I have been typing into Google Translate and Yabla all day (Yabla is basically a Chinese glossing tool), trying to get a sense at how simple English sentences with prepositions are translated into Mandarin Chinese, and for the most part, it strips the prepositions (and obviously removes the "the's"). I asked a similar question on the Chinese SE if that helps give context as to where I'm coming from: How do you describe Chinese words when you are learning Chinese? (I still don't know Chinese, speaking-wise, though I have read through a bunch of the sentence templates and such on that site).

My overall question is, how does Chinese convey "the same meaning" as English, with using so many fewer words? The obvious answer I have read everywhere is "context", you get the information from context. But not having invested the weeks/months yet into becoming a Chinese speaker (so many TODOs on the list!), I am hard-pressed to understand how this would work at a conceptual level.

Chinese doesn't have a word for "the" (denoting one or more people or things already mentioned or assumed to be common knowledge.). "The" is the most popular word in English. It focuses your attention on "the" thing. Asking ChatGPT about how to get by in Chinese without "the", it talks about possibly using "this" and "that" equivalents in Chinese (e.g. "this book" or "that book"). But that is not the same as "the" IMO. You can't say "walk the walk and talk the talk" in Chinese it seems like. It would be "walk walk talk talk" if anything. But these "the" workarounds don't capture the exact same essence as the meaning of "the" in English, so I feel like stuff is lost.

Then I move onto sentences with prepositions.

That third one is missing "beyond", maybe these are all google translate errors? The last one is missing the subtlety that is included in the English sentence. It doesn't include the fact that the flower is above the spikes, or that it's sprouting "out from" the cactus (painting that vivid mental imagery), or even that the cactus "has a" flower. It has the what I would assume are "basic elements" of the sentence, but not the subtleties.

Is it possible to convey the subtleties of English across other languages (or to keep it focused, just even Chinese)? Or is it lossy sort of thing? Because Chinese doesn't have all the features of English (fewer than English's ~150 pronouns, and no "the", etc.), how can it possibly say what an English sentence says?

This probably comes down to a general problem of how to translate between languages, and capture the "exact meaning". Plus google translate it obviously probably flawed in what I'm using it for here. But it's hard to tell what you should be capturing if it is not possible to capture the exact same meaning.

Just looking for a high level answer to this conundrum, so I can being wrapping my mind around how a language lacking such features is able to "still convey everything English can". Obviously I am highly biased being a native English speaker not really able to think too much outside of the English box (at this moment, though I've been trying hard for a while).

  • 7
    The answer to this is really, really, to learn another language. Google Translate is not a substitute for actually understanding how at least one non-English language works. If you take a semester or two of any other language you'll start to develop an intuition for what translation means, and that it's not as simple as replacing each word with its exact equivalent.
    – Draconis
    Jul 23 at 19:55
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    Every language has its own unique way of expressing subtleties. Not all subtleties can really be expressed exactly in all languages – and conversely, all languages have examples of subtleties that cannot be fully expressed in other languages. But the lack of definite articles is not generally a compelling case of that, because definiteness can generally easily be inferred from context. Consider that Finnish and Hungarian, both of which are morphologically far richer than English, also has no articles. Jul 23 at 21:21
  • Translation is a minus and plus game. Only meaning can be translated not "every word" per se. Until you internalize another language, you will not grasp this.
    – Lambie
    Jul 23 at 22:49
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    Can you magine a language so bizarre and impoverished that most of the time you can't tell the social relationship between the speaker and the addressee from the form of expression? Or one where counting words don't give any hint of what kind of thing you're counting unless you name the thing? I'm talking about English, of course, or just about any European language.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 25 at 18:34
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    @YellowSky Yeah, not sure why I included Hungarian there… brainfart. Latin would have been a better option. Aug 2 at 8:57

1 Answer 1


Let's unpack your question a bit:

Chinese and English are fundamentally different in many ways. English is an inflected language, which means it uses changes in word forms (like prefixes, suffixes, and infixes) to convey grammatical relationships between words. Chinese, on the other hand, is an isolating language, meaning words generally have only one form and grammatical relationships are conveyed through word order and context.

Chinese doesn't have an equivalent to English's definite article "the", but that doesn't mean it can't convey the same specificity. Chinese relies on context and other words to denote specificity. For example, the word 那 (nà) can be used to mean "that" or "the" in certain contexts. And yes, it doesn't capture the exact same essence as the meaning of "the" in English, but that's okay. Languages aren't about capturing exact equivalences, they're about communication, and different languages have different ways of doing this.

As for your examples with prepositions, again, you're comparing apples to oranges. Chinese doesn't use prepositions in the same way English does. For example, the Chinese equivalent to "books about care" would probably be 护理的书 (hùlǐ de shū), which literally translates to "care's book." It's a different structure, but it conveys the same meaning.

Your examples also highlight the importance of cultural context in translation. Some English phrases, like "above and beyond", have connotations that may not directly translate into Chinese. In these cases, a good translator would find a way to convey the same idea in a culturally appropriate way.

Finally, about your question of whether it's possible to convey the subtleties of English across other languages: yes, it absolutely is. But it's not always a 1-to-1 translation. Good translation requires an understanding of both languages and cultures, not just a dictionary.

So, my advice to you: stop trying to fit Chinese into an English mold. Instead, try to understand Chinese on its own terms. You'll find it's a rich and nuanced language that is just as capable of expressing complex thoughts and ideas as English - it just does it differently. And remember, learning a new language is a journey, not a destination. So, take your time, and enjoy the ride.

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