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Over the course of my studies and practice in Chinese, there's one particular type of sentence that I always get wrong: the one with the verb to deserve.

In English — and several other neo-latin languages — the typical usage of the verb is to convey that something ought to happen, and in particular it often carries a moral judgement.

For example:

John deserves to get that job

The nuance here is that John's job is for him some sort of reward: John has earned it, and this clearly implies a moral characterization. For example, John worked hard and now he should be rewarded with the job.

In Chinese, following dictionary entries, I've usually rendered this with 值得 or 应当 — plus some periphrasis — however both seem inadequate translations.

值得

值得 is "worth it". It doesn't have the same moral implication. Sentences also become awkward. It's best used when the focus in on inanimate objects, but that's not the same meaning as "someone deserves something":

That restaurant deserves a go

那家饭店很值得去吃饭

应当

应当 is "ought to". It's closer to the meaning I'm talking about, as in English "ought" does imply some quality judgement, however the nuance is of a universal moral judgement — for example, laws and customs. And therefore translating back from Chinese is best rendered with "ought", not "deserve":

大家都应当遵守规定

everybody ought to follow the rules (and not "deserve")

One more proof is in the usage 有耳可听就应当听 = those who have ears ought to listen

应该

应该 is "should", it doesn't pass a moral judgement either, just a level of certainty somewhere between "should" and "must":

Team A deserves to win this match

球队A应该赢这场比赛 (not the same meaning)

In the example above the moral implication is lost.

Periphrases

Other periphrases I use to preserve the moral implication are sentences with 希望 (I hope that...) or 期望 (I expect that...)

John deserves to get into Harvard

小张一直很努力 (complementary context), 我希望他能够进哈弗大学

Or 本事, to stress the existence of some skill or ability that justifies the outcome:

John deserves to get into Harvard

小张有本事进哈弗大学

However you can see how in the above examples, the translation has a level of indirection.

I suspect that the very idea of "deserving" something, "being worth of" something, with attached moral implication, is strongly tied to the western culture. Interpretations might follow the lines of:

  • heavenly rewards follow from pious behavior (I'm good therefore I deserve)
  • cosmic justice (I worked hard therefore I deserve)

Given that these features aren't prominent in Eastern culture, it could be that a proper direct translation for "deserving" doesn't exist.

Thoughts?

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  • 2
    Have you explored the use of 應得, alongside other suggestions in the answers?
    – L Parker
    Jun 5 at 15:08
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    It's common to construct the phrase 應得的+N, in both positive and negative senses. E.g.: 應得的報酬 (a well-deserved remuneration), 應得的懲罰 (a well-deserved punishment) etc. It's also idiomatic to construct the sentence "N+是+sb+應得的。", as in 這報酬/懲罰是他應得的。 (This remuneration/punishment is something that he deserves.) // 應得 meaning literally "should get" is not just mere moral implication; it's also very "tangible". May think of that as a hybrid of 應當 (the "moral" part) and 值得 (the "tangible" part, for the lack of a better word).
    – L Parker
    Jun 5 at 15:41
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    It's also more idiomatic to say "這份工作是他應得的。", omitting the verb 'to get' in 'He deserves to get the job'.
    – L Parker
    Jun 5 at 15:43
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    @blackgreen 应得=理应得到 Jun 5 at 18:35
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    @blackgreen I found a few answers useful, so I "upped" them. // There is some discussion of this topic on wordreference, eg forum.wordreference.com/threads/to-deserve.1251752 // I find it interesting that the first term proposed by wordreference (wordreference.com/enzh/deserve), which is 应受, is not even a dictionary entry for the half dozen or so dictionaries I have handy. // I guess 应受 should be read ying1shou4, not ying4shou4. But I'm not sure. Jun 11 at 8:33
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deserve originally meant: “completely serve”, then became "be entitled to sth. because of good service" = "should get" which is more or less the modern meaning.

'should get' is what often comes out in Chinese and to my ears sufficiently carries the intended meaning.

Personally, I think you may be reading too much into 'deserve'. In my opinion it just expresses someone's opinion about entitlement.

我理应获得加薪和晋升。 (Yeah!) 理应获得: should get
I deserve a raise and a promotion!

他一无是处,根本配不上你。配不上:not match up to
He's a waste of space, he doesn't deserve you.

他为其勇敢应该得到至高的赞扬。应该得到: should get
He deserves the highest praise for his bravery.

John deserves to get into Harvard, he is a genius.
只有哈佛大学才配得上约翰这样的天才

Strangely, and by the by, 'earn' and 'deserve' are the same word in German, so, when you ask, "What do you earn?" we often answer the question, "What do you deserve?", "I deserve a lot more." ("Ich verdiene viel mehr!") Hoho!

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  • French: mériter; Italian: meritare/meritarsi - related to the English word "merit". Interesting! Jun 11 at 8:21
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Google Translate: John deserves to get that job -- 約翰配得上那份工作

Google suggests '配得上' for 'deserve to', I think it is quite close because it implies John has merit to receive this outcome.

Other translations for deserve in a different context:

  • 理應: should/ ought to (based on fairness/ reason)

Example:

"John deserves to get that job" - "約翰理應得到那份工作"

"He deserves to be fired" - "他理應被解僱"

The sentence implies John got the job is a fair and reasonable outcome, also implies John has merit to receive this outcome

  • 應份: Due (he earns it; it is due to him = he deserves it)

Example:

"John deserves to get that job" - "約翰得到那份工作是應份的"

  • 活該: deserve to (based on one's bad deed) - e.g. "He deserves to be fired" - "他活該被解僱"

合該: fit to (based on reason or one's deed)

Example from the dictionary: 這酒合該你喝; 蹲大獄合該, 誰讓他作孽的

Example:

約翰(勤奮工作)合該升為經理 - John (is hardworking) should be promoted to manager

In my opinion, 合該 sounds too literary/ classical for modern writing

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  • My view is that 配得上 would be more like "suitable for or worthy of", rather than "deserve to" Jun 5 at 15:16
  • I'm not sure I can consider Google Translate a source authoritative enough to deserve a mention. Also, I knew about 活该 in the negative sense, forgot to mention it in the question
    – blackgreen
    Jun 5 at 15:20
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When we say someone deserves to get that job, it usually means that (based on certain facts) we believe that guy is at least qualified for the job, so I opt for "理应得到那份工作". But sometimes we would also say "值得" in a similar context, like "他值得加薪/表扬" (he deserves to be paid more / praised). The nuance is that in the latter case, it often refers to the efforts or achievements of that person which make us think that he should be rewarded. By contrast, when it comes to an object, not a person, "deserve" more often means worthy. We say "这个菜值得一尝" or "这首歌值得一听" because the attempt implies some costs, such as money and your time. Also, sometimes we would say "这个菜你理应一尝" or "这首歌你理应一听", it happens, for example, when I believe that it is to your taste / the style you like.

When we say "应当", it means the object is justified by law, norms or common sense, so "应当" is closer to "must" than "应该". The tone of "应该" is not as strong as "应当", it can simply be that I think you should do something, for example, "你应该去睡觉了".

The last two examples you gave are similar to "他理应得到那份工作" VS. "他值得加薪". "小张一直很努力,我希望他能够进哈佛", the hope you made is in relation to his efforts, while "他有本事考进哈佛" means you think he is qualified for. If let me re-write them, they could be "小张一直很努力,他值得被哈佛录取" and "他理应被哈佛录取".

In summary, when we use "值得" it more often implies certain costs or value the thing entails, yet "理应" involves certain reasoning. When your judgement is more subjective, use "应该" instead of "理应" ("应该" is more widely used), and if you hope the tone to be rather stronger so that others can consider what you indicate as obligatory / justifiable, use "应当".

When you try to translate "deserve" into Chinese, try to consider "objective or subjective? have costs? strong or tender?" Of course, this is not a golden rule, just my own tips. Chinese is quite flexible especially in spoken.

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John deserves to get that job

约翰(该得)那份工作

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