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I’ve always found it difficult to translate in people’s nicknames. Sometimes even opting just to drop it entirely.

NPR has gone with a straight up:

little

In English it’s almost laughable though.

NPR: Chinese Dissident Finds Struggles, Independence In America After Immigrating

He and his wife, Little Yan, devised a plan to sneak into the country as part of a tour group. Once the tour group got to the U.S., the couple quietly broke away and hopped a flight to New York.

The article doesn’t have any Chinese in it but it’s suffice to say that Little Yan’s Chinese name is probably something like: 小燕.

I can’t really believe anyone would translate it like this but there it is.

Is this a common thing?

Is this an appropriate translation?

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  • 虹影's 《饥饿的女儿》 daughter of the river: heroine's nickname is 六六 (for child #6) translated by Howard Goldblatt as "Little Six" – user6065 Mar 30 '18 at 14:22
  • That makes more sense, ironically enough, than translating 小某某 as little. – Mou某 Mar 30 '18 at 14:29
  • @user6065 I would be more inclined towards a translation like Hexie. – dROOOze Mar 30 '18 at 14:45
  • I believe this is more about English than it's about Chinese? – zypA13510 Mar 31 '18 at 17:22
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No. This translation sounds quite strange, in fact - I don't get the impression that 小燕 is something that even Chinese newspapers** would write, and this kind of name is really reserved for acquaintances/friends.

There very likely isn't an exact English translation; a proper description of 小-- is something like a prefix attached to a surname to indicate affection/endearment for someone younger (similarly 老 is used for someone older). To show similar affection/endearment in English you would really just use their preferred name (whether that'd be their nickname, full name or something else), and the closest example to 小-- in the English-speaking world would be something like the nicknames given to people in Aussie English. From Wikipedia:

*Litotes, such as "not bad", "not much" and "you're not wrong", are also used, as are diminutives***, which are commonly used and are often used to indicate familiarity. Some common examples are arvo (afternoon), barbie (barbecue), smoko (cigarette break), Aussie (Australian) and pressie (present/gift). This may also be done with people's names to create nicknames (other English speaking countries create similar diminutives). For example, "Gazza" from Gary, or "Smitty" from John Smith. The use of the suffix -o originates in Irish Gaelic[citation needed] (Irish ó), which is both a postclitic and a suffix with much the same meaning as in Australian English.*

To mention someone differently based on age is far more neutral and sometimes even a subtle insult in English, implying either the person is immature (younger) or old-fashioned (older). For example in Scots, you may call someone laddie or lass, or elsewhere among older folks you may mention someone in contrast to their father/children like the younger/elder (Mr.) Potter.

I would just translate it as Mrs Yan; or even better, give the first name instead, as English speakers generally are not acquainted with the fact that Chinese women do not take their husbands' last names when they marry, and the difference in last names may be a bit jarring to read.


**The translation for 小燕 is there because this is a story piece of the struggles of an immigrant couple, and the word choice is important for the reader to emotionally connect to the couple. Using 小燕 makes sense in a Chinese context, but again in English you'd only use the preferred name.

***Diminutives are the key word to search for if you wish to find affection/endearment terms of address in other languages.

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  • Unless it's an actual name, then it might be ok to translate it, but not like stop halfway through. Therefore, if it's a full name and if the translator decided to translate it should be translated as Little Swallow. – kash Mar 30 '18 at 13:24
  • @kash I really don't think it's ok to translate the names like that.. otherwise you'll end up with names like "little king", "little plum", "little old (陳)", "little forest"... – dROOOze Mar 30 '18 at 13:26
  • I didn't say it's ok to translate names like that, I just said if you really have to, then don't stop in the middle. Personally I don't like translated names, but sometimes they actually are important for the story and in such case it might be better to get them translated or at least write an explanatory note. – kash Mar 30 '18 at 13:29
  • NYT does in fact call her 小燕 >庄烈宏和妻子小燕(音)都不会说英语 cn.nytimes.com/culture/20180322/… – Mou某 Mar 30 '18 at 14:23
  • @user3306356 hmm..this isn't a news piece - it's an opinion piece by a book critic. I don't think you would normally get nicknames in English news pieces either, now that I think about it - any nicknames normally get put in double quotes. – dROOOze Mar 30 '18 at 14:30

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