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There is a poem by G.K. Chesterton called "The Silent People". The first line goes like this:

 We are the silent people, who have never spoken yet.

A straightforward Chinese rendering could be:

我们是沉默的民族,从来没说话.

However in the original, it seems that the particle "the" is doing quite a lot of work, which of course Chinese does not have. My sense is that it's telling the reader that "we" (the English people) are not just a people who happen to be silent, but the paradigmatic example of such peoples, and he is speaking as if this is well known to everybody and doesn't need explanation.

Is there a way I could convey this sense grammatically in Chinese, or at least using the bare minimum of additional language?

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  • maybe: “吾民乃緘默之族” 😺 Commented May 18 at 0:03
  • who have never spoken yet. 何曾言乎?
    – PdotWang
    Commented May 18 at 1:53
  • Well it's humbling to be corrected by Chinese people about literature in my native language, seems like my memory of the poem was not 100%. Great answers though, thanks everybody! Commented May 19 at 0:03

5 Answers 5

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The tone of Chesterton's poem, "The Secret People", written at the turn of the last Century, 1908, when Western European powers were competing fiercely for God, Gold & Glory, (not necessarily in that order), reminds me of the following clichés:-

--- Stiff upper lip;

--- Don't mess with us;

--- The English Bulldog;

--- Barking dogs never bite,

translated into poetic language by Chesterton.

Thus my attempt, (to hopefully capture "We are the silent people, who have never spoken yet"), is:-

沉默任我族, 从未开口过 which better conveys a sense of "silent / stoic defiance" which could easily turn into something explosive given the right catalyst, which is what Chesterton's poem seems to imply, i.e. the "silence" of the British people does not mean "weakness"

I also opted for 从未开口过 as 开口 gives a strong combative flavor / a kind of veiled warning, (as opposed to 说话 which is too "laidback"), i.e. 开口 implies something like, "don't make me open my mouth, for if you do, you will surely regret it"

Further than this, 开口 also has the added feature of not just saying something, but saying something with a critical / commentative element, whereas 说话 is just 说话 -- "speaking"

As for a sense of "the" in Chinese, Chesterton's poem does emphasizes "the....people" to give a certain unique racial quality in order to set apart, up till then, the "silent" British people.

Does Chinese have such kinds of emphatic language device as "the"?

Not to my knowledge. The best I could do is to say 我族 which does convey a sense of "communal / trial belonging", something like "We the people of....."

In reply to your Comments:-

1. "...explain 沉默任我族, I don't understand how 任 is working here...."

The word 任, like any word in any language, has multiple meanings and thus multiple usages. The particular meaning I attach here is "to constitute", "to appoint to be or to become a certain definable entity", as in "made up of...."

Thus 沉默任我族 means "Our clan is constituted or is or becomes an entity where "silence" defines us"

2. "Could you say 沉默任我 民 族,从未开口过 which is close to the original meter?"

The sought for characteristic of Chinese idiomatic writings is one of extreme economy of words while maintaining the intended core meaning(s). A good classical example is the “Three-Character Classic,” or Sān Zì Jīng "三字經". The fact that you know / understands that 我族 means, in long form, 我民族 precisely makes my point.

Also, my phrase 沉默任我族, 从未开口过 is, in Pinyin, Chén Mò Rèn Wǒ Zú, Cóng Wèi Kāi Kǒu Guò

As you can see, in the first phrase has an up-tone, and therefore the ending of the second phrase should have a down-tone, namely, Guò, in order to comply with the rhythmic intonation of poetic language to a satisfying cadential / harmonic resolution.

Finally, the Chinese version has exactly 5 words in each phrase which is the common form of rhythmic pacing.

Try saying 沉默任我族, 从未开口过, and 沉默任我民族,从未开口过 in a rhythmic fashion? You will find that after saying 沉默任我民族, the second phrase 从未开口过 seems disconnected from the first phrase and somehow irrelevant.

The phrase 沉默任我族 feels like it's suspended in the air, and thus urgently requires 从未开口过 to resolve the whole idiomatic phrase harmonically.

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  • I think you have captured the sense of "don't take us for granted" that is in the poem. Could you explain 沉默任我族, I don't understand how 任 is working here, thanks! Commented May 19 at 0:00
  • Could you say 沉默任我 族,从未开口过 which is close to the original meter? Commented May 19 at 0:06
  • As my answer to your question in this Comment section is rather long, I'll therefore do it in my Answer Column. Commented May 19 at 2:22
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  1. I think you have somehow gotten confused about the poem in question and its contents. G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem called The Secret People, and the second line is "For we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet". Not sure where you got the title or the quote from. For the sake of answering the question, which is about Chinese and not G.K. Chesterton, I will stick with what you wrote.

  2. A few options I can think of:

  • 我们英国人是个沉默的民族……, i.e., "We English are a silent people..." This parallels the actual Chesterton line more closely, and I think it succeeds in conveying that the speaker is describing and speaking on behalf of his own ethnic group, rather than attributing qualities to some amorphous "we". I have heard lots of sentences in Chinese with this structure ("我们/你们X国人……"). It seems like a popular way to preface absurdly broad generalizations :)
  • 我们是那个沉默的民族……, i.e., "We are that silent people..." This more directly conveys definiteness in a grammatical sense, but it also feels like you're leaving the listener hanging on who exactly this people is. ("That silent people? Which silent people?") You might expect the following sentences to add more detail and gradually reveal who exactly is being talked about. I think lots of poems are like that, but Chesterton's is actually very up front about "we" being the English people.
  • 我们是最沉默的民族……, i.e., "We are the most silent of peoples..." This definitely makes it clear that you're speaking of a distinguished paradigmatically silent ethnic group. But it's a stronger statement than "the silent people" conveys in English. And in the poem, I don't think he's really claiming that the English are especially silent by dint of their ethnicity, so much as characterizing the English common-folk as, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, speaking softly and carrying a big stick. The poem is an extended threat to those in government who Chesterton (falsely) believed were acting in a way the common people would not accept.
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The ( determiner)

3: used with a singular noun to indicate that it represents a whole species or class

"我们是沉默的民族,从来没说话." doesn't state it is "a silent people (unspecific)" or "The Silent People (specific)" because in Chinese, if it is not stated as unspecific (e.g. 一個沉默的民族), then it has to be specific by default, therefore, we do not need the determiner "the"

Is there a way I could convey this sense grammatically in Chinese

Use Punctuation (quotation marks) would work: 我们是「沉默的民族」,从来没说话

With 沉默的民族 in quotation marks, it eliminates the possibility of 沉默的民族 being "a silent people" and having to be "The Silent people"

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"We are THE silent people, WHO have never spoken yet."

"我们是这样的一群沉默的人,至今为止,我们从来还没有说过什么话。"

The transition needs to express the mode of the speaker who emphasizes the specialness of THE people.

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I don't see any special function of "the", except, it makes the line ambiguous!

Many Western languages, because of case considerations, have descriptive phrases called relative clauses, such as: "that never has spoken yet" (that = the people of England)

Chinese never had to worry about case, and thus has no need of relative clauses. Chinese can put the descriptive phrase directly before the descriptee like this:

the [never has spoken yet] people (of England)

For we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet.
因为我们英国人是一个从来还没说话的民族

Oh the poor, shy English!

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  • There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes -- but I'm not English. Commented May 19 at 0:08

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