

  3. I’ve bookmarked this page. I’m leaning Chinese now and your background information really helps.

You are welcome to share your thoughts here