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Connotations Of Animal Words In English And Chinese Languages Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4073 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Abstract This paper aims to study the characteristics of different types of animal words in English and Chinese. Because of the close relation between human beings and animals, animal words have been given rich connotations. However, due to the differences of customs, living environments and cultural backgrounds of various nationalities, each nationality has its own understanding about animal words. According to their features, this paper divides animal words into three categories¼Œone is same animal words, similar connotations, one is same animal words, different connotations, another is different animal words, similar connotations. What’s more, it is to further analyze the translation strategy for each group of animal words and find out a rule for the translation of animal words.

Key Words intercultural communication; animal words; difference; connotation; translation strategy

1. Introduction

Animal words take over a large amount in English and Chinese. As the result, it is significant to master different meanings of animal words in intercultural communication.

1.1 Research Background

With the rapid development of the global world, people have more and more chances to communicate with foreigners. Intercultural communication has become more and more important. It is a common phenomenon in our daily life, which can occur anytime and anywhere just between two people from different countries. Due to the differences of cultures and social backgrounds between the countries, people have diverse understandings toward a same word. A successful intercultural communication demands exact meaning and accurate expression.

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The animal is closely related to the human beings. In the daily life, people will use large numbers of animal words to express the feelings or describe some situations. Animal words contain large cultural information. As two of the most widely used languages, both Chinese and English are full of animal words which have accumulated abundant connotations as the time passed by. To know the right connotation of an animal word between English and Chinese, we can avoid making mistakes in the process of translation, and avoid misunderstandings in intercultural communication as well.

1.2 Purpose of the Research

As L•A•Samovar said¼š”It is more accurate to say people possess meaning and that words elicit these meanings. We can have different meanings for the same word. All people¼Œdrawing on their backgrounds, decide what a word means(L•A•Samovar¼Œ1995¼š152).” So based on different cultural background, animal words have different connotations. While in intercultural communication, it’s necessary to understand the connotations of animal words.

Meanwhile, the translation is one of the most important activities on intercultural communication. Therefore, in this thesis, the writer wants to study the difference connotations of animal words in English and Chinese and to find out a translation rule for different kinds of animal words.

1.3 Structure of the Paper

The thesis is divided into five chapters. The first chapter includes the research background, purpose of the study and the organization of this thesis. In the second chapter, literature review aims at presenting the previous investigations of animal word, which includes the achievements and limitations of past studies of animal words. Then the third chapter discusses the similarities and differences of animal words in English and Chinese. In this chapter, the writer divides animal words into three different categories. The fourth chapter finds out the suitable translation strategies for each kind of animal words. The last chapter draws a conclusion and points out the limitations of the research¼Ž

2. Literature Review

The history of intercultural communication maybe is as long as the history of human life. The bargains of merchants along the silk road during the Tang Dynasty in China and the immigration of thousands upon thousands of “gold-diggers” to north America are the instances of intercultural communication(宋莉¼Œ2011¼š5). But actually, the systemic study of intercultural communication just started in the United States in the 1950s. Intercultural communication is related to linguistics¼Œpsychology¼Œpraxiology¼Œsociology, philosophy and so on. In addition, intercultural communication plays a major role in tourists, overseas studies, business and immigrants.

The scholars at home have been done many investigations of animal words in English and Chinese from various dimensions. Such as Liao Guangrong (å»-光蓉¼Œ2000) pays more attention to the cultural connotation of the animal word itself. Liu Yingjie(刘英杰¼Œ2006) focuses on the linguistics to analyze animal words. The thesis A Comparative Cognitive Analysis of Metaphors in English and Chinese Animal Terms (Di Feng, 2006) studies the animal terms from the stand point of metaphors. He focused on proving the effect of metaphorical competence development to the language enhancement and cultural studying through the study of contemporary metaphor theories and the relationship between the animal terms and cultural. Zhou Datian(2007) analyzes the reasons that cause the different images of animal words in English and Chinese. He points out that these differences are influenced by four features. They are the culture, literary quotations about animal words, people’s customs and the mode of production, the sports and entertainment. Meanwhile, he thinks that animal words represent the national characteristic. If we understand and use animal words correctly, we can study and comprehend these two languages better.

By reviewing the previous researches in animal words, the author finds that animal words studies on the perspective of the intercultural communication are limited¼ŽEven there is no paper systematically analyzing the major translations methods of different kinds of animal words that base on intercultural communication.

3. The Similar and Different Connotations of Animal Words in English and Chinese

If people don’t understand the cultural background of the sentences, it is hard to know the true meaning the speaker wants to express while in intercultural communication. For example, here is a dialogue about the connotation of an animal word. A asks B whether he is ready for the math exam tomorrow. Then B answers that he has got his rabbit’s foot right here. In this dialogue, the rabbit’s foot shares the same meaning of good luck and success. If we don’t know this background, we would not continue the talking. So it is worthy of studying the similarities and differences of the connotation of animal words so as to avoid the embarrassment in intercultural communication.

3.1 Same Animal Words, Similar Connotations

Most animal words contain abundant connotations. However, because of animals’ nature and traits, they often share the same meaning. The connotation of bull in English and Chinese are similar in accordance with the bad temper of bull. To refer to a person who is stubborn, Chinese and English share some similar expressions. In English, people say “Sometimes you can be so bull-headed!” While in Chinese, people usually say “牛脾气”. And the image of the bee which is busy gathering honey is well-known by people, so we use the bee to praise the industrious and hardworking person both in English and Chinese, e.g. “He is as busy as a bee.”

In addition, living in the similar environment, though people from different culture background, they would share similar understanding about a same animal. Take fox as an example, when the fox refers to a person, it means that the man is cunning or sly. According to Oxford Dictionary, “pig” is “Domestic or wild animal with short legs, cloven hooves and a broad blunt snout (Oxford, 1108).” That is the denotation of “pig”. Actually the imaginary and metaphorical expressions of “pig” in English and Chinese are alike as well. They both connotes the images of fat, foolish and greedy. In Chinese, “èƒ-å¾-像头猪”¼Œ”人头猪脑”¼Œ”猪ç‹-不如”¼Œ”蠢猪”are gross words to scold people. In English, there are saying like “as fat as a pig” , “He makes a pig of himself (ä»-狼吞虎咽) ” or “He has been a pig about money(ä»-对钱贪å¾-æ- åŽŒ)”.

There are others sharing similar connotation, for instance, “lock the stable door after the horse has been stolen (马后炮)”; “fish in troubled waters (浑水摸鱼)”; “It’s a good horse that never stumbles(好马不失蹄)” . In short, when in intercultural communication, the similarity of connotative meanings of animal words in English and Chinese can help people make less misunderstanding as possible.

3.2 Same Animal Words, Different Connotations

In most cases, the animal word stands for different images in different cultures. Here the author wants to introduce some typical animal words which are remarkably different in different cultures..

3.2.1 Fish(é±¼)

Britain is an island country. The fishery and seafaring are fully developed and they mean a lot to Britain. Thus, many sayings are created according to the sea. For example, British will use “a fine kettle of fish” to express the things are in the mess or farfetched. “Fish in the air” is equal to the Chinese phrase “水中捞月”. “To have other fish to fry” means people have other things to deal with. About the fish in English ,it is also a derogatory word reflected to the bad person, like “a poor fish(可怜虫)”; “a loose fish(生活放荡的女人)”; “a cold fish (冷漠的人)”.

It is very difficult to know the exact meaning without a well understanding about the English culture. So does the Chinese. The fish has the same pronunciation as “ä½™”, so the fish is the symbol of abundance in Chinese. In Spring Festival, people would like to cook a fish as a dish to symbolize a good luck in the next year(the author’s translation) (祝君¼Œ2003¼š17、18). It is a special tradition of China which is unique over the world. Many foreigners hear little of it.

3.2.2 Dog(ç‹-)

Dog shares the same denotation in both English and Chinese. But Chinese and English-speaking countries have different attitudes toward dog. To talk about the connotation, these two languages are greatly diverse.

In English-spoken countries, people do not just keep dogs for hunting or farming, but also treat them as fellows. The dog always shows a lovely and loyal image in English. By this reason, English people keep taking the dog as human’s faithful friend. Here are some expressions of dog : “a lucky dog(幸运儿)”, “a clever dog (聪明的人)”, “a top dog (重要人物)”, “every dog has its days¼Ž(每个人都有å¾-意æ-¶)”.

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Opposite to English, when to refer a person of dog, it usually means something bad in Chinese. For instance, the myth “ç‹-咬吕洞宾¼Œä¸è¯†å¥½äººå¿ƒ” means mistaking a good person as bad guy. Most Chinese phrases about “ç‹-“are associated with derogatory connotations. It is reflected on the sayings like “ç‹-改不了吃屎”, “ç‹-急跳墙”, “ç‹-ä»-人势”¼Œ”ä¸å®¶ä¹‹çŠ¬”¼Œ”ç‹-眼看人低”¼Œ”ç‹-嘴吐不出象牙”. While Chinese say “someone like a dog” or “ç‹-杂獔, they are criticizing a person. No Chinese people would like to be called as a dog. Thus we must take special care while translating from English to Chinese.

3.2.3 Dragon(é¾™)

Dragon is of commentary meaning in Chinese. According to the dictionary, “dragon” is a heroic animal of the ancient Chinese legend, the ancient symbol of the emperor (the author’s translation) (现代汉语词典¼Œ816). Dragon is an imaginary animal in China. In Chinese culture “dragon” occupies a prominent position as it symbolizes auspiciousness, wealth, future and power. We Chinese people call ourselves as descendants of dragon(龙的传人). Parents hope their children can be useful and have a bright future like a dragon or a phoenix when they grow up. Ancient people also believed that the dragon was the king of the sea¼Œwas an immortal. Therefore the dragon is always associated with water and heavens.

On the contrary, dragon is a derogatory term in English. Though “é¾™” and “dragon” are both an imaginary animal in China and western countries, they have different appearances. According to the dictionary, the dragon is “a mythical monster like a giant reptile. In European tradition the dragon is typically fire-breathing and tends to symbolize chaos or evil (The New Oxford Dictionary of English.2001).” Dragon is also considered to be a fierce person, esp. a woman. So obviously, the translator can’t translate the dragon word directly from Chinese to English. It will make English people think that it is a curse.

3.3 Different Animal Words, Similar Connotations

By the commonness of social lives and customs in China and English-speaking countries, people may use different animal words to represent similar connotations, especially in the idioms.

For instance, “害群之马” has the same meaning of “the black sheep of the family(一家中的黑羊)”; “爱屋及乌” can be regarded as “love me love my dog”; English people would like to say “like a rat in the hole” to describe a person who is sure to win or troubles are easily to save. But in Chinese ,we prefer to employ “瓮中抓é³-“; To refer to “hypocritical”, in Chinese it would use “猫哭老鼠“. In English it would use “the crocodile tears(鳄鱼的眼泪)”; “Sell a pig in a poke” has the same meaning as “挂羊头å-ç‹-肉”.

There is one more typical examination of this sort.


Because of the difference of farming practices, horse and ox play the same role in China and Britain. They are the important instruments for farming, so horse and ox share some similarities in these two counties, even in other western counties. To refer to “strong”, in Chinese there are expressions like “力å¤å¦‚牛”、”壮å¾-像头牛”. In English, they are equal to “as strong as a horse”. “Hardworking without complain”, in Chinese, these person will be called “老黄牛”(ç½-小鹰¼Œ2010¼š2). While in English, they will be said as “work like a horse” or “a willing horse”. In other aspect, the man who tells lies would be called “吹牛”、”牛皮”. And he would be called “talk horse” in English.

4. The Translation of Animal Words in English and Chinese

According to Columbia Encyclopedia, “Translation is the art of recomposing a work in another language without losing its original flavor (Columbia, qtd. in任泉清,2006:40).” Our famous scholar Yan Fu defined the standards of the translation as “faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance”. Generally speaking, it is difficult for translators to translate a word individually without a sentence or a text. They should maintain the right meaning of the source language, and also follow the style of the original texts to keep the coherence of the source texts and the target texts. “Translation is often compared to a bridge, which is not just between the source text and the target text but between the author of original text and the reader of the target text(任泉清,2006:40 41).” The close relation between language and culture determines the close ties of translation and culture. Translation is not just about individual words. The cultural backgrounds and knowledge also play a major role in translation and restrict it. Therefore¼Œtranslation is one of intercultural communication activities. The words translation constructs the foundation of intercultural communication(the author’s translation) (祝君,2003¼š21).

4.1 The Translation Strategy for animal words Sharing Similar Connotation

Because the similar understanding of the same animal words in English and Chinese, the reader can easily get the right meaning of the words without the translators’ explanation. These animal words can be translated into other language directly. In other words, translators can use literal translation on animal words which share the same denotations or the similar connotation.

“Literal translation refers to translate a sentence originally, keeping the original forms, including construction of sentences, meaning of the original words and metaphor of the original and so on. It can not only reproduce the meaning and frame of language, but also keep its vivid image figure of speech and novel and unique expressive ways so that the readers can comprehend the origin’s literal grace(佚名, 2011).”

Here are some examples of using literal translation. There is an English sayings “like water off a duck’s back” to describe a phenomena that the water couldn’t stay in the duck’s back and all slide off without any trail. It is used to criticize a person whom the suggestions have no effect on. Likewise, there is a same idiom in Chinese which has the same connotation — “水过鸭背”. Thus, translators can use literal translation on this saying. Because the image of the rat is timid and disgusting both in English and Chinese, the phrases “A lion at home¼Œa mouse a broad” and “A rat crossing the street is chased by a11” can be directly translated to “在家如狮子¼Œåœ¨å¤-像老鼠” and “老鼠过è¡-人人å-Šæ‰“”. There are others animal words have similar connotations like “black horse(黑马)”, “as stupid as an ass(笨å¾-像头驴)” and “do not be a goose(别当呆头鹅)”. The literal translation can not only express the same connotations of animal words, but also can remain the language style of the source text better.

4.2 The Translation Strategy for Animal Words Sharing Diverse Connotation

It is a good choice to use the free translation to interpret animal words which have same denotations but different connotations in English and Chinese. Only to abandon the denotations can we guarantee that the cultural meaning would be accurately transferred. To take the typical example –dragon. As we all know, dragon has a completely opposite images in Chinese and English. So, a Chinese phrase “望子成龙” can not be translated literally into “expect one’s son to become a dragon”. In order to avoid misunderstanding, the better translation is “to expect one’s son to become useful”. Out of such consideration,”亚洲四小龙” is properly interpreted as “the four tigers of Asia”¼ŽBut in recent years, with the widespread of Chinese Dragon Culture, some scholars put forward that translator can translate “é¾™” to “Loong” to reserve the Chinese cultural characteristic(杨淑侠¼Œ2008¼š2).

In English, it has an acclaim like “you are a lucky dog”. But because of the different images of “dog” in English and Chinese, it will be considered as a curse when is translated to “你是一条聪明的ç‹-“. If the connotations of one animal word is dissimilar even inconsistent in two languages, the better translation strategy is only to keep the connotation, in other words, to use the free translation. Thus, the sentence “you are a lucky dog” should be translated into “你很聪明”.

4.3 The Translation Strategy for Different Animal Words Sharing Similar Connotation

On the basis of the analysis above, there exists a situation in which different animal words share the similar connotations in English and Chinese. This type of animal words can be substituted by each other. While translating, the translator just needs to find the matched animal words or some idioms to replace it. These are some translation instances from English to Chinese. As the analysis above, the connotations of the “lion” and “tiger” are similar. As the result, “to place oneself in a lion’s mouth” can be translated to “置身虎穴”. Meanwhile, we would better translate the English idiom “kill the goose that laid the golden eggs” to “杀鸡å-卵” rather than “杀鹅å-卵”. Beside, it seems no mistake to translate the phrase “better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion” to “宁为犬é¦-,不作狮尾”. But the Chinese may don’t understand the connotation of this translation. In addition, a Chinese saying “宁为鸡头¼Œå‹¿ä¸ºå‡¤å°¾” shares the similar meaning with this phrase. Alternatively, we could use “宁为鸡头¼Œå‹¿ä¸ºå‡¤å°¾” to replace the translation of “宁为犬é¦-,不作狮尾” in this phrase. The English “to wake a sleeping wolf” and the Chinese “打草惊蛇” both express the inadvertently action making the other’s awareness and prevention. In this way, these two phrases can interconvert while translating.

The purpose of translation is to maintain the cultural meanings of the source texts. It is not suitable to use literal translation or free translation to translate animal words which different ones stand for similar connotation. It is easily to confuse and mislead the readers. The author thinks that the best translation strategy for these animal words is to use the similar connotation words of the target language to substitute the original animal word in source text. It is better to maintain the connotation and the language characteristic of source text as well.

5. Conclusion

Animal words contain lots of connotations which are relied on people’s living environment, religion and the animal’s appearances. Since the close relation between human being and animals, and the various connotations of animal words in English and Chinese, it is really necessary to know the exact meaning of animal words to guarantee intercultural communication go on smoothly. The translation is one important intercultural communication activity. After analyzing animal words connotations, the writer finds that animal words can be divided into three categories according to their own connotation feature. Each group of animal words is suitable for one translation strategy. Translation in English and Chinese, translators can use the literal translation for the same animal words referring to similar meaning, and use the free translation for same animal words referring to different meaning. In addition, translators can use the same meaning animal words to replace when different words share similar meaning. But this mode is not stationary, the translators must be flexible, they should find the right connotation in the source text based on the writer’s intention. A successful translation is to express the deep meaning of the source texts through analyzing the whole texts, instead of studying on the surface.

By the limited scope of knowledge of the author and insufficient time, this paper just talks about a minimal part of the study of animal words and refers to only three major translation strategies. There are more animal words which cannot be listed and discussed here one by one. But the author hopes this thesis can be helpful for the further research of animal words.


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