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How do you express in Chinese a conditional set in the past that did not actually happened? Like for instance:

if she had not helped her, they both would be dead now

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要是她没帮她,她们两个现在早都死了。 please notice the now in your phrase,.

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    Perhaps: 若非她幫了她, 兩人已共赴黃泉. – Henry HO Oct 16 '15 at 4:14
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    Or .... 若非她幫了她, 兩人都會命送黃泉. – Henry HO Oct 16 '15 at 8:15
  • what does 早 mean in this sentence ? – Abdul Al Hazred Oct 16 '15 at 13:05
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    okay... it's "命喪黃泉" :P – Henry HO Oct 16 '15 at 14:41
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You are asking about counterfactuals in Chinese. This is way too big a topic to discuss in detail here. Try looking at the entry for Alfred Bloom in Wikipedia. This will give you some links, but is otherwise not very helpful. The SparkNotes version of the story: Bloom wrote a book in 1981 which claimed that Chinese cannot express counterfactuals and therefore Chinese people do not think counterfactually. People have been jumping up and down on him ever since.

For what it's worth, my own feeling is that Chinese has plenty of ways of expressing counterfactuals, but there are significant linguistic differences between Chinese and English as well. That these influence people's thinking seems reasonable. That they explain why China was trampled underfoot by the great powers in the 19th century seems to overstate the case.

About your example: you have a conditional about something that didn't happen, indicated by if-negative past perfect then a pseudo-subjunctive. English uses a ton of fancy tense stuff here that Chinese simply doesn't have. One way to translate, as in the solutions suggested by both Gerxy and Henry Ho, is just use a regular conditional structure with a time adverbial to keep things straight (早 or 已); another possibility that sometimes gets used is modals such as 會 as in Henry's second solution.

It is not unusual to run into counterfactuals that are extremely difficult to translate, and people often simply resort to explaining, rather than translating.

  • BTW, any better way to put the two "她" together? It looks weird. – Henry HO Oct 16 '15 at 14:44
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    Yes, Chinese would usually put their names instead of using pronouns. But if you are translating where there is no context, there's not much you can do to fix this. – wpt Oct 17 '15 at 2:55
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Chinese has no special grammar for subjunctive, but just add words and/or expressions like 如果 要不是 若(非),幸亏……否则…… for the situation

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Yàoshi méi bāng tā, liǎnggerén zǎojiù sǐle 要是沒幫她,兩個人早就死了 [if not help her; both persons long-since already become dead].

I'd omit the initial "she" and avoid rendering "now" literally, since sentence-le suggests that adequately.

Counterfactuals are definitely used in Chinese, in spite of the opinions of some theoreticians. But it's ordinarily sufficient to say "if" plus a negated verb.

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