Chinese to Italian Interpreting of Chengyu

By Riccardo Moratto (Fu Jen Catholic University, Taiwan)

Abstract & Keywords

English:

This paper investigates the interpreting of Chinese idiomatic expressions from Chinese to Italian. The data derive from my interpreting experience in Taiwan, from literature review, from newspapers articles, TV news and from attending classes of Chinese and Taiwanese interpreting-training programs as a participant observer. The data collected were, then, analyzed to complete the report. Interpreting literature is permeated with enhancing papers on idiomatic expressions and on possible coping strategies. In the interpreting field, though, academic papers have not always recognized the importance of the interdependence of cultural and linguistic traits as for interpreting two culturally, mentally and syntactically distant languages such as Chinese and Italian. Furthermore, not much has been written on the linguistic combination Chinese-Italian, in so far as all the attention has always been focused on Chinese-English interpreting both in the passive and in the active mode. The results indicate that mastering Chinese idioms not only is a major asset for interpreters, but also a way to please the audience and meet with the audience’s expectations. Idioms or proverbs in China and Taiwan are perceived differently from the Western world, where, at times, stereotyped or cliché expressions are often perceived under a colloquial light. This paper is part of a broader study concerning Chinese to Italian simultaneous interpreting. Other papers concerning other aspects of Chinese to Italian interpreting will be published separately. Getting acquainted with the quintessence of Chinese culture and language, i.e. chéngyŭ (Chinese idiomatic expressions), is perceived not only as an asset but as a conditio sine qua non for the qualification of an interpreter, both conference simultaneous/consecutive and community or liaison interpreters, with Chinese as a working language.

Keywords: chinese, chengyu, interpreting strategies, specialized and technical translation, acceptability, interpreting studies

©inTRAlinea & Riccardo Moratto (2010).
"Chinese to Italian Interpreting of Chengyu", inTRAlinea Vol. 12.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: http://www.intralinea.org/archive/article/1661

1. Introduction

This paper outlines a linguistic analysis of chéngyŭ and compiles two lists of the 200 recommended chéngyŭ for Junior High School Curricula and the 216 most frequently-used chéngyŭ which are useful for interpreting-trainees to learn. This paper is divided into two main parts, both focusing on a particular aspect of Chinese to Italian interpreting, i.e. the Italian rendering of Chinese idiomatic expressions. The first part is further subdivided into five paragraphs, each of which analyzes chéngyŭ from a different linguistic point of view. The first paragraph contains the linguistic definition of chéngyŭ, their history, their literary background, their importance and challenge for interpreters and a review of the background literature. The reader is provided with some examples and their Italian rendering. In the second paragraph, a more detailed linguistic analysis is carried out from a morphological, semantic and pragmatic point of view. The first paragraph focuses on the importance of automatisms in the simultaneous interpreting processing of chéngyŭ. The fourth chapter contains a selection of the 200 most important chéngyŭ according to the interpreters and linguists Zheng (2005) and Yang Yi-An (2008). It is a selection of 200 recommended chéngyŭ according to their occurrences in a given corpus. I also reported their percentages on the basis of their grammatical function in the same corpus: namely, subject, predicate, object, complement, modifier and adverbial modifier. The fifth paragraph contains a table with the 216 most frequently used chéngyŭ in the Chinese language according to the Taiwanese Academia Sinica. It is important to raise the awareness of interpreters on the most frequently used Chinese idioms in order not to be taken aback in the interpreting booth. The frequency of the af orementioned chéngyŭ is based on written Chinese. However, it should not be surprising to see that written Chinese is taken as an example of certain linguistic structures the interpreter should familiarize with because the language used at conferences, due do its level of formality, tends to resemble the written variety. The second part of this paper analyzes another aspect of Chinese idiomatic expressions, i.e. numbers. Most chéngyŭ are made up of four characters. However, in many cases at least one, often two, out of these four characters is a number. My experience as an interpreter proves how useful it is to provide interpreting-trainees with this type of chéngyŭ to develop automatisms. In this final part of the paper, I compiled a table containing the most frequent Chinese ““numerical chéngyŭ”, in other words after collecting data from corpora, TV news, conference excerpts and newspapers for a year I listed all these idiomatic expressions containing numbers. I also provide the reader with an Italian rendering, hoping that trainee interpreters may benefit from it in any future reference.

1.1. What is a chéngyŭ (成語)?

成語 (Chéngyŭ) literally means set phrase. It is a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expression, mainly consisting of four characters.

Hu (1992), Xu (1999), Cui (1997), Zhu (1999), Chen (2001) and Zheng (2005) maintain that chéngyŭ consist of four syllables in spite of the fact that there are a few exceptions such as 鷸蚌相爭, 翁得利 (yù bàng xiāngzhēng, yúwēng délì which means fishermen benefit from the fight between a mussel and a snipe.) (Yang Yi-an, 2008: 34). In Italian, this idiom can be rendered as “tra i due litiganti il terzo gode”.

According to Yang Yi-an (2008: 42) four syllable expressions account for the majority of chéngyŭ and the estimated percentage ranges from 80.3% (Huang 1982), 95% (Zhang 2004) to 98.4% (Gao, 1987).

Chéngyŭ were widely used in Classical Chinese and are still common in vernacular Chinese writing and spoken Chinese today. In Mandarin Chinese the most widely used chéngyŭ are about 5000. However, if an exhaustive list of Chinese idiomatic expressions were to be drafted, the total amount would go up to more than 30,000.

According to the scholar Hu (1992: 53) “a chéngyŭ, as a type of set phrase, which is similar to guànyòngyŭ[1] in nature, is often used as a complete meaning unit and has a more solid foundation of structure and usage than guànyòngyŭ”.

Chéngyŭ usually derive from ancient Chinese literature and from Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius or Laozi. The most striking feature about these idiomatic expressions is that their global semantic value generally surpasses the sum of the componential meanings carried by the single four characters, because chéngyŭ are intrinsically and inextricably linked with the myth, legend, historical fact or literary episode from which they derive.

Moreover, chéngyŭ do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, being highly compact and concise.

As a consequence, chéngyŭ in isolation are often unintelligible even to Chinese native speakers, and when students in China learn these idiomatic expressions in school as part of their Classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which the related chéngyŭ derives. Otherwise, they are not able to grasp the true meaning of the expression. 

Chéngyŭ can somehow be associated with idiomatic expressions, particularly metaphors and, more particularly dead metaphors, at times with proverbs and clichés in Western languages. The major difference is that “the use of clichés in Western languages [especially in Italian] is seen to reflect one’s lack of creativity” (Cui, 1997: 56) whereas the use of chéngyŭ in Chinese has always reflected elevated status amongst Chinese-speaking populations. According to Chen (2001: 236-239), “chéngyŭ are products of Chinese culture which reflect the particular aesthetic view of Chinese-speaking populations and embody their colorful imagination”. However, especially in Taiwan, this has been re-evaluated over the past 10 years. In one recent example, the Ministry of Education in Taiwan proclaimed on January 25, 2007 that “chéngyŭ dull one’s mind” and that “teaching chéngyŭ is the failure of educational policies” (Yang, Yi-An 2008: 89).

However, it remains important to teach Chinese idioms to Chinese language to-be interpreters because in “conference Chinese” they are often heard. The most problematic aspect, especially for Chinese non-native speakers, remains the fact that chéngyŭ often reflect the morale behind the story rather than the story itself. I will make an example to illustrate this concept.

The following example is an excerpt from a poem which is often used in modern Chinese to describe suspicious situations. The poem is 樂府詩《君子行》 (yuèfǔ shī《jūnzǐ xíng》) from the Han dynasty. The excerpt is the following: “瓜田李下” (gūatián lǐ xià) which literally means “melon field, plums under”. This idiom is unintelligible even to Chinese native speakers and all the more so for people whose working B language is Chinese with no prior knowledge of the origin of the phrase. Indeed, the original poem contains two sentences “瓜田不納履,李下不整冠” (gūatián bù nà lǚ, lǐ xià bù zhěngguān) describing a code of conduct which means “Don’t adjust your shoes in a melon field and don’t tidy your hat under the plum trees (in order to avoid suspicion of stealing)”. Whenever an interpreter hears this idiom, it would be time-consuming especially in a morphologically-rich language like Italian to translate it word for word. Therefore, in an interpreting-training course not only should students be taught the origin of the most commonly used Chinese idioms but also be given a possible ready-made rendering that they can use whenever heard. As far as “瓜田李下” (gūatián lǐ xià) is concerned I usually suggest Chinese-speaking students use the simple and straight-forward adjective “sospettoso” (suspicious) or the noun “sospetto” (suspect).

It goes without saying that the original flavor is lost in the interpreted version, however we should bear in mind that interpreters are not sheer translators. They aim at facilitating communication between people who speak different languages and have a different cultural background. Therefore, interpreters need to understand the concept of what is being said in order to convey it in their target language. This concept is essential for conference interpreting because “l’interprétation n’est pas traduction orale de mots mais elle dégage un sens et le rend explicite pour autrui” (Seleskovitch 1968:34). According to Seleskovitch (1968) words are a mere linguistic sign and if the interpreter insists on wanting to translate ad verbatim, words might turn out to be an obstacle in his/her delivery. “Le mot est en effet un obstacle à surmonter et non une aide dès lors qu’il s’agit de comprendre l’enchaînement de plusieurs centaines, sinon de plusieurs milliers de mots” (Seleskovitch 1968:50).

However, not all Chinese idioms are metaphorical. Some may not derive from a specific story with a morale. These types of idioms may be succinct in their original meanings and be written in a way that would be intelligible only to a scholar of formal written ancient Chinese. An example could be 言而無信 (yán ér wú xìn) which I always straight-forwardly interpret as “inaffidabile” (unreliable) because it literally means “speak but no trust”. A non-native Chinese educated speaker would not necessarily know that 言 (yán) in ancient Chinese was a verb phrase. That is why it is important to psychologically prepare students and to teach them possible strategies and coping tactics to solve problems that might occur while interpreting. According to (Lin, 2003), quoted in Yang, Yi-An (2008: 95)

Chéngyŭ are known to be more easily grasped by native speakers than by learners of Chinese, since they have cultural references and are not taken as four individual characters but simply one meaning unit; therefore, native-speaking receivers of chéngyŭ do not need to go through deep linguistic analysis, since what is needed is some embedded cultural association, to proceed in communication.

In my experience as a tutor for Chinese-speaking students wanting to learn Chinese to Italian interpreting, I noticed that no matter how hard or unintelligible a chéngyŭ could be (for foreigners), as soon as Chinese native-speakers heard the “four-character set expression” they immediately perceived it as a single meaning unit. Formulaic segments that are perceived as single semantic units are processed much more quickly and easily than a sequence of words which is generated creatively (Pawley & Syder, 1983, quoted in Yang, Yi-An, 2008: 154). Therefore, in an interpreting-training program, teaching how to interpret chéngyŭ should be subdivided into two sub-phases: i.e. a first stage in which students (irrespective of their native language) should be taught to recognize single semantic units and a second phase in which the professional interpreter/trainer provides students with possible interpreting solutions for the most commonly-found occurrences of chéngyŭ in Chinese. It goes without saying that a prerequisite for mastering Chinese to Italian chéngyŭ interpreting is an advanced command of both languages and the importance of being well-educated for generally understanding the proper usage of chéngyŭ

This paper outlines a linguistic analysis of chéngyŭ and a list of the 200 recommended chéngyŭ for Junior High School Curricula and the 216 most frequently-used chengyu in “中文書面語頻率辭典” (Frequency Dictionary of Written Chinese). These tables’ original sources are Zheng (2005), Yang, Yi-An (2008) and “Language and Knowledge Processing Group, Institute of Information Science, Academia Sinica” (1994). I will also put forward a general possible rendering in Italian that can be useful both for professional interpreters and for Chinese-Italian interpreting trainees.

1.2. Linguistic analysis of chéngyŭ

In this section, I will analyze the main linguistic characteristics of chéngyŭ from different points of view: morphological, semantic and pragmatic. As previously said, chéngyŭ are short sayings usually consisting of four characters. Literal translations shed little light on their true meaning. Many chéngyŭ sum up an entire concept as illustrated by an ancient story. Unless you know the story and its common usage, its associated idiom will sound like random nonsense. Chinese idioms can, indeed, be a powerful way to communicate with Chinese people because this is where language and culture are tightly bound together. All educated Chinese know thousands of these idioms and the simple statement of four characters can bring deep and profound understanding of a complex feeling. What are the linguistic characteristics of Chinese four-character idioms?

1.2.1. Morphology of chéngyŭ

First of all, chéngyŭ are morphologically unchangeable, i.e. a morpheme (which in the case of Chinese corresponds to a lexeme) cannot be substituted by a synonym. The chéngyŭ 揠苗助長 (yàmiáo zhùzhăng, which literally means “helping the roots grow by pulling them upward”) which in Italian can be rendered with the semantically equivalent proverb “la gatta frettolosa fece i gattini ciechi” (which literally means “the hurried cat made blind kittens” and can be rendered in English as “haste makes waste”) is morphologically unchangeable. The word 苗 (miáo), for example which means “root, seedling” cannot be replaced by an equivalent such as 草 (căo, grass). Secondly, the word order of Chinese idioms is not to be altered. Another example is 唇亡齒寒 (chún wáng chĭ hán, which literally means “when the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold”) which in Italian may be rendered as “condividere la sorte” (share a common lot). The order of morphemes in this chéngyŭ cannot be changed; otherwise it would become unintelligible for Chinese speakers. Another relevant aspect is that the number of morphemes in a given Chinese idiom cannot be reduced or increased. The commonly used chéngyŭ 不恥下問 (bù chĭ xià wèn “not feel ashamed to ask for information to one’s inferiors”) has a set number of words. It cannot be grammatically modified to become 既不恥又下問,because this would completely alter the meaning of the idiom.

1.2.2. Semantics of chéngyŭ

Chéngyŭ are a heritage of ancient Chinese and this is reflected in the language as well. I would like to give the reader three examples in which it is fairly easy to perceive ancient Chinese within the structures of Chinese idioms.

The examples are from Yang Yi-An (2008: 75): 走馬看花 (zŏu mă kàn huā) 馬首是瞻 (mă shŏu shì zhān) and 否極泰來 (pĭ jí tài lái). In the first example, the very first character which in modern Chinese means “to walk”, in ancient Chinese it meant “to ride” (it also had a different pronunciation: zào). The idiom turns out to be intelligible only with a prior knowledge of this semantic component. The chéngyŭ literally means “to ride a horse to look at flowers” and in Italian it can be rendered as “fare delle osservazioni superficiali” (know only from cursory observation).

Chinese set idioms may have a syntax that resembles classical Chinese; the second example illustrates this concept. 馬首是瞻 literally means “to look at where the general’s horse is heading to” and in Italian it can be rendered as “seguire il leader” in accordance with the context.

The third and last example is 否極泰來 (from/after deep misfortune comes bliss) which means “la fortuna comincia ad arridere quando la sfortuna raggiunge il suo limite” (when things cannot get worse, they will become better). In modern Chinese the character 否 is pronounced as fŏu, however in the chéngyŭ it is pronounced as because it preserves the ancient Chinese pronunciation.

As previously remarked, Chinese idioms are widely used and very useful in Mandarin Chinese, because they enable the speaker to sum up a whole concept in just four characters. However, if on the one hand highly-educated speakers tend to recur to chéngyŭ on a frequent basis, on the other hand interpreters have to be very careful in processing and simultaneously interpreting chéngyŭ. In an interpreting-training program, students should have such a high command of the Chinese language to the extent of already knowing most of the backgrounds of the most commonly used chéngyŭ, that is to say around 2000 to 5000. The simultaneous interpreter/trainer should just teach students how to cope with chéngyŭ whilst interpreting and, possibly, give them plausible Italian equivalents, so that students may learn them, introject[2] them and ultimately automatically recur to them whenever they hear them in the interpreting booth. Automatisms are known as “reazioni verbali automatiche a stimoli testuali” (automatic verbal reactions to textual stimuli, my translation) (Russo, M. 1986: 109). Automatisms may be developed by virtue of language transfer skills (Wills, 1982). In other words, “l’interprete deve interiorizzare delle equivalenze tra espressioni o collocazioni lessicali e strutture sintattiche peculiari della LP e della LA, per poter destinare risorse a parti del discorso non prevedibili o concettualmente complesse”[3] (Russo, M. 1986: 109). For further analysis on anticipation strategies and automatisms, see Lederer (1981), Stenzel (1989: 25), Nowak-Lehman (1989: 153), Gile (1995). See also paragraph 1.3.

Automatisms are, therefore, of crucial importance for handling common phenomena or ideas in daily life (Liu, 2000) that are expressed by means of chéngyŭ. For example the Chinese idiom 川流不息 (chuān liú bù xī) literally means “the water of a river flows incessantly”. However, a simultaneous interpreter should immediately have a ready automatism, i.e. “incessante” as an adjective. As it can be inferred, these are not technical terms. They are all too often ever-recurring commonly used terms describing situations in everyday world.

Another semantics-related aspect is the metaphorical value of Chinese idioms. The connotation of chéngyŭ transcends the meaning of all four words combined (Xu, 1999; Zhang, 2004; Zheng, 2005; Yang Yi-An, 2008). To illustrate this aspect, I will give the reader two more examples: 井底之蛙 (jĭng dĭ zhī wā) and 春蘭秋菊 (chūn lán qiū jú). The first idiom literally means “a frog at the bottom of a well” and the second one “spring-orchid-autumn-chrysanthemum”. Both of these chéngyŭ, however, have a metaphorical connotation which is at the basis of their true meaning. The first one can be translated as “persona mentalmente chiusa” (blind-minded person) and the second one as “ogni cosa ha valore” (everything has its value) or “c’è del bello in tutto” (there is beauty in everything).

1.2.3. Pragmatics of chéngyŭ

Most chéngyŭ were formed in between the Pre-Qin Period (BC 221-206) and the Han dynasty (BC 202-AD 220) to the Wei, Jin North-South dynasty. (AD 220-589). As a consequence, many of the objects denoted in Chinese idioms are a legacy of the past and are not to be found anywhere today, just as in the idiom 一言九鼎 (yī yán jiŭ dĭng) where the character 鼎 denotes an ancient cooking vessel. The literal meaning of this chéngyŭ is “one word nine dings”. After raising the awareness of students on the contextual culture-related historic differences, one must opt for a general solution whilst interpreting. The one that I usually propose is “la propria parola vale molto” (what one says is trustworthy). This linguistic analysis of chéngyŭ may shed light on the development of interpreter training institution curricula. Interpreting trainers may consider encouraging students to memorize and apply chéngyŭ during classes and practices in the active mode to recognize them, be able to process them and effectively interpret them in the passive mode.

1.3. “Automatisms” in chéngyŭ simultaneous interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting is a complex activity requiring both good coordination and monitoring of cognitive efforts and the activation of automatisms as well as problem-solving strategies. This becomes increasingly difficult to achieve if variables and additional efforts, such as four-character Chinese traditional idioms, are added.

In any discussion pertaining to simultaneous listening and speaking, the automaticity factor cannot be overlooked. A general rule appears to be that once a skill is highly learned, it gradually requires less conscious attention or little allocation of mental effort. Furthermore, highly skilled tasks seem to become automated and thereby not susceptible to disruption because attention is withdrawn (Norman 1968). With sufficient practice, responses can become ‘pre-attentive’ and may be referred to as ‘automatisms’ (Neisser 1967, in Lambert 2004: 53). The substantial problem with interpreting chéngyŭ is that no matter how skilled or experienced an interpreter might be, there can always be idioms with obscure meanings or that the interpreter cannot remember, all the more so if he or she is not a native speaker.

In proposing possible equivalents in Italian, I do not aim at compelling future interpreters to learn them all by heart. It would be pointless in so far as professional interpreters do not work with words; they work with concepts and semantic units.

It is apparent that in order to achieve any kind of performance level, the [interpreter] has to consider units of meaning rather than perform on the basis of a more mechanical word-by-word process. It is thus more appropriate for the [interpreter] to listen while the meaning unit is being formulated by S (speaker), and undertake to translate it once it is completed” (Barik 1973: 263).

However, even though a few Chinese idioms are used as adverbials or adjectival phrases, most chéngyŭ convey a concept which can not be omitted by interpreters. Omission is a strategy that professional interpreters often recur to (Barik, 1994: 83), but it may be risky if adopted with chéngyŭ in so far as it would more often than not imply omitting a concept and not just four words (characters).

That is why it seems essential to provide interpreting trainees with possible solutions that might enable them to develop automatisms which, according to the “effort model” (Gile, 1985; Gile 1988, Gile 1999) may lighten the burden and the mental strain that interpreters experience in the booth.

1.4. 200 recommended chengyu

Following is a selection of 200 recommended chéngyŭ according to their occurrences in a given corpus. I also reported their percentages on the basis of their grammatical function in the same corpus. For reasons of space, the whole table is reported in Appendix I [PDF file]. In this chapter, the highest frequency items are extracted and summarized[4]. More particularly, only the chéngyŭ whose occurrence is superior to 20 are reported in the following table. For an exhaustive list, see Appendix I [PDF file].

[Table 1]

This table is by no means exhaustive; it is merely a selection of 200 recommended chéngyŭ (only the chéngyŭ whose occurrence is superior to 20 are reported in this chapter, for a full list see Appendix I [PDF file]) according to their occurrences in a given corpus. I also reported their percentages on the basis of their grammatical function: namely, subject, predicate, object, complement, modifier and adverbial modifier. In a separate paper every chéngyŭ will be discussed with a possible Italian rendering that may be useful for interpreting trainees. The projected article will also be expanded into book form – i.e. an interpreter’s handbook, or compendium, of chéngyŭ. This would be of use to practicing interpreters and students, rather than being restricted to interpreting researchers and teachers.

1.5 Most frequently used chéngyŭ

In the following paragraphs, I will report the most frequently used chéngyŭ according to the 中文書面語頻率詞典 (Frequency Dictionary of Written Chinese) (Language and Knowledge Processing Group, Institute of Information Science, Academia Sinica, 1994). It is important to raise the awareness of interpreters on the most frequently used Chinese idioms to not be taken aback in the interpreting booth and also on different diatopic use of the aforementioned idioms. The frequency of the following chéngyŭ is based on written Chinese. However, it should not be surprising to see that written Chinese is taken as an example of certain linguistic structures the interpreter should familiarize with because the language used at conferences, due do its level of formality, tends to resemble to the written variety. Interpreters working from Chinese to Italian should learn to passively recognize chéngyŭ and to have an equivalent (automatism) in Italian that can be used without having to recur to time-wasting energy-consuming translation hypothesis.

For those interpreters working from Italian to Chinese, chéngyŭ are all the more important in so far as they may well render highly formal expressions frequently found in the Italian language. According to Yang Yi-An (2008: 36),

[…] because chéngyŭ are strongly associated with cultural or linguistic competence, it is no wonder that the incorporation of chéngyŭ in interpretation generates interrelations between quality components in a systematic manner. Therefore, although it may seem sensible that only ratings of ‘appropriate style’ would be affected by the use of chéngyŭ, ratings for two-thirds of the quality components indicated that raters favored the use of chéngyŭ in interpretation.

These data underline the fact that in an interpreting-training program a professional interpreter/trainer should encourage students with a high command of the Chinese language to recur to the use of chéngyŭ whenever possible. The teacher has to be a guide for his or her students in so far as many Modern Chinese idioms are too obscure in their meaning even to Chinese native speakers. Therefore, future interpreters should first learn to use the most frequently used chéngyŭ which are intelligible to every Chinese speaker. Their extensive usage would be indicative of the interpreter’s language proficiency[5]. In the empirical findings from user expectations surveys on interpreter quality by Mesa (2000: 78) and Kadric (2000: 163) as cited in (Pöchhacker, 2004: 154), proficiency in the client’s language is one of the most valued interpreter qualities (Mesa, 2000: 77) and “linguistic and cultural competence”[6] (Kadric, 2000: 160) is valued more importantly than any other factor.

As a consequence, teaching students, irrespective of their native language, the appropriate usage of chéngyŭ when interpreting from Italian to Chinese is an essential key factor in the success of the interpreting performance. Interpretation incorporating chéngyŭ is rated systematically higher because of the following reasons:

(1) user expectation surveys point out that raters consider linguistic or cultural proficiency as one of the most important quality criteria for interpreters; (2) from cultural upbringing point of view, those who employ chéngyŭ are considered well-educated elites who maybe carry more authority […]; (3) from rhetoric point of view, those who employ chéngyŭ are considered eloquent or proficient in Mandarin Chinese, which is a much desired quality in the ear of users. (Yang, Yi-An, 2008: 37)

Following is the table with the 216 most frequently used chéngyŭ: For reasons of space, the whole table is reported in Appendix II [PDF file]. In this chapter, the highest frequency items are extracted and summarized[7]. More particularly, only the chéngyŭ whose occurrence is superior to 30 are reported in the following table. For an exhaustive list, see Appendix II [PDF file].

[Table 2]

These idioms together with the ones in section 1.4 will be translated and commented on in a separate paper. Moreover, an Italian rendering according to the context will be suggested so that trainee interpreters may benefit from it.

2. Interpreting numerical chéngyŭ

Most Chinese idiomatic expressions are made up of four characters. In many cases at least one, often two, out of these four characters is a number. My experience as an interpreter proves how useful it is to provide trainee interpreters with this type of chéngyŭ to develop automatisms. After having collected linguistic data from speeches and news articles in the last year, I compiled a table which provides trainees with some of the most commonly used Chinese chéngyŭ containing numbers. The table is divided according to the number represented by the very first character of the saying. The complete table is too long for the body of the text. For this reason, only the most frequent items are extracted and summarized. The whole table is included as Appendix III [PDF file][8].

[Table 3]

3. Implications for teaching

This paper has repeatedly emphasized the fact that trainee interpreters should be able to master as many chéngyŭ as possible. However, it would be impossible, or unfeasible, for students to learn all the aforementioned chéngyŭ by heart without any kind of logical background. Likewise, it is surreal to think that a student can passively understand and/or actively use all these idioms all at once.

For this reason, it is advisable to think about possible teaching and learning strategies which will be at the center of future research. Usually, just to mention a few, to facilitate memorization, chéngyŭ are divided into the following categories:

1. Chéngyŭ with a story like 走馬看花 (zŏu mă kàn huā) which has a background story[9].

2. Chéngyŭ without a story. (2a) Amongst those chéngyŭ without a story, there are classical quotations like(一日三秋, yī rì sān qiū, which literally means “one day three autumns” and indicates the fact that “one day away from a dear one is like three years”; (2b) Other idioms stem from literature or popular culture like 四通八達 (sì tōng bā dá) extend in all directions or 愚公移山 (yú gōng yí shān) which literally means “foolish old mand moves a mountain” and which can be rendered in Italian as “volere è potere”(where there’s a will, there’s a way).

3. Another useful categorization is chéngyŭ dealing with numbers (See paragraph 2)

A useful teaching strategy is to draw up a table like the Italian game “nomi di cose, persone, luoghi, animali, città…”[10] by choosing a different letter (or number) every time and play the chéngyŭ game. Another strategy could be reading the morale behind the story and have students say which chéngyŭ it corresponds to or viceversa starting with the chéngyŭ and have students focus on the morale. Similar teaching strategies are all aimed at raising the awareness of students on the true nature of these Chinese idioms and help them familiarize with these set structures in order to develop automatisms which, later in their career, according to the “effort model” (Gile, 1985; Gile 1988, Gile 1999), may lighten the burden and the mental strain that interpreters experience in the booth.

4. Concluding remarks

This paper has investigated the interpreting of Chinese idiomatic expressions from Chinese to Italian by providing practical suggestions for trainee interpreters of Chinese to Italian. The linguistic solutions may also be of use to interpreters of other languages because the dilemma of the chéngyŭ is a common one. In interpreting literature all the attention has always been focused on Chinese-English interpreting both in the passive and in the active mode. Therefore, this article also aims at filling a gap in the existing literature. The results indicate that mastering Chinese idioms not only is a major asset for interpreters, but also a way to please the audience and meet with the audience’s expectations. Getting acquainted with the quintessence of Chinese culture and language, i.e. chéngyŭ (Chinese idiomatic expressions), is perceived not only as an asset but as a conditio sine qua non for the qualification of an interpreter. The results of the study indicate some major points like the fact that the morale behind the story rather than the story itself is the crux of the message; that chéngyŭ should be perceived as units and that interpreters need to understand the concept of what is being said in order to convey the chéngyŭ in their target language. This study, in its introductory form, does not aim at being exhaustive in dealing with the issue of chéngyŭ in Chinese to Italian interpreting, rather at singling out some theoretical points which may prove to be useful for interpreters and interpreter trainees. After giving some scholarly definitions of chéngyŭ and describing its syntactic nature, I specified that not all Chinese idioms are metaphorical; some may not derive from a specific story with a morale. These types of idioms may be succinct in their original meanings and be written in a way that would be intelligible only to a scholar of formal written ancient Chinese. I have also presented the reader with a linguistic analysis of chéngyŭ to understand the morphological, semantic and pragmatic nature of these Chinese idioms. In the third section of the first chapter, the importance of developing “automatisms” in simultaneous interpretation is investigated. The reader is provided with a list and possible renderings of those idioms with the highest frequency use according to their occurrences in a given corpus, with no pretense of being exhaustive. In the final section new ideas, useful for future research, concerning implications for teaching are put forward.

To conclude, future research should focus on coping strategies for interpreters dealing with chéngyŭ, refined and more linguistically exquisite Italian renderings of chéngyŭ for translators, teaching and learning strategies for challenged teachers and students and, last but not least, on a historic linguistic analysis of the evolution of chéngyŭ frequency use throughout the years. Finally, the renderings reported in this paper will be refined and expanded in the form of an interpreter’s handbook to be published soon.

[Appendix I (PDF)]
[Appendix II (PDF)]
[Appendix III (PDF)]

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Notes

[1] 慣用語 (Guànyòngyŭ) are commonly used idiomatic expressions. Chinese set expressions are subcategorized differently depending on the school of thought of scholars (Cui, 1997; Zheng, 2005). The most common categories of Chinese set idioms (熟語 shóuyŭ) are 成語 (chéngyŭ), 歇後語 (xiēhòuyŭ, two-part allegorical sayings), 慣用語 (guànyòngyŭ), 言語 (yányŭ, proverbs) and 俗語 (súyŭ, colloquialisms).

[2] “Introjection” is a Freudian term and it defines a psychological process where the subject replicates in itself behaviors, attributes or other fragments of the surrounding world, especially of other subjects.

[3] The interpreter must introject equivalences between expressions or lexical collocations and particular syntactic structures of SL and TL, to allocate more resources to those POS which are conceptually complex or hard to anticipate. (My translation).

[4] Readers should be aware of the geopolitical situation concerning Mandarin Chinese which, just as every other language, has considerable diatopic variations. The two main national varieties are Mainland Mandarin Chinese and Taiwan Mandarin Chinese. The table herein reported is based on a Taiwanese corpus frequency, a Mainland frequency could be different. In other words, chéngyŭ have diatopic, diastratic and diachronic variations just like any other level of language. For example, Taiwan, Mainland China and Hong Kong all differ in their frequency use. Furthermore, the chéngyŭ that are common today were not as common 20 years ago. This is because chéngyŭ are a cultural-linguistic phenomenon and as such they tend to change in time and space.

[5] Chéngyŭ are one aspect of language that contributes to proficiency.

[6] I have underlined the fact that chéngyŭ (成語) represent a connection bridge between language and culture.

[7] See note 5.

[8] See note 5.

[9] The famous Chinese poet Ming Jiao lived in the mid-Tang Dynasty. However, the beginning of his career was all but smooth. He came from a poor family and was very talented and studiuous; yet somehow managed to keep failing the Imperial Examination several times. Luckily he didn’t give up and in 797 AD eventually passed the exam in Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). Feeling extremely delighted, he jumped his horse and wrote a poem, whose final two lines sound like this: “The spring breeze makes me feel content, the horse hoofs are fast, in one day I will see all of Chang’an’s flowers.”

[10] An Italian game in which a person draws a letter of the alphabet and all participants must write names of things, famous people, places, animals and cities (or other possible variants) starting with the letter of the alphabet previously drawn.

About the author(s)

Professore a contratto presso la Fujen Catholic University in Taiwan e dottorando presso la National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU).

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©inTRAlinea & Riccardo Moratto (2010).
"Chinese to Italian Interpreting of Chengyu", inTRAlinea Vol. 12.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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