What kind of approach of translating Chinese idioms do you want?


When watching C-dramas - especially wuxia and historical dramas - with Eng subs, what kind of subbing approach do you prefer?

You want a literal translation with Chinese cultural flavor? Or just a fluid translation that is concise and makes sense in English?

For example, a Chinese idim “扮猪吃老虎”, literally “one disguises him/herself as a pig in order to eat a tiger”, which means “one pretends to be weak and vulnerable in order to confuse his/her enemies and then beat them”.

As an line of Eng sub appearing on the screen, what kind of approach do you prefer?

“Disguises him/herself as a pig in order to eat a tiger?”

Or just

“How hypocritical!”

Very appreciated for your reply.


1 Like

“Disguises him/herself as a pig in order to eat a tiger”
and, in italic, the explanation : “pretends to be weak and vulnerable in order to confuse his/her enemies and then beat them” (or something shorter)


I think I’ve seen some where the subtitlers use the literal translation and in brackets or italic or on a separate line they write “This means that”. Sometimes it was for even one word where they took a literal translation and put “Note: coal is gas” (I think this happens in My Amazing Boyfriend but it’s been so long I can’t be sure).

I think it is always better to use the actual idioms and - if they are not understandable - to add its more modern or accurate meaning in braces and italics. It allows people to enjoy the dialogues more and it gives more depth into the translation and drama itself. it is especially important when one works with a period/historical drama, because usage/lack of idioms in one’s speech shows one’s level of cultivation and sometimes brings another layer to the actual meaning of the conversation. Exchanging idioms for more modern expressions flattens the translation for me and I am not really happy with it, especially when I can hear that people are saying something different than the translation shows :slight_smile:


I as well very much like the cultural flavour and with editor’s notes to explain the saying/phrase I think that’s a perfect solution.

However, as a translator to another language I am a bit frustrated when the sentence structure is suffering due to a too literal translation. Double negations and other ways of phrasing which are not at all intuitive to the English language really slow my work down. Then I much prefer a simplification of the subtitle.

I’m replying to this, although I am not a habitual watcher of Chinese dramas, because I think that the question also applies to Japanese, Korean, Indian as well.

There are various instances of preserving cultural flavor.

  1. Proverbs and expressions. I personally like the proverbs translated literally.
    If they are self-explanatory (like your example), they don’t need any notes. In other cases, a note might be needed.

  2. Titles. I like them non-translated and explained in a note the first time they appear. Examples: senpai (senior in Japanese), Hyeong (older brother in Korean), didi (older sister in Hindi)

  3. Cultural references. To historical characters, to local happenings… By all means, let them as they are. I don’t want American equivalents which sound quite odd in the mouths of Asians.

  4. Special expressions with no equivalent in English. Examples from Japanese and Korean: “Have you come?” (to a person who is obviously in front of your eyes). “I have come” (to someone who is not blind and sees you coming in). “You’ve worked hard” (said by inferiors to superiors: this is particularly odd for Western ears). “Eat a lot” (why should one eat a lot and get fat?). I am ambivalent about these expressions, which have no meaning in English nor in other European languages. I would prefer them substituted by an equivalent like “Hello”, “Goodbye everybody”, “Hi, I’m here”, “Good evening” “Bon appetit”.
    (“Thank you for the meal” is ok, though, one could say it in our countries as well.)

  5. Word order, I you translate Asian languages word-by-word, the result is a very awkward English which often doesn’t make sense. I HATE this. The Eglish should be fluent English.

That’s what I do as a translator and editor, and that’s what I like to see as a viewer. Of course opinions may differ.


As a general rule, when working with especially costume/historical dramas, my preference for my Teams is that we give the idiom first, then a brief explanation as a translation note behind it. Both items are necessary for the studio audience to grasp the meaning and attain full enjoyment IMHO. :slight_smile:

Here would be one example, with the formatting I elect to use also as a full example. :slight_smile:

If he gets this additional army, he would become a tiger with wings. (T/N Chinese idiom - to become substantially more powerful)

If the drama has a lot of such idioms, I generally omit the “Chinese idiom” part of the T/N statement as implied and likely understood by our studio audience.

The italics are used to highlight the phrase so we get the gist of what the note is about. :slight_smile:

Anyway - that’s how I see it in the dramas I work with and edit. :slight_smile: I like to keep things simple and maintain what we are talking about, because it’s part of how we embrace the culture and bring it to the world. :slight_smile:

GeNIe of the Lamp …Editor to the Stars…washer of treasured coffee mugs…


I think I would watch more Chinese historical dramas if they would omit all those ‘‘idioms’’ which I call ‘‘old days sayings’’
The worst thing is to read saying after sayings throughout the drama. I stopped watching several dramas bc from beginning to end it was sayings after saying.in the dialogue.

I admire @ deadliftdiva_548 she patiently and lovingly do all this work.

Yes, i like to see the idiom, and then in brackets a brief explanation, it’s much appreciated. However it needs to be brief, because viewers are trying to keep up with the subtitles AND the action.

While I appreciate the subber’s efforts in wanting to share the cultural depth in idioms, I think adding a translator’s note to the end of every sentence with an idiom is overkill. I saw this happen with one drama recently. There was a T/N at the end of every other sentence. It was PAINFUL.

I think first and foremost we have to prioritize one thing - Enjoyment.
While lots of people come to Viki to learn and practice new languages, there are many who come simply to kick back and enjoy a good show. They may not have the intention of learning the language.
I watch lots of French and German shows. I don’t intend to learn the languages at all.
Making a subtitled sentence longer than it needs to be really troubles the viewers. You have to pause and rewind often.

My personal methodology:

  1. Translate literally if it makes sense in English.
  2. If it doesn’t make sense, use a similar English idiom.
  3. If there isn’t one, use a general phrase that captures the meaning.

I agree that it should be done in moderation when there are too many of them. Choose the most interesting ones.

However, knowing the exact phrasing of a colourful idiom can be fun, even if you don’t have any intention to learn the language.

An example comes to mind, although it’s from a Korean show (Hwayugi). When the secretary guy says:
“Oh, we’ve seen quite a lot of each other. We even farted together”. This means “we became quite close”.
I laughed so hard. I was glad I learned this. (Well in my case I do want to learn Korean, but this has nothing to do it, I would have enjoyed it anyway, in any obscure language).

Very similar to a Chinese idiom: They are so close that they’re even in a same pair of pants.

Oh, there is a Greek idiom “they are like the ass with the pants”.