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Apologies if the title isn't clear, I'm not sure how to express this.

I'm trying to establish roughly how many words a Classical Chinese text results in, once translated into English. Classical Chinese being an extremely concise language, I imagine a translation into English should render at least twice as many words--but is there an approximation?

For example, if I take the first sentence of the classical Chinese-language Wikipedia entry for "Classical Chinese" ("文言"):

文言者,華夏、四裔所以書其言,而述志表情也。

A fairly liberal English translation (my own) might render this:

Classical Chinese is how China and [its] frontier lands wrote their language, stated their ideals, and expressed their feelings.

This yields a Classical Chinese to English word count ratio of nearly 1:1 (here, it's 18:19), which is suspect, in that the brevity of the former is underrepresented; I'd expect something closer to 1:2.

At a stretch, everything after the last comma in the original sentence could be translated simply as "and expressed themselves", giving a ratio of 6:5, which is absurd, because any beginning student of Classical Chinese knows that it isn't wordier than English!

Also, it doesn't strike me as meaningful to attempt to generate a heuristic from a sole example.

Is there a rule of thumb?

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    Roughly speaking, a character in 文言 is equivalent to a word in English. Due to the culture difference, English translation may use more words to fully convey its original meanings, or use other shorter but valid expressions. The brevity of Classical Chinese refers mainly to its "size" and less syllables. Printed in the same font size, a less-than-a-line Classical Chinese sentence is much shorter than its two-and-half-line English counterpart. And it has exactly 18 syllables, much fewer doesn't it? – Toosky Hierot May 26 at 8:02
  • The actual things are much more complicated, however, since I am no linguist, I am not able to discuss further on it. – Toosky Hierot May 26 at 8:07
  • It's obvious that the ratio depends on translation and how you count the words. Word separation can't be precisely defined in human language. – 炸鱼薯条德里克 May 26 at 16:19
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have a look of this topic: Word count in Classical Chinese vs English

now, be calm; please. the quoted wikipedia entry is, imo, unacceptable, in classical / literary chinese. so, your translation and comparison is, invalid. remember:

"garbage in, garbage out"

i assumed your understand the difference between classical chinese and literary chinese. the internet archive have books printed in chinese and english; that you might do a empirical research.

華英對照四書

註釋校正華英四書

james legge's english translation is quite good, you can depend on it. e.g.:

孟子 盡心上 chapter 6

孟子曰.人不可以無恥.無恥之恥.無恥矣

mencius said, "a man may not be without shame. when one is ashamed of having been without shame, he will afterwards not have occasion for shame."

16 chinese words vs 26 english words.

孟子 盡心上 chapter 7

孟子曰.恥之於人大矣.為機變之巧者.無所用恥焉.不恥不若人.何若人有

mencius said, "the sense of shame is to a man of great importance."

"those who form contrivances and versatile schemes distinguished for their artfulness, do not allow their sense of shame to come into action."

"when one differs from other men in not having this sense of shame, what will he have in common with them?"

30 chinese words vs 56 english words.

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last,

Is there a rule of thumb?

no. i don't think so.

ps, just curious, where and why students need to learn classical chinese in english?

  • Because students only know one language before they start, English. Somewhere in a college – 炸鱼薯条德里克 May 26 at 16:17
  • This is helpful, many thanks. To your question: because classical and literary Chinese studies are part of any reputable university degree in Chinese Studies, in the West. It's like an abbreviated version of 国学. – Matt S. May 27 at 9:07
  • Also, are you referring to James Legge? (Not "League"). – Matt S. May 27 at 9:09
  • omg, my apologies 😿 an severe error, sorry 🙏 – 水巷孑蠻 May 27 at 10:11
  • @matt s, part of a degree course? how many hours one spend for? may i say, “poor soul” – 水巷孑蠻 May 27 at 10:22

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