Intricacies of 5th grade translation

Let’s say you’re a ten-year-old. Your teacher gives you the following Chinese sentence and asks you to fill in the blanks in the English:

这本书很有趣,很多人都从图书馆借阅过。(Zhèi běn shū hěn yǒuqù, hěn duō rén dōu cóng túshūguǎn jiè yuèguo)
The book is ______ interesting _______ many readers have borrowed it from the library

I’ll let you make your guesses before reading on beyond the fold for competing answers from my daughter and her teacher.

ok, here goes:

blank 1 blank 2
daughter very , so
i.e. The book is very interesting, so many readers have borrowed it from the library
teacher’s correction so that
i.e. The book is so interesting that many readers have borrowed it from the library

Nice comma-fudge for daughter on that second blank, eh?

For you translators…

  1. Full credit to either one?
  2. Can you do anything interesting with tense?
  3. Disregarding the blanks, can you think of any way to translate the original into colloquial English without making a causal relationship explicit?

32 responses to “Intricacies of 5th grade translation”

  1. It looks like a reverse translation from English into Chinese, which they are then asking to be translated back into English, with the teacher’s answer being the original sentence. Or maybe it’s just teacher-ese, with awkwardness invading all languages it touches.

    The book is tré interesting; it’s been checked out of the library a lot.

    The book is the bestest! Mad people have checked it out.

    This book is very interesting. It has been checked out by many people. I talk like a robot.

    This book is very interesting with many people having checked it out from the biblioteca. (with it having been checked out of the biblioteca by lots of people.)

    Doesn’t the causality move from explicit to implicit by simply not using a period? Was that what you meant by interesting things with tense?

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      thanks for mentioning the reverse translation thing. My daughter wouldn’t know that term, but that’s basically what she said when we were discussing it: “the Chinese sounds kinda weird”

      I actually couldn’t think of anything interesting on tense, except that you could put the first clause in the past: This book was very interesting…

  2. Ivan says:

    Couldn’t you just have very in both? (like the Chinese has 很 in both)

    This book is very interesting, very many people have borrowed it from the library.



  3. Peter says:

    I just take the two clauses as being joined, more or less the same as if you had used a semi-colon in English. I could see any of these as being plausible:

    The book is very interesting–so many people have checked it out! (2nd elaborates on or adds evidence to the claim of the 1st)

    This is so interesting that many people have checked it out. (2nd is a consequence of the first)

    This book is interesting. Many people have checked it out. (Chinese people like commas more than periods)

  4. It starts off wrong from the first word. Why would they translate 这 as “the”? It even looks like the above two commenters changed it to “this” without realizing it.

    I like her comma, but it’s not really necessary.

    The best answer for me also would be to put a semicolon the second blank.

    The teacher is adding an explicit reason for the book being checked out of the library by many people.

  5. pyw says:

    For a more idiomatic translation that doesn’t imply a causal relationship, I would have written something like “this is an interesting book that many people have checked out of the library.

  6. Brendan says:

    This book is ___mad___ interesting, ___which you can totally tell because____ many readers have checked it out of the library.

  7. Karan says:

    My guesses were “very” and “and”.

    I would’ve never thought of adding punctuation as part of this kind of exercise and I’m pretty sure my English teacher would’ve given that a perfect 0.

    As for the so/that choice, it’s grammatically in the right place, but the Chinese doesn’t really seem to be that emphatic.

    So, I’d still go with my choice of very/and.

  8. Tim says:

    I don’t quite like either translation, but I’m leaning towards your daughter… The teacher’s interpretation seems to put a comparative kind of value on “so” in the sentence, and it just sounds like that translation with “so” should have come from a “那么“ or such. Were I to translate the sentence, I would have used “very” and “and”, but that’s just me.

  9. Aiwen says:

    This obviously begs for a semicolon and 很 does not need translating.

    The book is interesting; many readers have borrowed it from the library

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      Elegant! As soon as you mentioned not translating 很 I realized I’d succumbed yet again, even after all these years immersed in Mandarin, to subconsciously rendering 很X as “very” or “really” X. It’s not, and even elementary grammars teach that.

      Nice work on what I’d consider the cleanest translation yet, although I’m sure my daughter’s teacher would still consider it wrong 😉

  10. Justin says:

    I would just say, “This book is pretty interesting, a lot of people have borrowed it from the library.”

    The “pretty” serves the same function as 很, it technically here means “very” but we use it even when we don’t mean “very.” I don’t think you need any word in between the two clauses, there’s no specific relationship implied between them in the Chinese and this way there isn’t in the English either but it still sounds colloquial.

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      Thanks, Justin. I haven’t thought much about “pretty” and 很 together before but I agree it makes a nice translation here

      Slight quibble with your statement: “很, it technically here means “very” but we use it even when we don’t mean “very.” — because there’s really nothing technical here, just the underlying meaning. In other words, 很 is sometimes used in a context where “very” makes a good translation and sometimes where it doesn’t.

      But that’s exactly why “pretty” does so well here.

  11. Zrv says:

    I think the degree of causality between these two clauses is still an open question, unresolved in these comments. We need some native speakers to weigh in. Do the two clauses represent independent facts related to the book, in which case we would translate
    1a) This book is interesting; many readers have borrowed it from the library.
    or 1b) This book is interesting and many readers have borrowed it from the library.
    ? (If there is causality, it is implicit only)

    Or does this structure of the two clauses, taken together with their semantics, explicitly imply causality, in which case we would translate
    2) This book is interesting and therefore many readers have borrowed it from the library.

    Or, as a third possibility (the one advocated by the teacher), there is not only causality, but an implication of extreme degree of interestingness, sufficient to lead to a particular result:
    3) This book is so interesting that many readers have borrowed it from the library
    ? (The implication being that there’s a pretty high threshold that a book has to pass before it will be borrowed by a lot of people.)

    My guess is that, influenced by the equivalent structures in English, most native English speakers will lean toward interpretation (1) of the Chinese sentence. But this could very well be first-language interference.

    One way to test this would be to ask a native speaker (or better yet, a sample of native speakers) which of these three paraphrases best matches the meaning of the original sentence, even if awkwardly expressed:
    1) 这本书很有趣,也有很多人都从图书馆借阅过。
    2) 这本书很有趣,结果有很多人都从图书馆借阅过。
    3) 这本书有趣到很多人都从图书馆借阅过的那个程度。

    No doubt my three sentences (especially the last) could be improved on, but I hope they are sufficiently clear to make clear the nature of my proposed test.

    I also note that if interpretation (1) is correct, the meaning of the sentence should not depend on the order of the clauses; the sentence should be equivalent to

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      Thanks, Zrv. The issue of causality is what I’d meant to focus on, but I kind of got sidetracked. At the time it reminded me of the issue of the “missing if“, where an if-then relationship can be implied in a sentence that doesn’t explicitly state an “if” — although on second thought I’m not sure they’re all that parallel.

      Anyway, I like the line of questioning for native speakers. If I can pull it together, maybe I’ll ask for some NS input.

  12. Zrv says:

    The missing “if” is signalled by something present in the second clause, like jiù. Actually, I was wondering if the dōu 都 in the second clause here might be playing a role in linking the two clauses. It could simply be coordinating with hěn duō, but it might also be playing another role, of implying that something is happening to an extreme extent (you can think of it as an abbreviated version of lián 连 … dōu). I’m not sure … my intuition just isn’t good enough for something that subtle. I’d be curious to know whether the sentence is okay without the dōu, and if so, if the meaning changes.

  13. Bathrobe says:

    As transliterationisms said, I think it’s a problem of reverse translation. Chinese doesn’t appear to have a true equivalent structure to the ‘so (adjective) that’ construction, which means that it must use other methods to try and capture the meaning. The most common (possibly pedagogically standard) approach appears to be the plain juxtaposition of two sentences. When teachers set exercises like this, the student is expected to reverse the process (which they have already learnt in class) in order to come up with the original English sentence. It’s got nothing to do with learning English and everything to do with studying for exams.

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      “It’s got nothing to do with learning English and everything to do with studying for exams.” — that’s indeed the bottom line. But I still think it’s worth exploring whether native Chinese intuition, like zrv was asking, might have a sense of some implied causality.

  14. mxh says:

    是Zhè běn shū …不是Zhèi běn shū

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      …depends on where you’re from! In Beijing it’s Zhèi consistently. In this post I reference a grammar book that explains the distinction.

      • mxh says:

        really?sorry,I come from shandong .But I stick to my opinion!Standard Mandarin ,it’s Zhè!

        • Kellen Parker says:



          他说对了。来源是因为普通话的句法学把个句子有分层。一层是你说的,但其他的就是比较深的调查。简单来说,你可以说“这一本书”,也尅一说“这本书”。都是队的句子,对吧?原来的语法的规则是,你应该用限定词(例如‘这’),然后用数词,量词,名词。而且,如果你的主语就是一个东西,量词是不需要的。为什么呢?很多句法学家说,是因为那连个单词(这 和 一)已经合并了。这是为什么有限定词和量词在一起,我们可以说zhei,但是没有量词的话就是zhe。懂意思吗?不知道我说了那么清楚的。

          edit for the sake of a quick translation:
          long story short, when it’s 这 followed by a measure word, we can say ‘zhei’ but if it’s followed by something else, we say ‘zhe’. same for ‘nei’ and ‘na’. the reason, it’s argued, is that ‘this book’ is essentially ‘this one book’ but the ‘one (yi)’ has merged phonetically with ‘this (zhe)’ making ‘zhei’.

          This is briefly discussed in chapter 5 of 形式汉语句法学 by 邓思颖 if you want a source who’s pretty well respected.

          • mxh says:

            Never seen some people say Zhèi 在任何电视或电影或正式场合或报道中…

          • mxh says:

            and in all of my dictionaries and my teachers and 我周围的人,maybe some people say zhei,but I never seen before.haha

          • Kellen Parker says:



  15. Kellen Parker says:

    用Google Chrome或Firefox,去乡音苑的网站。那个家伙是河北人。他经常说nei和zhei。听他的故事,你一定会发现他的nei发音。

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