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Like several other languages, Standard Chinese has different words for "older brother" (哥哥), "younger brother" (弟弟), "older sister" (姐姐) and "younger sister" (妹妹). However, many languages don't express this type of age relationship by means of nouns only, but by means of optional adjectives. Examples include English, German, French and Dutch.

So when translating words such as "brother" and "sister" (in the singular form!) in texts from the latter category of languages into Chinese and when there is no context that indicates the age difference, what do Chinese translators do? As far as I know, words such as 兄弟 ("brother") and 兄弟姐妹 ("brothers and sisters")) aren't used to refer to a single sibling and wouldn't be correct as translation for, e.g., (singular) "brother".

Note: I hope it is clear that this is not a simple "translate-this-for-me" question, but a question of how translators deal with this.

  • 3
    examining jukuu's 100 example sentences for each of brother and sister will confirm 兄弟 for brother and yield 姐妹 for sister, in particular note physics examples like A particle should be accompanied in nature by a sister particle. 一种粒子实际上必须伴随一种姐妹粒子。 – user6065 Dec 7 '16 at 15:41
  • @user6065 Thanks. Would a sentence like "我兄弟处境困难" also be used in normal conversation or only in translations? – user800 Dec 7 '16 at 16:36
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    note that 兄弟 does not necessarily denote kinship in the literal sense (see dictionaries) – user6065 Dec 7 '16 at 17:28
  • @ChristopheStrobbe If the relative age of the brother or sister in question is known to the speaker, he/she would just use 哥哥, 弟弟 or 姐姐, 妹妹, respectively. If I wanted speak about my (younger) brother I would directly use 弟弟 instead of 兄弟, as the latter also doubles as respectful appellation to someone who is roughly your age group or younger, or sort of "comrade-in-arms", and so on. – Drunken Master Dec 12 '16 at 13:40
  • @DrunkenMaster I'm afraid you missed the point of the question. I'm asking about what translators do when it's not obvious whether 哥哥, 弟弟 or 姐姐, 妹妹 is the correct choice, not about what the dictionaries say. – user800 Dec 12 '16 at 13:48
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兄弟/姐妹 can be used to refer to a single sibling, especially when the ages are unknown.

For example,
His brother is playing basketball.
can be translated into
他的一位兄弟在打篮球。

  • Oh, I wasn't aware of that. – user800 Dec 7 '16 at 13:39
  • I think we could say that 兄弟 is an uncountable noun for “brothers”, and to say “a brother”, you need to add the number 一 with the measure word 位. I'm not a native speaker, but it seems to me that 《他的兄弟在打籃球》would mean “His brothers are playing basketball”. Am I right? – 米好 '-' Dec 7 '16 at 17:16
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    "他的 (his) 兄弟(brother/brothers)在打籃球" doesn't state it is singular or plural . You have to use singular classifier and write "一個(a)兄弟" or singular pronoun and write "那個(that)兄弟" to indicate it is a singular brother. For indicating plural noun , you can use plural classifier 兩個 ; or plural pronoun 那些/那群(those) ; you can also use plural marker 們 and write 兄弟們. 位 is another classifier you can use for 兄弟 – Tang Ho Dec 7 '16 at 17:46
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    "兄弟" may mean "close buddies". I'd say "他哥哥/弟弟正在打籃球。" – Henry HO Dec 9 '16 at 6:59
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    although it is grammatically correct, i think 兄弟/姐妹 is seldom used in this way to refer to sibilings – wilson Dec 12 '16 at 9:47
1

I translate professionally, and teach translation as well, and I have no comfortable solution. It is one of those cross-cultural conundrums that cannot be resolved satisfactorily with even a short equivalent, as family ranking is so precise to the Chinese, but if I must, then here's my squirm-my-way-through solution:

"Brother" and "sister" are not so bad, because at least one can translate them into Chinese as 哥哥/弟弟, 姐姐/妹妹, and hope to get away with it. Not ideal, but doable, if clunky.

The really impossible ones are the other relatives: 2 hoops to go through for uncle / aunt (paternal side or maternal? older or younger than parent?); even more hoops to go through for cousins (male or female? paternal side or maternal? older or younger than speaker or reference person?).

What I do, if the context allows such vagueness in the Chinese and I have no way of verifying further details for the "uncle/aunt/cousin", is to go for "亲戚 qīnqi / relative" (or 亲人). (Or turn the job down...)

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maybe 昆仲, 昆季; these 2 are very elegant terms for "brother"

http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/cgi-bin/cbdic/gsweb.cgi?o=dcbdic&searchid=Z00000078439

http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/cgi-bin/cbdic/gsweb.cgi?o=dcbdic&searchid=Z00000078438

have fun :)

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For EN-CN translators, seniority in the family or clan could be a challenge, like translating siblings when there's no clear age description.

In ancient time, Most Southeast Asian people (Lao, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, etc.) had been strictly following the rules of seniority/position in family/clan. Korean people even have more rules: taking elder brother as an example--if you are a boy, you have to call your elder brother "Hyong"; if you are a girl, "Oppa".

In a nutshell, I would like to due this to historical reason -- we say 「兄/弟/姐/妹」 in order to show respect. Most of the time Chinese people don't call their elder brother/sister's name because it is rude. In western language families (like English), people seems like to directly call their brother/sister's name (I got this conclusion from movies that I have seen).

Let's get back to your question:

When translating English to Chinese, if there's no clear age descriptions, I have to find the answer in the context. Sometimes I can't get the right word even though I have finished the whole materials. Then I would ask for Internet's help :)

Resource

  1. How do you call your brother and sister? - You could get more information about how to call your brother/sister in most Southeast Asian and European languages.
  2. 英语里的兄弟姐妹为什么没有大小之分?
  • Well... Seems my answer is trying to explain "why", rather than "how"... but I think these information could be useful for you and other readers :) – Travis Hu Dec 8 '16 at 1:10
  • My feeling as well. Make every effort to clarify the seniority as you translate, before resorting back to a generic 兄弟 as it is not common in Chinese. – jf328 Dec 8 '16 at 9:06
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actually...兄弟 or 姐妹 can refer to a single sibling.but 兄弟姐妹 can't.

“兄弟姐妹” is a generic call to describe all your brothers and systers (people younger / older than you, or equal than you), having relationship with you in blood kinship.

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Brother can be translated as 兄弟,but sister can't be translated as 姐妹,it can only can be translated as 姐姐 or 妹妹,if you don't want to know whether she is older or younger. But if you want to know, you must ask and then decide which word you use.

  • sister can be translated as 姐妹 – Tang Ho Dec 9 '16 at 3:48
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Your understanding is correct. Let me summarize it again.

Can be used to refer single / multiple siblings:

older brother(s) = 哥哥
younger brother(s) = 弟弟
older sister(s) = 姐姐
younger sister(s) = 妹妹

Seldom used to refer to a single sibling:

brothers = 兄弟
sisters = 姐妹
brothers & sisters = 兄弟姐妹

Answer (tl;dr)

For your question, there is no good translation to refer to singular sibling. Therefore, it is recommended to rephrase the sentence.

They (two) are brothers = 他們是兩兄弟
They (two) are sisters = 她們是兩姊妹

While, it is even harder to translate "(singular) brother / sister" directly. I recommend:

They are a family = 他們是一家人 << Fluent, but a bit ambiguous
-- OR --
They are brothers and sisters = 他們是兄弟姊妹 << Less fluent, less ambiguous

Side note

When (singular) 兄弟 / 姊妹 is used, it is usually referring to close friends instead of family member.

For example:

他是我的好兄弟 = He is my best friend
她是我的好姊妹 = She is my best friend

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