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I read here:

English emphasizes the structure of sentences, while Chinese focuses on the meaning.

In English, it is very common to see one long sentence with long modifiers including pronouns like “we”, “she”, “they” in addition to “that” and “which”, to avoid recurrences. The sentence may be long and complicated, but it is still clear enough to understand. In Chinese, the situation is very different, where a long sentence in Chinese would be very complicated and extremely difficult to understand. Therefore, in Chinese, we can only find short sentences or long sentences divided into short phrases separated by commas.

I'm not sure why a long sentence in Chinese would be hard to understand, and why short sentences are preferred.

What is an example sentence in English, which is long, and how you would say that in Chinese? Could you provide the pinyin and literal gloss in addition to the Chinese characters, so I could better understand the structure of the Chinese sentence and how it conveys the meaning in few words rather than long sentences?

If you are having difficulty coming up with an example long English sentence to translate, there are these, such as this one (96 words):

As he crossed toward the pharmacy at the corner he involuntarily turned his head because of a burst of light that had ricocheted from his temple, and saw, with that quick smile with which we greet a rainbow or a rose, a blindingly white parallelogram of sky being unloaded from the van—a dresser with mirrors across which, as across a cinema screen, passed a flawlessly clear reflection of boughs sliding and swaying not arboreally, but with a human vacillation, produced by the nature of those who were carrying this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade.

How would you (literal gloss) break this sentence into fragments, for translating into Chinese? Maybe it would be helpful to see how the English short-fragment sentence version would look, then how that relates to the Chinese translation.

I'm wondering how Chinese typically conveys meaning using only short sentences, since I come from English and am used to relatively long sentences and don't see how it's possible really yet.

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  • You can have long sentences in any language, for example, "在電影和電視劇中常出現的美國黑幫鬥爭情節雖然誇大卻並非無中生有" (The plots of American gang fights that often appear in movies and TV shows are exaggerated, but they are not created out of thin air)
    – Tang Ho
    Jul 23, 2023 at 9:34
  • @TangHo Sentences this long are more commonly broken up with commas to improve readability, instead of joint as a large chunk of characters.
    – iBug
    Jul 27, 2023 at 16:41
  • English sentences like your example is hard to understand too.
    – 王博龙
    Jul 30, 2023 at 17:21

2 Answers 2

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It is an impressive question. Let us do it in two parts.

(1) Why are Chinese sentences typically "short"? (as opposed to "long" English sentences)?

The answer is in the history of Chinese language modernization. As you may know, it is only about 100 years since the Chinese language got great progress due to the New Culture Movement (wiki) after the collapse of the Qing dynasty (1910). It was promoted by the scholars who received their education from Western countries and Japan which just had the same kind of movement about 50 years ago. It criticized the old classical Chinese written language (文言文)and promoted the new modern Chinese written language (白話文). The old 文言文 were really "short".

(2) How would you break a long English sentence into fragments for translating into Chinese? (Could it be helpful to first see how the English sentence is split into equivalent short sentences?)

You are correct. Before I translate a long complex intertwined English sentence to Chinese, or if I want to better understand its structure and meaning, I would split it into short sentences. There are "function words" in long English sentences that you may not easily approximate their Chinese counterparts. Those "function words" can help you to break down long English sentences. And also spot clauses and phrases that could be re-written as a whole sentence in Chinese.

(As he crossed toward the pharmacy at the corner) (he involuntarily turned his head) (because of a burst of light) (that had ricocheted from his temple), and (saw), (with that quick smile) (with which we greet a rainbow or a rose), (a blindingly white parallelogram of) (sky being unloaded from the van—a dresser with mirrors) (across which), (as across a cinema screen), (passed a flawlessly clear reflection) of (boughs sliding and swaying not arboreally), but with (a human vacillation), (produced by the nature of those) (who were carrying this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade).

走过拐角的药店时,他禁不住地转过头去,因为有一缕突然的光线从他的脸侧跳出来。他很快露出了一种微笑,就像平时我们看到彩虹或玫瑰一样。他看到一个强烈反光的白色的平行四边形的天空被人从货车上卸下来。那实际上是一个带有几面镜子的梳妆台。巨大的树枝穿过这些镜子,就像穿过电影屏幕一样,无暇地清晰地反射出来。这些树枝在滑动着,摇摆着,但是并不像是树林中的树木那样,而是随着人们的身体在摇动。这是那些承负着这片天空,这些树枝,这个移动的平面的人们自然的摇动。

Zǒu guò guǎi jiǎo de yào diàn shí , tā jīn bù zhù de zhuǎn guò tóu qù , yīn wèi yǒu yī lǚ tū rán de guāng xiàn cóng tā de liǎn cè tiào chū lái 。 Tā hěn kuài lù chū le yī zhǒng wēi xiào , jiù xiàng píng shí wǒ men kàn dào cǎi hóng huò méi guī yī yàng 。 Tā kàn dào yī gè qiáng liè fǎn guāng de bái sè de píng xíng sì biān xíng de tiān kōng bèi rén cóng huò chē shàng xiè xià lái 。 Nà shí jì shàng shì yī gè dài yǒu jǐ miàn jìng zi de shū zhuāng tái 。 Jù dà de shù zhī chuān guò zhè xiē jìng zi , jiù xiàng chuān guò diàn yǐng píng mù yī yàng , wú xiá dì qīng xī de fǎn shè chū lái 。 Zhè xiē shù zhī zài huá dòng zhe , yáo bǎi zhe , dàn shì bìng bù xiàng shì shù lín zhōng de shù mù nà yàng , ér shì suí zhe rén men de shēn tǐ zài yáo dòng 。 Zhè shì nà xiē chéng fù zhe zhè piàn tiān kōng , zhè xiē shù zhī , zhè gè yí dòng de píng miàn de rén men zì rán de yáo dòng 。

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They are same actually,most are habit issues.There are some long and easy-understanding sentence,just like your example,simply put many particulars in.

For example:

太阳晒得墨黑的清瘦的脸上,有一对稍稍洼进去的大大的双眼皮儿眼睛,眉毛细而斜,黑里带黄的头发用花布条子扎两条短辫子,衣服都很旧,右裤脚上的一个破洞别一支别针,春夏秋三季都打赤脚,只有上山抓柴禾的时节,怕刺破脚板,才穿双鞋子,但一下山就脱了。

This could be longer if add more element.

Chinese usually use one subject in single sentence.You can add massive particulars in one subject.In this logic,those sentence are combined by some short sentence exactly

(太阳晒得墨黑的清瘦的脸上),有一对稍稍洼进去的大大的双眼皮儿眼睛,眉毛细而斜,黑里带黄的头发用花布条子扎两条短辫子

(衣服)都很旧,右裤脚上的一个破洞别一支别针

(她)春夏秋三季都打赤脚,只有上山抓柴禾的时节,怕刺破脚板,才穿双鞋子,但一下山就脱了。

As (he) crossed toward the pharmacy at the corner he involuntarily turned his head because of a burst of light that had ricocheted from his temple, and saw, with that quick smile with which we greet a rainbow or a rose.

a blindingly (white parallelogram) of sky being unloaded from the van—a dresser with mirrors across which, as across a cinema screen, passed a flawlessly clear reflection of boughs sliding and swaying not arboreally.

(this reflection)but with a human vacillation, produced by the nature of those who were carrying this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade.

Another factor is massive history of Chinese,you can easily find something to indicate a long sentence or just use short old sayings. Example:

鹬蚌相争,渔翁得利

sorry for using google translate

A big clam was basking in the sun on the riverbank. As soon as it opened its shell, the water bird snipe reached out its long beak to peck at the clam's flesh. The clam quickly tightened its shell. Clamping the snipe's long beak. The snipe angrily said, "It doesn't rain today, it won't rain tomorrow. How do I think you can survive?" The clam also said without giving in, "If you don't let go today, if you don't let go tomorrow, I don't think you can survive!" Just as the snipe and clam were in a heated argument, a fisherman discovered them and effortlessly caught them

About hard to understand,i think is culture issues,different language have different logic causing hard-understanding.

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