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Over the years, I've been corrected repeatedly for using 试图 and other verbs meaning "to try", seemingly because "to try"'s usage in English is different to 试图's usage in Chinese.

My current hypothesis is that: 试图 is best saved for when failure is a possibility, 试图 is more like "to make an attempt" than "to try", and the target/object of 试图 seems like it should be a yet-to-be-achieved goal.

So I'm thinking things like the following are okay:

(✓) 我正在试图打破世界记录。 (I'm trying to break the world record.)
(✓) 我正在试图数到100。 (I'm trying to count to 100.)

And it's not suitable when failure is not relevant, like

(✗) 我正在试图学习中文。 (I'm trying to study Chinese.)
(✗) 我在试图锻炼身体。 (I'm trying to exercise.)

In these examples, "trying" in English is used somewhat figuratively: I am actually studying and/or exercising, not just making attempts. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to explain precisely what "trying" adds to the sentence "I'm trying to study Chinese."

ChatGPT suggests:

(✗) 我正在试图学习中文。 (I'm trying to study Chinese.)

(✓) 我正在努力学习中文。 (I'm striving to study Chinese.)
(✓) 我正在尝试学习中文。 (I'm trying to study Chinese.)
(✓) 我正在试图学会中文。 (I'm trying to master Chinese.)

It seems 尝试 is a better choice for "to try" in the sense of "to dabble", and 学会中文 = "to master Chinese" is a goal whereas 学习中文 = "to study Chinese" is not.

I want to see if my understanding is reasonable, or if there's a better way to think about this.

Question: When translating "I'm trying to [do something]" into Chinese, when do you use a Chinese word meaning "to try"?

6 Answers 6

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Don't.

Try is mainly a filler word that does not get translated into Chinese.


What is the difference between:

  • I'm trying to study Chinese

&

  • I'm studying Chinese

At the core, there is no difference, as both are talking about "studying Chinese." The addition of the word try, just simply hints to an outcome. Simple Chinese sentences don't care about outcomes. Instead, in Chinese the outcome can simply be tagged on at the end, i.e.: I'm studying Chinese, but it's not easy (我在学中文,学习真不容易) - which does give the flavor of, I'm trying to learn Chinese, but it's really hard.


When does try translate?

  • 努力 (exerting effort to do something)
  • 尝 (tasting food, etc.)
  • 试 (to give something a go)
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  • 1
    图 often carries the idea of "obtain/acquire" - which can sound very calculating and almost manipulative. You're very unlikely to ever use a word like 试图 in Chinese, and probably even less likely to hear it spoken "in the wild."
    – Mou某
    Feb 11 at 9:46
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Often, don't use any Chinese form of try, use 想 or 要 or nothing.

Obviously, when translating, it is not acceptable just to translate the English words and thus make a "Chinese sentence". That won't work in any language!

Bog off, I'm trying to sleep!
走开,我要睡觉啦!

Children, please! I'm trying to work.
孩子们,别闹了!我在干活哪。

Hold on please, I'm trying to connect you.
请别挂电话,我在尽力给您接通。

Don't put me off when I'm trying to concentrate.
别在我要集中精神时打扰我。

I'm trying to work peacefully.
我正想静心工作呢。

I'm trying to get in touch with Jane. Do you have her number? (You Jane, me Tarzan)
我正在设法和简取得联系。你有她的电话号码吗? (你简, 我泰山)

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  • To your point, your last sentence, “我正在设法和简取得联系” can be simply stated as, “我想联系简” which is essentially “I’m trying to contact Jane.”
    – Mou某
    Feb 11 at 10:50
  • Yes, you are right! I just find examples, I don't write them. I don't wish to inject my foreigner's bias into this marvellous language if I can avoid that! You could also state: "Me Tarzan wanna contact Janie! " and not be "trying".
    – Pedroski
    Feb 11 at 11:49
  • I think these examples illustrate what "try" often implies in English: I'm attempting to do something, but something is stopping me. Often that something is the other person, and they are being asked politely not to. The sort of context where someone might say "I'm trying to study Chinese" would likely be, they are in their room attempting to focus but you are disturbing them! Feb 11 at 21:06
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  • 图 has the meaning of " plan to/ attempt to". e.g. 意圖謀殺(Attempt to murder), 圖謀不軌(plot evil)

试图 = "attempt to" - suitable for situations where achieving the objective is not likely or difficult. e.g. 试图改寫歷史 (attempt to rewrite history)

  • 尝 has the meaning of "to taste -->to experience"

尝试 ="try to" - achieve an objective through repeated experience.

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Alternatives to 试图:

"I'm trying to..." - 我正在尝试着/设法(想办法)去...

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"试图" in chinese isn't automatically different from "to try" in english, but you are definitely correct that vocabulary rarely is used in the exact same way across languages. For example "light" in english covers dozens of different terms in chinese, none interchangable. The word "道" in chinese covers dozens of english words that aren't interchangable.

So I think its most important to keep in mind that just because definition//use A of word 1 in english matches a definition//use word 2 in chinese, that doesn't mean definition B also does-- and vise versa. view each definition//use as their own linguistic unit and you will have a much better time (◐‿◑)

All that said, I think the best chinese term for the specifc defintion//use of "to try" would depend on the exact sentence you are describing, a simple 试试 would often suffice for common daily life use of english "to try" example: I wanted to try skateboarding." or what not.

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To me, "I'm trying to study Chinese" carries the meaning that you may not succeed.

Maybe you get interrupted by somebody. Maybe you get distracted by browsing on the Internet. Maybe you pulled an all nighter and are very tired.

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