So, this weird sentence and a reply go as follows 我对着红绿灯说着是否一切会好转 它们说「我不知道」 I came across it and reckoned it was a mistranslation, but a friend pointed out it's actually Taylor Swift's song that goes: I ask the traffic lights if it'll be all right They say "I don't know"

Is this correct grammar-wise in such a case?

  1. Since you're asking if the translation is grammatical, yes, there is nothing to fault in terms of grammar. Perhaps drop the second for concision, i.e.我對着紅綠燈說/是否一切會好轉.

  2. No doubt r13's answer using the verb is in fact more understandable without the given context, and is a literal fit to the original lyrics.

  3. In terms of nuance, 我對着紅綠燈說 feels like an absent-minded remark (rather than a question); the singer does not seem to anticipate an answer, which fits the reality where traffic lights are inanimate objects. In fact, if you think closely, traffic lights saying 'I don't know' is just a figurative way of saying they 'replied' in silence, again reflecting their inanimateness. To highlight this, 我對着紅綠燈說 may be appropriate.

  4. On the other hand, the 我問-它們說 pair makes it seem like the two are having an active conversation, something that is not intended. Specifically, using the inanimate in a personified setting is rather odd. However, 它們說 in the original translation is perhaps justifiable, because the singer did not expect their reply all along (the argument of inanimateness above).

  • Oh, great explanation! Let me ask one last thing — if we imply that the answer is not anticipated(说 instead of 问), but it actually replies (with silence or otherwise). You did say that using 它 sounds weird here. Any other options, then? – Simullacra Mar 31 at 4:58
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    @Simullacra I actually think 它們說 is justifiable if we use in the first sentence (as pointed out in my answer). The translation 它們說 refrains from personifying the traffic lights, which is ideal in the context of talking to oneself (自言自語). This is different from the situation in 我問-它們說, where you're expecting them to answer as if they are already people. – L Parker Apr 1 at 13:02

It only needs slight modifications. How about 我"問"红绿灯是否一切"都"会好转 它们说「我不知道」, or 我"問"红绿灯是否一切"都"沒問題 它们说「我不知道」.

I think the original is fine grammar-wise, but unlike to be spoken by the native tongue.

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