Here are 2 English sentences, both have the word 'Nothing' in it in the noun form. I am wondering if it can be translated into Chinese while preserving as much of its original meaning as possible.

以下有两个英文句子,都用名词版的 无。我想知道是否可以尽量但保持原意思的把他翻译成中文:

  1. What do rich people want, poor people have, and is greater than god? Answer: Nothing (as a noun). In Chinese, the question would be "什么东西有钱人想要,穷人有,还比上帝伟大?" I guess one could say "没有这个东西" "没有任何东西", which is really a phrase and would barely make sense in the answer:富人想要没有任何东西,穷人有没有任何东西,没有任何东西比上帝还伟大. Changing it to 富人不想要/需要任何东西,穷人没有任何东西,没有任何东西比上帝还伟大 makes it slightly less cleverly worded, and the first 2 parts turn from a positive statement (the rich 'want' and the poor 'have') into a negative statement ('do not want' vs 'do not have') respectively.

  2. There is an American comedy TV series called I Dream of Jeannie. For those who don't know, it is about a 2000 year old genie from ancient Baghdad called Jeannie. She means well but always causes trouble for her master, Tony, with her enthusiasm and mischievous attitude and sometimes purposely go out of her way to annoy him/do things her way. Tony wants to keep her and her magic a secret because he cannot explain it to people in modern day America.

Now, in one episode, there is a nosy kid in the neighbourhood, and he keeps climbing trees and peak inside Tony's windows and is on the verge of finding out their secret. Jeannie and Tony are annoyed so Jeannie says "I will turn him into a frog!". Tony is horrified and says "You will turn him into nothing!" He really meant that he forbids Jeannie to turn him into anything, in Chinese, "你不可以把他变成任何东西!. But Jeannie took this sentence to be a command that means 你要you will 把他变成 turn him into [Nothing] ie, make him disappear. So Jeannie then says "That is an excellent idea!" and proceeds to do so.

The double meaning of the sentence/word is what makes her reaction funny. I am wondering if it can be translated to Chinese and still be funny. If not, what happens when translators really can't translate something? Do they replace it with something else or just let it gets lost in translation and ignore it?

  • 3
    中文用词较有弹性,同一个意思会在不同的句子中用不同的表达方式。例如第一个问题的 Nothing 在不同的句子里可以有如下不同的翻译:Nothing is greater than God. 没有任何东西比上帝还伟大。Nothing is more evil than the devil. 没有任何东西比恶魔还邪恶。The poor have nothing, and the rich need nothing. 穷人一无所有,而富人一无所求。If you eat nothing you’ll die. 如果你什么也不吃,你就会死。第二个问题,Tony 的意思是:妳将没有办法变他/你什么也没有办法变。而 Jeannie 听成:把他消失/变没有。 – SLS Jan 28 at 10:05
  • I agree with @SLS, there is no equivalent of nothing in Chinese, it may be replaced with other words depending on the context. – 賈可 Jacky Mar 31 at 17:37

You may find workarounds in specific contexts but you can't generally.

Having a negative indefinite pronoun with no verbal negation is in fact one quirk of European languages (crudely speaking).

See the Wikipedia article about "Standard Average European": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Average_European

So, no, it's a very particular feature of certain European languages and not universal. There isn't going to be a solution for that.

As to your general question, it depends on the translator. Many good translators try to work around the issue or reproduce the original meanings in some similar ways. But even then, there are cases when you just can't do anything about it, and either information is lost, or you see a footnote explaining roughly what's going on.

An example: Japanese and Korean systematically mark politeness and respect, meaning basically for every sentence they can specify if it is polite and/or respectful and/or humble, or the opposite of those. There's no way to reproduce that in, say, English. (E.g. if A asks B "What is it?" in polite forms, there's little chance that they are best friends)

Translation is generally guaranteed to lose information most of the time.

  • The first part of your answer is very interesting, I did not know this, thanks! – Stephanie Chen-Xu Apr 3 at 10:28

1."What do rich people want, poor people have, and is greater than god? "

"Answer: Nothing "


"答案是: 沒有任何東西是"

  • 沒有任何東西是富人想要的

  • 沒有任何東西是窮人擁有的

  • 沒有任何東西是比神更偉大的

  1. "You will turn him into nothing!"

Two possible meanings:

(a.) there's nothing you will turn him into = 沒有東西是你會把他變成的

The more native way to say it is: "你不會把他變成任何東西" (you will not turn him into anything)

(b.) you will turn him into not existing = 你會把他變得 '不存在' (which is not what Tony mean)

To have the double meaning like in English, you can read 沒有東西是你會把他變成的" as "沒有東西 -- 是你會把他變成的" but it would apply English grammar into a Chinese sentence, which is not always possible.

It is like trying to translate a double meaning Chinese phrase into English, you will have to explain why it is funny in details to the English speakers. When you have to explain a joke, that joke is not funny anymore

You can only get the ambiguous meaning, which make the sentence funny, from the original English sentence.

  • 第一是个非常好的答案,谢谢。但是第二稍微有点听起来怪怪的,不自然。如果在日常沟通说话时这么说而不是特别翻译,这种说法 "没有东西是你会把他变成的" 可以接受吗? 听起来像一个学中文的人直译的。Answer 1 is excellent, thanks, but translation 2 sounds very odd, is this something that is naturally sayable and acceptable in/to native Chinese speakers? Sounds like a learner of Chinese tried to translate it literally. – Stephanie Chen-Xu Jan 28 at 11:13
  • @Stephanie Chen-Xu - Yes, it is unnatural because directly apply English grammar into Chinese is not always possible. I edited my answer. – Tang Ho Jan 28 at 11:49

It is a real problem in Chinese translation, because there is no such word as “nothing” in Chinese. If you want to translate “nothing” into Chinese, you will have to paraphrase it into something else, such as “not anything”.

I have nothing.

→ I do not have anything.

→ 我任何东西

→ 我什么也没有。

Here comes the problem:

You want to translate the following sentence:

You will turn him into nothing.

You can only paraphrase it into:

You will not turn him into anything.



You will turn him into nonexistence.


You want to translate the pun? I don't think it is possible to make such a pun in Chinese.

  • Thanks, I understand the problem, seems like you can't translate the pun after all. I speak Mandarin. I understand that there are some things that are expressed negatively in either English or Chinese and positively the other way around, like "Can not be bothered" is negative in English but is positive in Chinese 懒得. I wanted to see if anyone had a better solution. – Stephanie Chen-Xu Mar 13 at 10:14

I think the translation can be based on meaning, not actual words. The result may sound more natural.

1) 什么东西是富人没有的,穷人有的,而且比上帝还伟大? 答案:没有这样的东西。

2) 你会把他变得猪狗不如。or 你会把他变得一文不值。


You may try to settle that translation issue by seeing it from a different perspective. A daoist perspective might help, such as the use of "emptiness" instead of "nothingness": 空/ 空性 / 空间

Rich people want emptiness because they're full (they need time too) Poor people are close to emptiness cause they don't have much and have time if they don't work. (Although A LOT / MOST poor people work though...but I say this for the translation. :D ) Emptiness / Time / Dao is greater than everything.

Just my 2 cents on that possible translation. Hope it helps.

  • Using the target language's culture usually helps a lot to translate difficult and idiomatic expressions, especially in case of localisation problems. – Mat Mar 31 at 15:04

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