In English this is very easy to express, but I'm struggling to express it in Chinese. I've asked multiple natives and they are all struggling with this (much to everyone's surprise).

Basically, you have the following situation: a story with a narrator explaining some events in the past. The events are happening during some time during the narrators high school years. The narrator at one point wants to explain the equivalent of: "Two years before I had gotten a bad sickness, which is why I drank so much water."

We have all sort of thought up the following:

在那之前的两年……

but the problem with this is that in Chinese if you use this it's unclear whether the event was 2 years before, or sometime during those 2 years. It's a duration, not a specific time.

Is there any way to express "2 points before some ambiguous time"? I don't want to have to resort to absolute times for everything. Thank you for your help!

In my opinion,

  • 在[那事]之前的兩年……
  • 在[那事]的前兩年……

both mean during the two years before[那事]. Compare

  • 在[那事]之後的兩年……
  • 在[那事]的後兩年……

During the two years (immediately) after[那事]

I suggest

在[發生X]的兩年前, 。。。。。。

Two years before X happened, ...


Another technique, which is perhaps not strictly the answer you're looking for, is to make the context very clear in a printed book. Specifically, an occasional first-person narrative should be actually using a different font, akin to English novels sometimes using italics.

enter image description here

Excerpt from a digital edition of 紅樓夢 from 國立臺灣大學中文系 (source). The main body of the text is in Song/Ming Typeface, while direct quotes are given in a regular script typeface.

I believe this is why it is difficult for native speakers to answer your query. Printed books may employ the following font styles for different parts of the text:

  • Song/Ming typeface for the main body;
  • Regular script typeface for quotes, or a short segment indicating first-person narratives;
  • Imitation Song typeface for annotations.

In your case, all that's needed for clarification is to print the narration in regular script, and simply write “兩年之前,。。。。。。”.

  • Very interesting! I need to look into this. The contemporary books I've read haven't really deployed this at all that I remember, but it's entirely possible I just sort of took it for granted. It would certainly be a very intriguing approach! Thank you for your response. – A Question Asker Oct 23 at 10:37
  • I don't think so……We use 间/中 to indicate duration. A narrator: 这是一段年代久远的故事。还是在我被大学录取的两年之前,那时候我突患重疾,饮食不思,眼见着一天天形销骨立。这两年间,家人带着我看遍大江南北、黄河内外无数名医妙手,求来不计其数的上下方剂,均无果。 – Toosky Hierot Oct 23 at 10:44
  • In this paragraph (self-written),I don't see any ambiguity about duration or time point. Perhaps there are other components delineating time, but I don't know why a native thinks it difficult. ( •̥́ ˍ •̀ू ) – Toosky Hierot Oct 23 at 10:48
  • 两年之前 is enough, I think ԅ(¯ㅂ¯ԅ) – Toosky Hierot Oct 23 at 10:51
  • @TooskyHierot I don't think 間 is necessary to indicate duration - 今年的前半年發生了X means X happened during the first half of this year. – droooze Oct 23 at 11:06

a "traditional" approach, using the sexagenary cycle (干支); in which 干支 was used to indicating year.

the events are happening during some time during the narrators high school years

supposed it's 2010-2016, which would be

2010 - "庚寅年"

2011 - "辛卯年"

2012 - "壬辰年"

2013 - "癸巳年"

2014 - "甲午年"

2015 - "乙未年"

2016 - "丙申年"

used this sexagenary cycle to mark your events,

two years before I had gotten a bad sickness, which is why I drank so much water

two year before your high school years, it would be 2008 (戊子年)

then, write somethings like:

戊子歲.予罹重病.癒以飲水之方.至今遵之

in which 戊子 is two "entries" before "庚寅", so, reader should understand that you inserted an event two years prior to your high school years.

have fun :)

  • Lmao I did NOT expect to see an answer suggesting the use of 干支 (and, apparently, writing my story in classical chinese :P) – A Question Asker Oct 23 at 11:28
  • why not? . . . 😼 – 水巷孑蠻 Oct 23 at 11:33

I'll put as below:

Two years before I had gotten a bad sickness -- 我患重病前的两年之前 // 2 years before

我患重病前的前两年 // within those 2 years or sometime during those 2 years

  • emmm, 这里应该断成, two years before, I had gotten a bad sickness, ...(两年前,我患恶疾)你那样的说法不应该用过去完成时,而是一般过去时表达。(一孔之见) – Toosky Hierot Oct 23 at 13:15
  • @TooskyHierot Op said two years before that, so i take it as [two yeas] [before i had gotten a bad sickness]. – dan Oct 23 at 13:48

As drooze mentioned 在那之前的两年 would probably be interpreted as during the two years before/in the two years before.

I think the best way to resolve the ambiguity would be to say something like:

那件事发生之前,大概两年前,。。。

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