July 13, 2015

Prepositional separation as a difficulty of Chinese

For ease of understanding, I call this prepositional separation: In Chinese, a concept normally denoted by a single prepositional word in most other languages must be expressed by two characters or words separated by other words.[note] For instance, English "in" is "在...中" or "在...里面" in Chinese. In short simple sentences, this is not a problem. But when a sentence becomes longer, even a native speaker begins to struggle when he crams more and more intermediate components into short-term working memory, in eager anticipation of the end marker such as "中" or "里面", to finish processing the information. Take the following as an example,

He put the ring in a bright color box that has an exquisitely decorated label on it, which reads "For Julia".

Of course, a good translator may choose to break up the long-winding Chinese sentence, precisely because the long-winding attributive clause sounds awkward, unnatural, or simply, non-Chinese. In addition to attributive clauses, Chinese suffers from potentially long complement clauses as well. Take the following as an example.

A sophisticated computer behaves like a human in the sense that it can generate its own commands according to the current situation it encounters.

The Chinese translation is almost forced to have two sentences; otherwise, the "in the sense that" clause would be too foreign to a Chinese ear.

Separation of a semantic structure that provides one single functionality is generally undesirable, in Chinese or any language. Winston Churchill allegedly made up a sentence, "This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put" in response to the picky editor. German has tons of separable verbs (as well as its ending "not") that swell the brains of simultaneous interpreters. Fortunately, English and many other languages normally consolidate the words or phrases that represent one concept, or can do so as an option. You can say "put on the jacket", or "put the jacket on". But when the "jacket" becomes long due to a series of adjectives, it's unlikely you'll separate "put" and "on", and you'll definitely not do so if "jacket" has an attributive clause. In Chinese, on the other hand, the "word ... word" (e.g. "在...中") construct is the only option. A translator has to be clever enough to shorten the "..." part to a comfortable level.

The Chinese language is difficult not just because of its large repertoire of characters, but also because of other aspects such as its prepositional separation, which may become increasingly cumbersome in expressing complicated ideas in the modern world.

[note] Technically, this preposition is called circumposition, although some linguists only use the word "preposition".

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