The Importance of the Cultural Differences Between China and the West in Translation

Translation is the process of transforming one language into another. It is not just simply translating a language to another but a translation between two or more cultures. Eugene A. Naida, a leading American translation theorist said: “Translation is an exchange between two cultures. For truly successful translations it is more important to be familiar with both cultures than even master both languages because words only make sense in the cultural context in which they function.”


The Chinese and English languages have given birth to their national idioms due to their unique historical culture. In ancient Chinese agricultural societies for example, “dogs” were seen as a humble animal. Dogs were mainly used to visit nursing homes and serve as a source of meat for ordinary people even in modern China where dog-eating practices still exist.

A range of dog-related languages contain derogatory meaning, such as “wolf’s heart and dog’s lungs”, “dog eyes are low”, “fox friends” and so on. On the other hand, in ancient European culture, people lived by hunting, fishing, grazing and dogs were important tools of production and labour such as shepherds. As European civilization has developed, dogs have become part of people’s everyday lives and are often used as a metaphor for humanity: “lucky dog”, “a top dog”, “as faithful as a dog”, “every dog has his day”, and now dogs are often seen as “man’s best friend”.

Therefore, if one does not understand the differences between the customs of the two cultures, but simply uses literal translation, the translated content will be impractical and may even send erroneous messages. For example, fishing occupies an important position on the British Isles, so Britons often use “fish” to denote a wide range of people, such as “big fish”, “poor fish”, “strange fish”. If translated into big fish, poor fish and strange fish, it would be incomprehensible and even a joke.

It is well known that dragons have different cultural visions in China and the West where they represent supreme power and unrivalled power. However, in the West they are incarnations of evil and greed. So, the familiar “Asian Four Dragons” is translated into “Asian Four Tigers”. Because of the difference between the cultural images of the source language and the destination language, the translation needs to transform the cultural images to convey the same information.

Due to the differences in thinking modes, Chinese people are used to express things from the cause to the effect, from big to small, and then to elaborate in an orderly manner while British and American people express their thinking in the opposite direction to the Chinese people: from small to big, first to result, then to cause. For example, the address in English is: “No.1, East 3rd Ring Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China”  which should be translated into Chinese as “Beijing, Chaoyang District, No.1, East 3rd Ring Road”. Therefore, only by understanding the differences between the Chinese and Western ways of thinking can we accurately translate.