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...,整齐漂亮的毛笔字能充分地显示出书摊主人的文化水平。摊主是位上了年纪、身材瘦小的老人,总是穿着一件灰色长衫,...

This is from the Standard Course Book of HSK5, chapter 20. I need your help in literal translating this: 摊主是位上了年纪、身材瘦小的老人。

So far, this is my attempt:

摊主(stall owner)是位上了(?)年纪(age)、身材(stature)瘦小(thin and small)的老人(old person).

So, what does 是位上了 mean? 是(is)位(position or classifier)上(above or go up)了. I feel I am completely off about these 4 characters.

Also, about this part: 身材(stature)瘦小(thin and small). Is there a better literal translation? It doesn't make much sense to me.

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  • 上了年纪 means aged, not young anymore. It and 老人 have the same meaning. You can't have young man who is 上了年纪. It's redundant to say 上了年纪的老人.
    – joehua
    Dec 10, 2023 at 22:31
  • 是位上了年纪, if translated literally, would be 是位, (someone), 上了, (up already), 年纪, (in years) So, "Someone up already in years" In English, we have, "Mr. Smith is along in years", or "Mr. Smith is getting on in years"? Dec 11, 2023 at 1:49
  • The addition of the phrase "上了年纪" before "老人" is a technique of writing to describe and build an image of a "poor and weak" old person in the readers' head. A similar term is "稚齡童子".
    – r13
    Dec 11, 2023 at 15:51

3 Answers 3

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整齐漂亮的毛笔字能充分地显示出书摊主人的文化水平。
the beautiful and neat brush strokes amply demonstrate the bookstall owner's cultural level.
摊主是位上了年纪、身材瘦小的老人,
The owner of the stall is an elderly, slight-of-stature person,
总是穿着一件灰色长衫,
always dressed in a (traditional) long grey costume,

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  • "elderly" is a good choice of word that describes "上了年纪的老人".
    – r13
    Dec 11, 2023 at 19:13
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是位 is short for 是一位.

Both 上了年纪 and 身材瘦小 are modifiers (定语) of 老人, but the syntactic structures are different.

Let's start from 身材瘦小 because it is simpler. This is a 主谓短语, that is, a phrase composed of a 主语 (here 身材) and a 谓语 (here 瘦小).

When 主谓短语 is used as a modifier to another noun, we can represent the whole phrase as AB的X where A is 主语, B is 谓语, and X is the noun being modified. The meaning of this phrase is "X whose A is B". Hence 身材瘦小的老人 = 老人 whose 身材 is 瘦小, an old man whose stature is thin and short, as you have already found out. Similar phrases are 经济繁荣的国家 (a country whose economy is prosperous, 包装精美的礼盒 (a gift box whose packaging is exquisite).

上了年纪 a bit more complex. Syntactically it is a 述宾短语. That is, it consists of a 述语 (here 上) and an object (here 年纪).

The most typical examples of 述宾短语 consist of a verb and its object. For example, "参加过二战" with 参加 (participate) as verb, 二战 (WWII) as the object, and 过 is the aspect particle. Hence 参加过二战的老人 = an old man who participated in WWII in the past.

The phrase 上了年纪 also belongs to this structure. The verb is 上 and the object is 年纪. However it is not very typical because the meaning of 上 used in this phrase is only used in a few largely fixed phrases. It means a certain quantity (the object) is comparatively large, or has reached a certain number. Hence 上(了)年纪 = 年纪 is comparatively large, hence "old". Other phrases containing 上 in this sense are:

  • 上百, 上千, 上万 can be used as numeral determiners, to mean "a quantity that is at least 100, 1000, or 10000". Hence 上百(个)人 = a group of at least 100 people, 上千条鱼 = A school of at least 1000 fish.
  • 上档次 = high-end, high-quality, elegant, etc. For example 上档次的签名, personal signature that is elegant.
  • 不上几天 means "within a few days". "收音机用不上几天就坏了" = The radio was only used for a few days, and then it broke.
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摊主 - the stall owner

是位 - is a (位 is a classifier for a person, functions the same as 個 but with is more respectful)

上了年纪 - of advanced age = old

身材瘦小的 - who has a thin and small figure

老人 - old man

摊主是位上了年纪、身材瘦小的老人

The stall owner is an old man with a thin and small figure --> The stall owner is a thin and small old man

Since the stall owner is described as an old man (老人), there is no need to state he has reached old age (上了年纪), a word-to-word translation would sound redundant "the stall owner is an old man with a thin and small figure who has reached old age"

If you insist on using 上了年纪 in the sentence, then try not to use the term 老人 in the same sentence, 長者 (elderly) or 大叔(senior person)would sound better

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