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I know that 偷工减料 is frequently used to describe intentionally (and perhaps secret) shoddy construction. When I translate it, I usually say "Cut corners". However, I think 偷工减料 has a very negative connotation, whereas "cut corners" has a somewhat less negative connotation.

Does 偷工减料 have a much more negative connotation than "cut corners"?

Can I use 偷工减料 to describe intentionally purchasing inferior product that everyone knows about? For example, let's say that an IT department purchases a lower-end computer rather than a high-end (and perhaps more up to an acceptable standard) computer. They do so publicly and with everyone's knowledge. Can I call this "偷工减料"?

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偷工减料 means shoddy/poor workmanship and lousy/substandard materials. It is not something you would use to describe intentionally buying something that is inferior or less expensive. It is by nature something that is deceptive or dishonest or even corrupt and dangerous. It is more severe than cutting corners, which is sometimes associated with the term "cost down" if cost reduction is being done dishonestly.

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As the character "偷(to steal)" implies, the action of "偷工减料" is generally done secretly. I am not familiar with the phrase "Cut corners", so I can't make a comparison between them.

Take your case of purchasing computers for example.

  1. I am selling computers and the parts. A company listed the requirement of the computer(CPU model, RAM size, GPU model, etc) and we sealed a contract, so I will supply the company with the computer,say 100, with such a configuration and I will get $100,000 from the company. However, for some(say 3) computers, I select second-hand/old/flawed/other model(low-end) hardwares to setup the computer, because I can save the cost and thus make more money. There are only 3 bad computers out of 100 in total, so I think it's safe to do so. My such behavior could be called "偷工减料". Of course, this behavior is very negative, and the company will certainly sue me over this if it finds what I did.

  2. If the company itself just wants to save money and says,"the computers should not be so good, you can sell us low-end computers(I.e, 128M RAM, P4 processor, integrated GPU)" and I just satisfy this requirement, I should not be called "偷工减料". But the company's employers, like you, would say "公司真抠门!"(The company is so mean!)

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    The dictionary definition is a bit misleading as 'cut corners' doesn't have very positive connotations. It means leaving out or failing to do things that should really be done or materials that should really be used. However, while cutting corners is less than ideal, it's not necessarily seen as fraudulent or cheating others, which is where it may differ in severity from 偷工减料. – Bathrobe Feb 9 '12 at 7:23
  • @Bathrobe Really?Ok, I will delete my statement for "cut corners". I learned a new English phrase. Thanks! – Huang Feb 9 '12 at 7:31
  • Upon reflection, 'cut corners' usually refers to an unwilling or undesirable kind of economising. Unwilling if you are in control of the budget but have no other choice, undesirable (and negative) if the contractor is in control of spending and is not telling you what he is doing. In the latter case it is definitely close to 偷工减料. – Bathrobe Feb 9 '12 at 8:40
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偷工减料 is always negative by denotation, whereas "cut corners" carries a slightly negative connotation, if not neutral.

偷工减料 means

  1. using inferior materials to make substandard goods (its original meaning)
  2. slacking off, cheating in work

If a company does so publicly, people would refer to their products as 低端 (low-end). You often hear 低端产品 and 低端市场 in the news. The antonym is 高端 (high-end).

Another relevant idiom:

便宜无好货,好货不便宜。

Cheap products are not good; good products are not cheap. (Horrible translation but you get the idea!)

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偷工减料means maybe you need to use 10 tons of concrete, but you wanted to short costs, so you only use 8 tons of concrete. It's the same to other materials, you lessen the quantity so you can get momey from not using the expensive materials.

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偷工减料 on its own is actually quite self-explanatory. It is normally used in the construction industry to describe contractors who use substandard material with shoddy workmanship to save time and costs and thus make a bigger, but dishonest, profit. In some countries it had led to buildings collapsing with lose of life.

In certain extreme cases, contractors used empty Milo, (the beverage), tins in place of re-bars.

On the other hand, "cut corners" is more linguistically malleable in usage. It has both positive and negative connotations.

On the negative side it can also mean 偷工减料, and whether it is or is not comparable in terms of dishonest intent or consequential severity is only a matter of semantic argument.

On the positive side, "cut / cutting corners" could carry the idea of being frugal to save for a rainy day, like cutting down on luxuries, etc.

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1. Both 偷工减料 and "cutting corners" can be serious and not so serious

Does 偷工减料 have a much more negative connotation than "cut corners"?

Both 偷工减料 in Chinese and "cutting corners" in English (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) can be serious depending on context, and carries the implication that it could result in death or other disasters. (E.g. "that surgeon cuts corners on hygiene" or "we don't cut corners on safety".) For example:

偷工减料造成人员死亡,使用哪一条安全生产法的规定?[src]
Corner-cutting causes worker death; which safety production-method regulation [should I] use?

Both can also refer to less serious things, e.g.:

因为绘画的过程比较多,而且时间比较长,所以也比较容易偷工减料,今天看到的常见偷工减料在绘画过程中的行为,应该引起以后的注意![src]
Since there are many painting processes and it takes a long time, it's easy to cut corners; today [we] look at common corner-cutting painting-process behavior [which] should give rise to future attention.

2. How is 偷工减料 described?

Let's now look at Baidu Baike's description of this Chinese idiom:

原指商人为了牟取暴利而暗中降低产品质量,削减工料。现也指做事图省事,马虎敷衍。出自清·文康
Originally it indicated [a] merchant for profiteering secretly reduced [the] good's quality, and reduced materials. Now it also indicates doing this to save trouble; sloppy and half-hearted.
偷工减料, Baidu Baike

So 偷工减料 indeed overlaps heavily with "cut corners", with both emphasizing a reduction in quality. Moreover, multiple examples on YouDao translate "cut corners" to 偷工减料 (as does Google Translate). In a lot of cases, therefore, it's going to be a reasonable translation in at least some contexts. However, the CC-CEDICT translation is

to skimp on the job and stint on materials

which is similar to that by Dict.cn. This is likely a more precise translation, but less succinct.

3. Possible differences?

  1. The 偷工 in 偷工减料 refers to "skimping on the job" (Yabla), so it should be business related. In English, we might say e.g. after a long day, our mother cuts corners when cooking dinner to emphasize that she makes a quick-and-simple meal, where it would be inappropriate to use 偷工 or 偷工减料: she is not a worker. (Perhaps better is 抄近路 = "to take a shortcut".)

  2. The in 偷工 indicates a somewhat clandestine nature (as in 偷偷 = "secretly"). Perhaps a kind of trickery. However, cutting corners is not necessarily secretive.

  3. The phrase 减料 (literally "reduce materials") within 偷工减料 itself conjures up using less materials in order to reduce costs. This doesn't match well with "cutting corners" in English, but would be better described as "skimping" or "stinting".

4. Intentionally purchasing an inferior product?

Can I use 偷工减料 to describe intentionally purchasing [an] inferior product that everyone knows about?

This doesn't seem to be a good match. My impression is that 偷工减料 is about shortchanging someone in terms of work or materials. To illustrate, other examples of 偷工减料 are:

为什么奔驰宝马打折越来越狠?是不是厂家偷工减料了? [src]
Why [are] [Mercedes] Benz and BMW discounts increasingly ruthless? Are factories cutting corners?

我们来给大家分享几款明显开始偷工减料的雪糕...[src]
We share [with] everyone a few kinds of obviously cut-cornered ice-creams...

苏联为了追求产量,不惜偷工减料,即便是不合格产品也用于充数。[src]
Soviets in pursuing output, didn't hesitate to cut corners, even if it is a sub-standard product [they were] used in numbers.


Note: Despite the other answers claiming otherwise, I cannot conceive of nor did I find in a dictionary (1, 2, 3, 4) a neutral or positive interpretation of "cut corners". Indeed, the purpose of saying "cut corners" is to emphasize how a non-cutting-corners method or product is superior. (This is similar to Bathrobe's comment.)

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