Nouns are weird: translation exercises

Now that you have all that knowledge of nouns, we can actually do some noun-phrase translation. First, a couple of hints and examples.

Noun+Noun (N+N)

春+N: N in the spring(time); N affected by spring; spring N

月+N: moon N; lunar N; N of the moon; the moon’s N; moonlit N; N in the moonlight; N illuminated by the moon


春林: Forest in the springtime (this should make you think of flowers, birds chirping, Snow White?)

月林: the moonlit forest; the woods in the moonlight; the trees beneath the moon.

Two things. First, notice that these noun phrases are visual. The forest in the springtime is not like the forest in the winter, it implies a whole image of brightness, colors, etc. Second, the moon+forest phrase has a variety of translations that are not at all the same in English, but in Chinese such a phrase could mean all at the same time. This means that precision is not a priority in Classical Chinese, so for now just stick to the image of moonlight and trees/forest. 

And with these two phrases we’ve started to delve if only slightly into a very different use of language. I don’t actually know a lot about Classical Chinese, so I cannot make big claims, but I do think there are things “old” or “literary” forms of a language can teach us about a language and people. Perhaps because of the way I studied English at school, I believe that poetry and literature help us create emotional connections with a language. Even if you are not too interested in Classical Chinese, give its literature a try.

Back to noun phrase phrases. Sometimes, N+N phrases are actually just Noun1 and Noun2, like 山水which mean “Mountains and Rivers”. Your next question is probably, “How would I know when noun phrases should be translated with an and?” The simple and straight answer is, you don’t. But there is a small hint in that if the two nouns are classified under the same class of things they most likely will be an and phrase. For example, the moon and the sun are celestial bodies, so 日月 is sun and moon (remember ying and yang?).

Translation exercises

Now with our expanded knowledge of noun phrases we can actually give some a try:

  1. 花林
  2. 水风
  3. 秋水
  4. 水月
  5. 夜山

These are actualy exercises from the book. I chose them because I thought they weren’t as easy as they seemed. If you want to check your answers and have some explanation from me here you go:

  1. This first one literally would be something like “flowered forest”, that is, a forest in which there are a lot of flowers. Of course Archie has a much more elegant translation “woodland in bloom”.
  2. Remeber that for a lot of noun phrases 水 refers more to rivers, so this would mean “river wind/breeze”. More poetically, it could be translated to “wind ruffling the water” (so much movement in nouns!).
  3. Going by the last translation this would be an “autumn river”, but that is a bit awkward so “rivers in autumn” would suit this phrase better.
  4. The first way to translate this phrase yields “river moon”. Going back to the notes at the beginning we realize it’s probably “river in the moonlight” or “river illuminated by the moon” and thus, “moon reflected on the water” seems to be our best bet.
  5. Again, this phrase demands more from our imagination. “Mountain in the night” could do, but how about “mountains shrouded in darkness”? Yeah, much better.

If you were discouraged from Chinese due to the weirdness of these noun phrases, don’t be. Remember, this is Classical Chinese. It’s like thinking that because you can’t read Shakespeare you will not be able to speak English. That would be silly. That said, actually being able to read a little Shakespeare will definitely give you some insight into English. Keep up your motivation and take up a challenge once in a while. 

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