Traditionally, a person may be addressed by taking account of the person's gender, age relative to the speaker, familial relationship to the speaker, and whether or not the person is on the mother or father's side of the family tree. For example, 外婆 (wài pó) can only refer to the mother's mother, and 外公 (wài gōng) can only refer to the mother's father. In contrast, 奶奶 (nǎi nai) and 爷爷 (yé ye) can only refer to the paternal grandmother and grandfather, respectively. The terms related to the family become complicated when you add all your brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and cousins. Of course, shortened forms of address may be used, emphasizing the importance of the relationship/kinship over the individual's personal given name. In addition to that, people unrelated to the family are also addressed according to gender and age. 妹妹 (mèi mei) and 弟弟 (dì di) may be used to address any girl or boy who is younger than you, as well as your own familial brothers and sisters.

Okay. Now, let's say you are acting as interpreter for a Chinese-speaking family or writing a novel about a contemporary Chinese-speaking family. In either case, would these terms be translated literally, or would the given names be used instead to sound more natural in English? Or maybe the pinyin transliteration would be used instead of the actual characters to get a feel of what they said?

Somewhat related: I am aware that some TV portrayals of Jewish families (Arthur TV series) will use the term "Bubba" for a female character, who means and is likely the grandmother of a person. Bubba is presumably the transliteration of the Yiddish term.

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    It really depends on the content being translated. If it's a book about family relationship, surely you want to get these terms accurate even if that means sentences get longer, cluttering or even transliteration + footnotes. If it's a romantic story and all the relatives are just minor supporting roles, you may not want to distract or confuse the reader with the tedious differences on how Chinese relatives address each other.
    – NS.X.
    Jan 2, 2015 at 18:30
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    I don't think you should use Pinyin transliterated Chinese words instead of proper translations. Who would understand e.g. "He went to the forest to visit his nainai and meimei living at biaoge's house."
    – imrek
    Feb 2, 2015 at 10:05
  • "Bubba (or, Baba)" was not created by a writer or translator. It was the term actually used in many, many Eastern European immigrant families to the US, not only Jewish. It evolved naturally from Russian and other related words for older women. No such usage has yet evolved for relationships in Chinese families in the US and I doubt it ever will. Jul 23, 2015 at 7:04

2 Answers 2


you may want to look at the English translation of the greatest Chinese family novel of them all - Story of the Stone (aka 紅樓夢) - for a sense of what kind of compromises can be made in English without at all compromising fidelity to original, while avoiding the horrors that attend peppering novels with footnotes.

You would probably never want to use personal names instead of titles unless it was so in the original. However it probably is acceptable to go with "Aunt" instead of "paternal/maternal aunt", for example, in English unless it would somehow be impossible to figure out the more precise relationship from context in the novel. Meimei (non-literal variety) are harder- since theres more intimacy implied maybe it would be ok to switch to personal names.

As for interpreting - good luck. I have a hard time remembering one word for cousin in Chinese, let alone four or five.:P


The kinds of relative terms vary from region to region. Same term might have different context.

Here illustrates classical terms and region terms.

For example,

Grandfather (Father side)

Grandfather (Mother side)
Cantonese/公公(higher tone in second character)/亞公

Grandmother (Father side)

Grandmother (Mother side)
Cantonese/婆婆(higher tone in second character)/亞婆

Note : 亞公 and 亞婆 is also a general term to the elderly man and woman in Cantonese.

In Mandarin 奶奶 refers to father's mother but in Cantonese it refers to husband's mother. Great difference!

If you use pinyin, it will limit to Mandarin practice, not representing Chinese in general.

Just translate to English counterpart and ignore the details of Chinese context unless it hurts understanding. You can always write a short clause to clarify. Say, My grandfather, that is my father's father, .... OR in writing, give a footnote to explain.

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