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Abstract: Numerals, initially intended to express precise quantities, are predictably, precise in nature. However, in their actual usage in discourse, they are often associated with the feature of fuzziness, especially when used rhetorically. By comparing and contrasting past translated materials between English and Chinese, the present author reveals more differences than similarities of correspondence of numerals in different languages and finds that this phenomenon involves not only linguistic but also historical and cultural elements. On the basis of comprehensive data, this paper proposes six strategies in dealing with translation of numerals, namely, a. mirror translation; b. use of equivalents; c. free translation; d. explanatory translation; e. hieroglyph translation and f. creative translation.


I.         Approach numerals

A numeral is: 1. A figure or character used to express a number; as the Arabic numerals, 1.2.3.etc.; the Roman numerals, I.V. X. L. etc. 2. A word expressing a number. (Webster’s 1913 Dictionary). Numeral: n. adj. (word, figure or sign) standing for a number; of number. ( Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of current English with Chinese Translation ). Seeing the above definitions of numeral, we learn that it does not only include Arabic numerals or Roman numerals as are usually encountered but also a word, figure or sign standing for a number. And this is a universal phenomenon in every society or culture, so far as my limited small-scale research has proved. Numerals express precise quantities and are supposed to be precise in nature, as we Chinese often express absolute certainty by saying “ One is one and two is two.” However, in their actual use in discourse, they are often associated with the feature of fuzziness.*( Fuzziness means the quality of being indistinct, blurry or foggy. ) This is particularly apparent when they are used rhetorically, such as in dialects and literary works. For example, nine in “ A cat has nine lives” does not necessarily mean the exact number “nine”. In Chinese “sansierhouxing” does not actually mean “Think three times before you act”, but suggests that one should be cautious before taking an action. Hence, to coin a new term, fuzzy numerals.


II.       Comparison and contrast of fuzzy numerals in English and Chinese

Since numerals express quantities and it is, I believe, a universal phenomenon, I will not dwell on the discussion of it. Instead I would like to make an attempt to look into the similarities as well as differences of fuzzy numerals between English and Chinese.

Both Chinese and English have two transcription systems of numerals—the native and the adopted Arabic numerals. In Chinese, for example, san(three) is the native and 4 is Arabic; in English, ten is native and 10 is Arabic, though   pronunciation of the pair is the same. According to my qualitative research, fuzziness lies with the native system rather than the Arabic. For instance, “to kill two birds with one stone”, when rendered into Chinese, becomes “yijianshuangdiao ( to kill two vultures with one arrow). The numerals remain the same in the translated version though the images have become different, which is termed cultural substitution in the translation circles. (But that is of little relevance to our discussion at present and therefore we will not spend time on it.) Moreover, the above examples are often used respectively to mean “to accomplish more than one objective with a single action”, and thus the numerical value is somewhat weakened and that is what I assume where fuzziness lies.

When stating a big amount or high degree, different numerals are used in English and Chinese. Thousands of in English has the approximate equivalent in Chinese chengqianshangwang literally, amounting to thousands and approaching ten thousands); millions of in Chinese is simply countless.

Play on words is not unusual in nearly all developed languages. For instance, “Madam I’m Adam” is one and “I have nothing to declare but my genius” (said at the customs office) is another, but play on numerals is rare. Chinese numerals are often involved in such playful usage. The numbers are often to enhance rhetorical effects, which is usually pitifully lost in translation into any other language. This is one of the areas where untranslatability lies. Other examples include si(four) and ba(eight) which are homophones of si meaning death and fa indicating prosperity respectively. When reading the original Chinese, the translator must be discreet enough not to fall into such pitfalls and bear in mind always to add an explanation if necessary.

For Cultural or historical reasons, numerals may carry too much implicture. 13 in English is an ominous number and similarly 4 in Chinese is avoided by many, especially people in the south. This sort of numbers may easily cause trouble for reading comprehension and then translation. Again it is necessary to explain it to target readers who may find themselves at a loss reading your translation.


As my second foreign language is Japanese, I, after some initial research, find it is also true in Japanese. Japanese language was heavily influenced by Chinese, so Japanese numerals for small numbers are identical to Chinese numerals except the difference in pronunciations. For large numbers, the numerals are often different, because of different number syntax. But the usage of fuzziness is identical.


III.     Strategies in translation

 The majority of readers will not be familiar with the Chinese characters illustrated in this article, but they should still be able to follow the discussion of individual examples by using the back-translations provided. Back-translation, as used here, involves taking a text(original or translated) written in Chinese with which the reader is assumed to be unfamiliar and translating it as literally as possible into English . A back-translation can give some insight into aspects of the structure, if not the proper meaning of the original, but it is never the same as the original. So long as readers can follow what I intend to illustrate, I will feel content. Owing to many differences, syntactic or lexical for instance, the back-translation is nothing but a compromise; it is theoretically unsound and far from ideal, but then we do not live in an ideal world.

1.      Mirror translation

   Mirror translation, as its name suggests, is translating number for number, a mirror image being exactly of the original, because the basic function of numerals is to count in all languages and therefore any change of it is absolutely wrong. Such changed translation either from deliberation or from neglect is doomed to be a failure.  In other words, we have no other option rather than stick to the faithful principle---to be one hundred percent faithful and loyal to the original.   In practice this is the most common method in translation of numerals.

Example A

Source text

Hydrogen is the lightest element, with an atomic weight of 1.008.

In target text the number is preserved exactly.

Example B

The following is the translation of a Chinese sentence.

“As the saying goes, ‘A girl changes eighteen times before reaching womanhood.’ And the smarter the girl, the more out of hand she’ll get. You must have seen many such cases.” (Yang Hsian-yi & Gladys Yang. Vol. II – 652)   The number 18 is kept.

This strategy is the easiest and most trouble-saving strategy in the field of numerals translation, but then numerals can mean so much more.

2.      Use of equivalents

   This strategy is used when, as discussed above, a language pair have different ways of expressing numerals, i.e. one language may use numerals while the other need not. In other cases, for target readers’ sake, the numerals are rendered in accordance with the target language habitual usage instead of a literal translation.

Example A

Source text (Chinese omitted)

Yi chi (a chi, a traditional unit of length in Chinese equaling approximately one third of a meter)

Target text

 “ This Buddha,” Monkey thought to himself, “ is a perfect fool. I can jump a hundred and eight thousand leagues, while his palm cannot be as much as eight inches across. How could I fail to jump clear of it?”

Here eight inches replaces a chi, a traditional unit of length in Chinese. This exhibits a consideration of the English readers.

Example B

Source text

eryitianzuowu (a Chinese idiomatic expression meaning half and half).

Target text

It’s too complicated to work out how much each of us ate. Lets go fifty-fifty.

   More examples are as follows: at sixes and sevens-luanqibazao (back translated as messy sevens and eights); on second thoughts-zaisankaolu (back-translated as repeated considerations); ten to one-shiyoubajiu (back-translated as eight or nine out of ten); to be flung to the four winds-jiuxiaoyunwai (back-translated as hurl up out of the ninth heaven); etc.

3.      Free translation

This is a strategy applied where numerals are used in idioms or figurative expressions. In other words, the translator attaches more attention to the general meaning than the precise quantity signified by the numerals.

Example A

Source text

A slave that is not twentieth part of the title of your precedent lord;… ( Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

Back translation

A slave that is not thousandth part of the title of your precedent husband;…

Example B

Source text

His mark in mathematics is second to none in class.

Back translation

His mathematic mark is among the top in his class.

Example C

Source text

The parson officially pronounced that they became one.

Back translation

The priest formally pronounced that they are married.

4.      Explanatory translation

   This strategy is useful when dealing with the play of words, which is quite common in most languages. Such playing of words often has rhetorical values and they can make language vivid, lively, and sometimes funny so the readers might attain aesthetic pleasure. Without explanation in such cases the translation may lose too much of the original flavor so the translator can not help making a painful effort to get a certain idea into the target readers’ head, though it is never an assurance whether it would succeed or not for if readers do not have enough background knowledge they may still end up enjoying little.

Example A

Source text

A part of a song from the opera “Liusanjie” (third sister Liu)

The Chinese original is omitted for convenience.

Target text

The sound of a drum on a mountain travels afar,

Third sister Liu has long been known for her singing;

Divide twenty-seven coins by three----

The answer is well known, well known!

   In order to make foreign readers understand the homophonic pair of “jiuwen” and “jiuwen”, the translator appends a note: Twenty-seven coin divided by three makes nine coins, “jiu wen”, pronounced the same as another “jiuwen” meaning “well known”. This type of play on words is very common in Chinese folk songs, where an object may stand for something quite different, but they have the same sound. (Yang Hsian-yi & Gladys Yang, 1979) Hieroglyph translation

   As is well known, Chinese uses characters while English is an alphabetic language. In dealing with some special expressions like X –chisel and V-connection, the translator tends to use this strategy. For example,

v- connection-sanjiaoxing; (back-translated as triangular connection for in Chinese V looks like a triangle.)

X-chisel-shizi; (X looks in Chinese like a character ten-shi)

cross switch-shizi;( ibid.)

X-con-shizi; ( ibid.)

plus driver-shizi; ( ibid.)

minus driver/screw-yizi; ( the shape looks like a Chinese character one-yi)

boat-neck-yizi; (ibid.)

delta wing-sanjiao; (a delta in the Chinese eyes appears like a triangle); etc.

   When translating from Chinese into English this is no longer a maxim. Instead, the appropriate equivalent in English should be used. Sometimes V is also directly borrowed into Chinese but not everyone agrees to such a loan.

   From the above examples we hope to demonstrate that the Chinese numerals involve not necessarily their usual numerical values but their looks or the image they carry. And this kind of translation does not actually occur very often.

5.      Creative translation

   Probably this is a strategy only for less experienced translators for an old hand is always flexible and creative in face of a text to be translated. Creativity does not imply to do whatever you want but elasticity after considering many factors both in the source and the target languages, both the linguistic and cultural ingredients. For example,

Source text

A poem by a Tang-dynasty poet Liu Zongyuan

a thousand)shan niao fei jue, wan ( ten thousands)jing ren zong mie. (River Snow)

Bynner (translator) :

A hundred mountains and no bird;

A thousand paths without a footprint.

   The translator Bynner translated creatively changing the original numerals for he thought the literal translation would sound odd in English. And by giving the following example I wish to enhance my point.

Source text is Chinese and omitted here.

Target text

Oh, for a great mansion with a thousand rooms

Where all the poor on earth could find welcome shelter…

IV.         Summary

Of course there ought to be many other considerations such as the purpose of translation as Nord (1989) has proposed. He has pointed out that translation in terms purpose might be split up into the following two categories: Documentary (preserve the original exoticizing setting) vs instrumental translation (adaptation of the setting to the target culture). Whether a translation ought to be instrumental or documentary when cultural and historical elements are involved is therefore the translator’s decision. If s/he focuses on the transmission of the original flavor for readers’ reference, documentary translation is preferred; if s/he mainly intends to convey the information for basic communication, instrumental translation is sufficient. Moreover if the purpose of a translation is to achieve a particular function for the target addressee, anything that obstructs the achievement of this purpose is a translation error.

This article of mine is written using a qualitative approach and therefore it may not sound persuasive enough. A quantitative approach is certainly more convincing but it takes a lot more time and energy and may need team work of a group. Yet I hope I can be excused because my work here is nothing but, as a Chinese saying goes, paozhuangyingyu (literally, to cast a brick to attract jade) to throw out a minnow to attract a whale.

*. fuzzy” was first introduced by Zadeh (1965), an American professor of the University of California at Berkeley, in “Fuzzy Sets” of Information and Control. In that paper Zadeh pointed out that objects in the real world usually do not have sharply defined boundaries. The realization of fuzziness in actual utterance is known as fuzzy language, which, according to different approaches of realization, can be classified into three types. First, an utterance may appear fuzzy when fuzzy words are apparently involved. Here the fuzzy words can be identified through the analysis with the theory of semantic field. Second, the linguistic hedges may be added to turn a precise statement into a fuzzy one, or adjust the degree of fuzziness. The third type is fuzziness by implicature, that is, an apparently precise utterance can be used and understood to have a fuzzy interpretation.


1.        Boater, M &Gates J.A. Dictionary of American Idioms [M] Barron’s Educational Series. Inc 1975.

2.        Baker, Mona: 1992. In other words: A Coursebook on Translation. Routledge Publishing House. UK.

3.        Newmark, p.p. (1982) Approaches to Translation, Pearson Education Limited, London.

4.        Nord, Christiane: (2001) Translation As a Purposeful Activity-functionalist approaches , Shanghai Foreign Education Press.

5.        Susan Bassnett & Andre Lefevere: Constructing Cultures-Essays on Literary Translation, Shanghai education press.  2001.

6.        Yang Hsian-yi & Gladys Yang. A Dream of the Red Mansion. [M] Beijing: Foreign Language Press 1979.

7.        Bao Huinan: Fuzziness of Chinese numerals and translation[J] Journal of Liaoning Normal University. 2001.(4)


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