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10 Hilarious Chinese Literal Translations 

In my last blog post, I argued that Mandarin Chinese isn’t as hard as it looks - or as hard as most of us think. 

There’s no doubt that the radical system makes the written language easier to understand. But that’s not the only thing working in our favour. 

Many Chinese words are formed using a very logical structure that sometimes makes for hilarious literal translations. 

In this post, I break down 10 of the funniest examples of Chinese translations to show, once again, that it's not as hard as it looks. Read to the end to see if you can answer a trivia question!

  1. 电脑 (diànnǎo) 

If you read our post on radicals, then you might remember that Chinese words are formed of two standalone characters. 

In this example, the character 电 (diàn) means ‘electric’ and the character 脑 (nǎo) means brain. So, together, they literally translate to ‘electric brain’.  

Can you guess what it might be?

Yep, a computer. Smart, right?

  1. 手机 (shǒujī)

Sticking with the electronics theme, here’s another super common yet fun word. 

手 (shǒu) is the word for ‘hand’ and 机 (jī) is the word for ‘machine’ and together they mean ‘mobile phone’.

(Fun language fact: 手 (shǒu) is also a radical, which appears in characters related to the hands as ‘扌’, like 打(dǎ), to hit)

  1. 毛毛鱼 (máomáo yú)

This has to be the most adorable translation on the list. 

The characters 毛毛鱼 (máomáo yú) literally translate to ‘fluffy fish’. Cute but a little misleading given that it’s the name for one of the most poisonous animals in the sea - the pufferfish!

  1. 冰箱 (bīngxiāng)

The literal translation of this word is ‘ice box’. 

But before you ask a friend to bring a 冰箱 to your barbecue or picnic, hold on. 

It’s not a ‘cooler’ but a fridge-freezer. Good luck lugging that to the park!

  1. 电梯 (diàntī) 

Let’s see how well you’re getting to grips with Chinese word formation. 

Remember 电 - the first character from our first example in this list? 

Well, 梯 (tī) means ‘stairs’ or ‘ladder’. Any guesses what they mean together? 

Yep, ‘electric stairs’, more commonly known as an escalator. Or a lift. It’s actually used to refer to both. 

  1. 火车 (huǒchē)

These are two characters you (or your kiddo) will see pretty early on in your Chinese learning journey. Individually, they mean: 

火 (huǒ) - fire 

车 (chē) - car 

And together, they form the word ‘train’. 

If, like me, you live somewhere where trains travel at a snails’ pace, you might be wondering how it got such a powerful name. But one ride on a bullet train will show you exactly why!

  1. 加油 (jiāyóu)

This has to be my favourite word on the list. It’s used in two different ways, and the meaning heavily depends on the context. 

加 (jiā) means ‘to add’ and 油 (yóu) is the word for ‘oil’ - both edible and inedible. 

The most obvious meaning is ‘to fill up with petrol’. But it’s also a common phrase used to encourage people in competitions or when they’re about to do something tough. You’re literally telling them to ‘add oil’ to complete the task. Cool, right?

  1. 袋鼠 (dàishǔ)

This word is probably the meanest on the list! 

袋 (dài) is the verb ‘to carry’ and 鼠 (shǔ) is the word for a rat, so together they literally mean ‘bag rat’... but they refer to a kangaroo. Not sure I see the connection, but hey!

  1. 长颈鹿 (chángjǐnglù)

This one’s an easy one to guess. 

长 (cháng) means ‘long’... 

颈 (jǐng) means ‘neck’... 

And 鹿 (lù) means ‘deer’...

It’s obviously a giraffe!

See how logical Chinese really is? 

One of the best things about it is that if you’re ever unsure of a word, you can try sticking the characters for related words together and you’re probably gonna be close. 

Now it's your turn!

Can you or your kiddo guess the meaning of the last word on our list?

  1. 飞机 (fēijī)

Alone, 飞 (fēi) is the verb ‘to fly’ and 机 (jī) - a character we learned earlier - is ‘machine’. 

Comment below, send us an email or DM us on Instagram with your answer!


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