Common mistakes when translating from Chinese to English

“The 19th century belonged to England, the 20th century belonged to the US, and the 21st century belongs to China. Invest accordingly.” – Warren Buffet

It is common and human to make embarrassing mistakes when starting the journey of learning a new language – you will probably be the target of some good laughs from your friends but it won’t cost you anything. Though, translation mistakes in business might cut some zeros from your business income.

Many U.S. businesses have learned the hard way that an ad or marketing campaign that worked stateside may not have the same charm when translated into a foreign language. Global giants all have passed through awkward branding when advertised in Chinese. Here are some examples: KFC’s slogan “Finger-lickin’ good” was translated into a not-so-appetizing phrase: “Eat your fingers off.”; HSBC “Assume Nothing” campaign was nihilistically translated as “Do nothing”; Ford’s “Every car has a high-quality corpse” was far from the advertising image they wanted to invoke; Electrolux centered on the tagline “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”; “Come alive with Pepsi” was translated in Chinese as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead”, etc.

Someone doesn’t need to have decades of business experience to understand how much would cost a company such a gaffe. Taking into consideration that your business learns from others’ mistakes, we would like to point some of the common mistakes when translating Chinese to English so your business will avoid getting a “persona non grata” stamp in the Chinese market.

Writing Direction

Because the Chinese symbols represent thoughts, they can be written left to right, right to left, or even up and down. The freedom of character placement makes translation interesting, especially when translating from Mandarin to a language with specific rules of linear character placement and alignment. It gets really messy.


Pinyin, or Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese. It is often used to teach Standard Chinese, which is normally written using Chinese characters. Pinyin uses syllables with 4 diacritics to mark the four tones of Mandarin. As an example we will take the syllable “ma” : 妈 mā 麻 má 马 mǎ 骂 mà 吗 ·ma. The words are “mother”, “hemp”, “horse”, “scold”, and a question particle, respectively. But the tricky part is that for instance “má ” 麻 for hemp is pronounced identically as 痲 numb , 蟆 toad, 么 exclamatory final particle, etc. Pinyin is purely a representation of the sounds of Mandarin, it completely lacks the semantic cues and contexts inherent in Chinese characters. You never know what service a client will ask from your industry when you specify that it provides translation from Chinese to English. You might want to be prepared to translate pinyin to English and we just want to make sure that you are psychologically and technically ready for that ?


The best part of Chinese for a beginner is grammar. Piece of cake if compared with French, Russian or even English. No gender (a proof that Chinese do not discriminate by default ? , no singular/plural noun moreover no such thing as verb conjugation to denote tenses. The context is used to distinguish between past, present, future, and all the other various tenses similar for gender and singular/plural nouns. For example, there is a single word in Chinese that means run. If you want to use the present tense, you simply say “I run”. If you want the past tense, you have to say something like “yesterday I run”, where yesterday provides the requisite context. And if you want the future tense, you have to say something like “tomorrow I run”. Lucky for those who learn Chinese, though a nightmare for translators when all grammar mistakes are combined.

Culture of Idioms

After all, unlike many more modern languages, Chinese is rooted in millennia of culture and tradition that must be understood if the translation is to be accurate. Chengyu are a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, most of which consist of four characters. Chengyu were widely used in Classical Chinese and are still common in vernacular Chinese writing and in the spoken language today. The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. The key with these is that if you don’t get them the first time, read them again – many are a play on words, which may not be instantly obvious. Most of the Chinese Chengyu have their English equivalents. Sometimes a four character chengyu can be translated into a full paragraph.


Chinese is a challenging language group to translate into and from. Regional dialects in China can be vastly different from Mandarin. If your target is for local markets in China, you begin your journey together with a professional translation team that has the native knowledge and skill to handle all of your translation needs, no matter how complex. China encompasses many different cultures and ethnicities. Translation into Chinese isn’t just about words and definitions; it’s about local knowledge and cultural IQ.

After the Beijing Olympics, the Beijing Tourism Bureau set up a hotline for people to report bad Chinglish translations, to be reviewed by a panel of English professors and expats. But something tells us that we’ll still have lots of funny material for years to come. Chinglish mistakes became a high rated touristic attraction.

About Wordminds

Wordminds is a close-knit team of language experts – professional translators, project managers, localisation engineers and business visionaries who work closely with global clients, helping them connect with their international audience. Wordminds works with over 3,000 language specialists and subject-matter experts to enable companies to overcome cultural and language barriers, helping them build trust and create long-lasting business and human relationships. Fully certified under ISO 9001 and ISO 17100, the company believes in continuous improvement and so stands at the forefront of new language-technology implementation, smart collaboration and excellent customer service. Find out more about Wordminds.

Related blogs