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I am writing a paper about machine translation and I am looking for a phrase in Chinese that is ambiguous and cannot possibly be translated correctly without knowing the correct context.

I found this article about euphemisms in Chinese which mentions the phrase "见马克思" in the sense "to die".

Is this phrase really known/recognizable by an average Chinese person? If not, are there any better phrases with ambiguous meanings?

  • I am not an English native speaker, but I think "euphemisms" are meant to be polite. However, I found a lot of curse words in your reference. It looks very strange to me. Like 上西天 and 见阎王 are definitely curse words. – River Jul 31 at 18:28
  • Here and here are some examples of ambiguous sentences. You are actually asking for two different questions, consider to change the title to include both of them. – Firmin Martin Jul 31 at 21:08
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    南京市长江大桥:Jiang Daqiao, the mayor of Nanjing – fefe Aug 1 at 1:07
  • It's a joke. It actually means Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Another version of this joke is 广州市长龙马戏欢迎您. – T-Pioneer Aug 1 at 13:52
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Sohu has a news article dated from 2020-07-26, with a sentence that reads:

腮部中弹,离大脑很近了,稍有不慎,杨勇恐怕就提前去见马克思了。

Here “见马克思” is used to mean “to die,” like what was mentioned in the question above.

The phrase in question is featured in a recent write-up by a large company that services the Chinese speaking world. I think it is fair to say that it is well known enough for the editors to leave it in without thinking that it would cause confusion for their audience.


The bigger problem I see with your question, though, is the fact that many machine translations use dictionaries and the phrase in question can be found in quite a few resources.

见马克思 can quickly be found in five Chinese-English dictionaries:

One Chinese-French dictionary:

  • KEY French

And one Chinese-Chinese dictionary:

  • 现代汉语大词典

The longer term 去见马克思 can also ben found in one Chinese-German dictionary:

  • HanDeDict

As far as I can tell they all contain the euphemistic definition, “to die.” It shouldn't be too hard for a well trained machine translation to be able to translate the phrase correctly with the right tools.

There are a lot of bad Chinese translations, seemingly curated by machine translators, online, i.e.: Bubbles | 20 of the Best (Worst?) Chinese Sign Translation Errors & 干 has always been an issue. You might find a more appropriate example in some of these resources.

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  • Well, Google Translate, for instance, translates this literally without any note on the euphemistic meaning. Baidu Fanyi does the same, but adds a usage note. – Andriy Makukha Aug 1 at 0:25
  • Need to mention, "见马克思" only can use on a Marxist's death. – T-Pioneer Aug 1 at 1:41
  • At least the wiktionary entry clearly states "communism". – Firmin Martin Aug 1 at 2:12
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No. The baseline is, the term "见马克思" is rarely used today. If used, usually not in a serious situation. It might also be found in historical texts or literature that reviews the points of view during that historical period.

Polite ways of mentioning people's death are:

  • 他去世了 he left the world
  • 他过世了 he passed the world
  • 他不在了 he is not here anymore
  • 他走了 he is gone
  • 入土为安 peace in the ground

他不在了 and 他走了are the examples you are looking for. These two expressions can only be translated as "death" in certain contexts.

PS: This question is too political or even religious to answer correctly. I would avoid deeper discussion on the origin and historical details.

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    Cantonese has a lot of colorful slang for 'died' e.g. 釘蓋 --> 釘咗,瓜老襯 --> 瓜咗,香咗-->香香公主, 玩完,. And euphemisms for 'died' include 歸西,往生,過身,去世 -->去咗,走咗,唔喺度, – Tang Ho Jul 31 at 20:26
  • @TangHo Thanks! Even though I have friends speak Cantonese, I know nothing about it. – River Jul 31 at 20:31
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    On the contrary, generally only Marxists would use it. "我快要去见马克思了,怎么交代?你给我留个修正主义尾巴,我不干。"- Mao Zedong, 1965 October. – T-Pioneer Aug 1 at 1:33
  • @T-Pioneer The question asked about TODAY. not 1965. I modified the answer to avoid any political and religious discussion. – River Aug 1 at 1:49
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  • Is this phrase really known/recognizable by an average Chinese person?

No. This expression is understandable (given a clear context), but it's rarely used and very informal.

  • If not, are there any better phrases with ambiguous meanings?

Yes, there are a lot. I think @River just gave a really good example: 他走了 could mean he has left or he has passed away, depending on the context.

Another example I can think of: could mean lend as well as borrow. If you say 我借了他100块 we don't know if you lent 100 yuan to that person or if you borrowed 100 yuan from that person. If you say 我借了他100块,他说下个月还我 then the here clearly means to lend. It's really challenging for a machine translator to get it right.

As of today (August 1st, 2020), both Google Translate and DeepL Translate (and Baidu Translate, too) are translating it wrong:

enter image description here

enter image description here

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见马克思 probably only works in China. 见阎王 or 去世了 is much more common. 去世了 is more formal and respectful.

There is another very interesting sentence(slang) to describe someone has dead.

他去蘇州賣鴨蛋了。 (Translate "DIRECTLY" -> "He goes to Suzhou selling duck eggs." Suzhou is a city in Jiangsu province in China.)

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I have a feeling that 百年之後 suite your need. 百年之後 have ambiguous meaning when you don't know primary meaning of this component. It can be interpreted differently between interpreting it literally and considering the meaning in addition to its literal meaning.

When we interpret 百年之後 literally. We get 百年 means "a hundred year." 之後 means "after". 百年之後 literally means "after a hundred year."

When we consider the primary meaning of 百年之後. It means "after someone's death."

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  • I think, you use the word "connotation" incorrectly. – Andriy Makukha Aug 1 at 17:51
  • But thanks, it's a nice euphemism. – Andriy Makukha Aug 1 at 17:51
  • I have fixed it now, thank for your correction. – 000 Aug 2 at 3:47

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