What are synonyms
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary a synonym is – a word or phrase that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or phrase in the same language.
So in English for example:
“Word A”, might be a synonym to another word, “Word B”. It follows that “Word B” will also be a synonym of “Word A”.
Examples of synonyms
There are so many synonyms in virtually every language, in fact I’m not aware of a single language which doesn’t include at least one synonym. Be aware that some words have more than one definition, and only one definition may be a synonym with the second word. Some random examples:
hi – hello
power – force
well – good
love – passion
important – significant
okay – fine
evidence – proof
Chinese uses the word “近义词” to mean synonyms, but interestingly, the word itself is different. The Chinese word literally translates to “close meaning word” rather than “identical meaning word”. Quite an interesting difference. Chinese seems to be more liberal about differences in meaning. Broadly speaking as a Chinese to English translator, one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that Chinese readers are more tolerant of vague and unclear meanings and will look for possible logical interpretations, whereas an English reader often requires more detail and will be put off, or stop reading when they find those same unclear meanings. Of course, this could easily just be because I (as a native English speaker) only notice those differences in Chinese, whereas in English I’m used to them and don’t spot them any more.
As a foreign learner of Chinese, it’s worth spending time learning synonyms, two good books on the subject can be readily found:
17000 Groups of Frequently Used Chinese Synonyms
Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary
I find both books very useful and refer to them regularly, although 1700 Groups of Frequently Used Chinese Synonyms has a clearer layout and gives concise logical examples. Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary is also a good book but it feels to me that the examples can be overly complex and sometimes distract from the key differences at hand.
Synonyms Across Languages
So we’ve talked about Synonyms within one language, how about having a word in French say, being a synonym for another word in German. In other words, can two words in different languages, which express a similar meaning be considered synonyms. Strictly speaking the obvious answer is no, as the definition above precludes this, but we can define words however we wish and there is nothing to stop us using the word synonym instead to be: a word or phrase that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or phrase in another language. However, it’s easier to simply use the terminology “equivalent” term.
The real interesting thing about synonyms isn’t so much how we classify equivalent words, but how the synonyms would affect our translation. Let’s say one possible meaning of Word A in language A is a synonym with word B in language A. However the equivalent term of Word A , which I’ll call A’ in language A’ is not synonymous with word B’ in language A’. This very common case shows how even using an equivalent term can take us away from some of the other implied meanings.
Consequences for Translators
For translators it’s worth asking ourselves what are some synonyms of the word in our source language. (Perhaps you could list them as an exercise when you encounter a difficult term). Then let’s consider the synonyms for the possible candidate translations. Sometimes looking at how the synonyms overlap can give a good insight to the most appropriate target term.