Chinese idioms are totally fascinating and provide a rich source of content for translators to analyse. Let’s start by defining what an idiom is.
What is an idiom
An idiom is defined by dictionary.com not very helpfully as “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light ).” The easiest way to think of them would be as a story or a reference that we understand without being told by the actual words. For example, “that’s old hat” doesn’t mean something is an “old hat” or even a “hat” at all, it just means old-fashioned. A foreigner who hadn’t studied the expression would assume it literally meant old hat.
There are also idioms which can be understood from the words by a smart reader. For example, “he was like the cat that got the cream”. Even to someone who didn’t speak the language fluently, they could imagine that a cat who manages to eat cream would probably be pretty happy. So it’s at least partially guessable, whereas others are not guessable at all, and can even sound like the exact opposite of what they mean.
There are two sets of expression in Chinese which can be referred to in English as idioms. Those are 成语 and 俗语 (chengyu and suyu). Textbooks will say they are both idioms and they are but they have some unique features.
Chinese chengyu are virtually all made up of four characters. They virtually all refer back to classical Chinese and would be impossible to understand without knowing the meaning in the original story. Some are somewhat guessable though, can you guess what “playing the violin to a cow” might be? A waste of time for sure.
The interesting origin of chengyu comes from the fact that for thousands of years, the writing system of Chinese differed from the spoken language. Effectively an eloquent Chinese speaker and writer actually spoke two languages, the spoken Chinese and the written version. As time went on the spoken form evolved and changed significantly, but the written form never did, so it became more and more different from the spoken language.
Due to the unique features of written Chinese, four character fixed expressions became very common, and gradually these started to be included in speech as well. So we can see that chengyu are kind of remnants from ancient Chinese. Despite that they are extremely popular and in fact are used in written Chinese today more than ever. You will encounter them by the dozen if you read any Chinese publications whatsoever.
Translated literally this means something like “habitual speech”. These are a bit more like English idioms. They are not fixed to four characters, and in fact can be two characters, or whole sentences. They are things people started saying at some point, that just took off and become popular. They are usually less literary and “smart sounding” than chengyu but they are still very common.
There is a grey area between a chengyu and suyu, but the distinction is usually defined by the origin of the expression.
Translating chengyu and suyu into English
Don’t treat chengyu or suyu any differently to other units of meaning. Just because there’s a chengyu in the Chinese, that does not mean you have to have an idiom in the English. Chengyu are normal and common methods of expression in Chinese, and sometimes it’s best to just use single adjectives to translate. Or you can match it with an idiom if you wish, but don’t feel obliged to. There’s no rule of translators saying we have to match chengyu with idioms. We have to make the text do what we want it to do, and using idioms is just one of the tools we have to do that.
Imagine a typical Chinese text, which contains about 4 chenyu per page. That number of chengyu would signal to a Chinese reader that this is a “normal” piece of writing. If a translator decides to replace those with 4 idioms in English, we now have an English document which has 4 idioms per page. However, this is far more than we would expect to see in an English document, so the reader would be signalled that “this writer loves an idiom” or that it was a literary text, perhaps not the intended meaning.
On the other hand, there’s nothing more satisfying that when an idiom fits perfect with a nice Chinese chengyu and conveys exactly what you want.