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Posted: June 16th, 2020

Culture Differences Of Basic Color Terms In Translation

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Vocabulary is the most active part of language. It can directly reflect the cultural developments. In a sense, vocabulary is the mirror of the culture, so is the color terms.

The understanding and feelings to color terms of Chinese and English People are much alike, which underlines the possibility in cross-cultural communication as well as translatability. However the ways of thinking, beliefs, customs and habits of different cultures not only produce failures and misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication but also pose headaches to translators who are trying to produce “ideal” target texts. For example, color terms, the associations, symbols and implied meanings of color terms to different nations are different because of their different environments, ways of thinking, religious and beliefs. Therefore, in translation practice, the most important is to break the cultural barriers and convey the source cultural message faithfully and effectively.

This paper compares and analyzes the culture of the basic color terms in English and Chinese and introduces several methods in translating color terms. This paper first introduces the notions of translation and culture, indicating the important trend in translation—cultural translation. Translation has been viewed as “cross-cultural communication” instead of word to word translation. Then, it analyzes the differences between English and Chinese culture, and the close relationship between translating, language and culture.

In the main part, the paper deals with cultural connotations of basic color terms in English and Chinese and the causes for similarities and discrepancies by citing several examples. By the contrastive study of cultural connotations of basic color terms between English and Chinese, we can know more about what is going on in people’s mind, in their language and cultural.

Keywords: color terms; cultural differences.

Chapter One Introduction

Color terms are important parts that we get to know our world. There are many common points in knowing color terms between different cultures. Although the amounts in explaining color terms are different, words describe basic color terms such as Red, Black, Blue, Green are the same. Meanwhile, due to the differences in religions, politics and customs; color terms sometimes generate strong cultural characteristics.

Color terms are an important part of vocabulary in every language system. Each country has its own color outlook and people’s color outlook is an important part of culture ones. English and Chinese have a long history in language system, they are both rich in color terms, and the same color terms usually share the same meanings. However, different geographic conditions, religions and other elements result in different cultural associations in these two languages. Misunderstanding happens from time to time and barries have been caused in communications.

During the past three decades, translation is regarded as a kind of cross-cultural communication. Cross-cultural translation in this paper means to bring the same meanings of the issues form one language to another language instead of words from the forms in English to forms in Chinese.

This thesis consists of five chapters. Chapter one is the introduction of this paper. Chapter two shows the translation and culture, giving a detailed depiction of the relationship between culture and translation, and some of the major discrepancies between English and Chinese culture. Chapter three and four are the main part of this paper, some basic color terms such as Red , Black are put to improve the differences and same places between Chinese and English culture in translating. And at the end of the thesis, namely, in the last chapter, a conclusion is drawn.

Chapter Two Color Terms and Culture

2.1 Color Terms

“Color term” means the word which stand for a kind of color. This definition is easily understood, but Xiao Junshi (1982:26) once said that “color terms do necessarily mean the same thing as colorful terms. Colorful English may appear as idioms or in figurative expressions, while color terms are words which simply show different colors. Like the onomatopoeic word, a color term has little merit in itself. Only when it suggests the image of the original, or fortifies the sense in the version, it has value in translation.” As a part of words, color terms are used in writing to exchange information.

Classification of Color Terms

There are two main kinds of color terms: basic color terms and object color terms. Lu Hongmei (2006:38) defines basic color terms as words used to describe the color of objects when they appear. Basic color terms including seven kinds of colors. In Chinese, they are”赤、橙、黄、绿、青、蓝、紫”. In English, they are “red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple”. Although basic color terms contain only a few words, they are very active.

Color Terms’ History in English

In western world, people are more rigorous, they take a scientific attitude towards the objective world and objective knowledge. The oldest theory in color terms’ history is Aristotle’s Black and White Theory, in which color is made up of brightness and saturation. At that period, all colors were thought as different degrees of mix of white and black. Black and White Theory was ended by Newton who saw seven colors of the sunlight through prism.

Color Terms’ History in Chinese

A lot of plants’ names are used as color terms, especially after the improving of painting. “Blue comes from a kind of plant called blue, and red comes from the plant called madder’. (Luo geng, P8, 2004) Many Chinese color terms come from the name of plants or minerals. Although there is no theory about the forming of color terms in Chinese history, it is possible to learn a lot of historical things which have relationships with colors. Countless color terms can be found in Chinese poems, essays and novels. The following sentences are some typical examples.


He felt as if his head were spinning and his eyes swam before a kale endoscope of red,yellow,green,black,shiny,square,cylindrical,leaping,dancing,shapes…(Zhang Peiji, P64, 1979)

In this sentence, the color terms’ emotive function is showing the feeling, color terms can not be instead by the other kinds of words.

Above all, color terms play a very important role in both Chinese and English cultures. At the same time, it is true that a translator’s task in translating color terms is not an easy task. He is the one who belongs to two language-culture backgrounds. He has to serve as a receptor of one message while being an announcer of message in another language of another culture. It is necessary for a translator to know color terms’ backgrounds and histories well.

2.2 Language, Culture and Translation

Language and Culture

Language is one of the important constituents of culture. Douglas(1980) once said,

“A language is a part of culture and culture is a part of language, the two are intricately interwoven so that one can not separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture”(Douglas, P76, 1980)

Languages are used to form production and explain the how the tool works; and in the situation of institutional culture, language is often in use; and mental culture must be explained and wrote by ways of language. So language is an important symbol of the culture.

So it is safe to say that language has two important cultural functions. Firstly, it is the way of holding culture; secondly, it is the media in transmitting culture to youths. Language has such an important influence on a culture that some linguists believe that language and culture hold the keys to maintain national or cultural characteristics. Language is important in national sentiment because of its strong and visible symbolism; it becomes an important symbol.

At the same time, language is influenced by culture. From a broad sense, language behavior is brought up by culture. That is to say, the ways of language that you use, are linked with your cultural background. In its most basic point, language is a series of rules for their use in relation to one another. They’re unique from one culture to another. You may find it when you study another language. Here is an example, Confucianism, founded by Confucius more than 2000 years ago, has been deeply rooted in Chinese culture, Chinese people are taught from their childhood to show respect to the elders, be polite to others. This efficaciously explained the scenes that we see today in China and expressions as “尊老爱幼”¼ŒAnd address somebody respectfully titles such as “令尊”to address people and words as “寒舍”to themselves were so commonly heard.

Translation and Culture

The fact that translating one language into another is necessarily contained both two cultures that results in the close relationship between culture and translation. In the first point, culture has many limitations on translating. As we all know, culture is the identity of a country, which determines its uniqueness from another culture. Both English and Chinese language have their own series of words and expressions that quite different from other cultures, which makes it impossible to find a totally similar word in the target language that we translate to, except creating a new word. For example, 论语¼Œæµ®äº‘¼Œin Chinese and pinkeye and whitegoods in English. Translators should be very careful in translating these words in case of misunderstanding among the readers.

Second, the most important roles in translation are to enrich the culture we want to translate to, and to promote the development of the language culture.

In a word, language, culture and translation cannot be separated from each other. They depend on each other. Translator should master not only bilingual knowledge but also bicultural knowledge.

The Notion of Cultural Translation

Translation takes place between languages. With the development of modern translation theories, more and more people believe that translation is a “cross-cultural communication”. In fact, they have found that cultural factors in international communication are more popular than the purely linguistic differences. Thus in the field of translation studies, translators’ understanding of translation has changed: from word translation to cultural translation.

Shuttleworth (1997:P35) defines cultural translation as any translation which is sensitive to culture as well as linguistic factors.

Language is a part of culture, thus translating one language into another can be satisfactory if the translator knows both two culture well. However, language is the soul taker of culture. In the translating course, language is translated or transformed but not culture. The purpose of translating is to make the readers get to know the culture of the countries.

Chapter Three Culture of English and Chinese Basic Color Terms

3.1 Contrastive Analysis of Culture of English and Chinese Basic Color terms

There are seven basic color terms both in English and Chinese, but the number of color terms are more than 2,000 in the Chinese, and more than 3,000 in English. The English basic color terms are red, pink, yellow, green, blue, black, white, gray, and brown, meanwhile in Chinese they are 红¼Œé»„¼Œç»¿¼Œè“¼Œç´«¼Œé»‘¼Œç™½,褐, Basic color terms are often used, they are main parts of this article.

3.1.1 Cultural Equivalence between “Black” and “黑”

Black is the basic color in both English and Chinese color system. It has not only its own meaning-the opposite of white, but also include the following meanings.

Darkness, Death, Misfortune and Sadness

Black is regarded as the unlucky color. As we know, the hell in the western fairy tales and the same world in Chinese mythologies are dark places when criminals die. There are some hobgoblins such as”黑白æ- å¸¸”in Chinese hell and Satan in western hell.

When people died, his or her relatives wear in black and they felt sad and grief. So black is also connected with sadness and misfortune. In western religion, “Black Friday” refers to an unlucky day because Jesus Christ died on Friday.

In China football history, there are also a bad phenomenon called “Black three-minute”—in 1989 World Cup, because of the defenders’ mistake, China Men’s football team lose the game with 2-1 in the last three minutes. And they failed to go to Rome to take part in the 1990’s Italy World Cup Finals. From then on, the “Black three-minute” is a nightmare of Chinese football team.

Dirtiness, Illegality and Evilness

In the Ballet opera Swan Lake, the black swan is the symbol of evil and cattiness. Chinese expressions like”黑åº-“,”黑户”¼Œ”黑贔show that black in Chinese is also related the bad and evil. In English culture, expressions are explained in the same meaning, for example:

Black money (to get the money through the illegal way)

Black-hearted (man who are very evil and greed)

Black sheep (a bad guy who do harm to his family or group)

Cultural Non-equivalence between”Black”and”黑”

In Chinese ancient history, “black” is regarded as “be respect to others”: in Xia Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, ministers wear a kind of clothes called”缁衣”(Ziti), which is made up from a black silks. And black is a color making people feel respect to others, and that’s why people wear in black in funerals. Ancients always connected the black with the iron’s factors-hard, they place the color “black” as the color of justice. So in the Chinese opera, a person with black face is a justice person, such as BaoZheng in Song Dynasty.

Black also has some positive meaning in English language. Black dress and black suit are the most popular clothes in western countries. In some important situations, noted public figures and magnates love to wear in black. And people in symphony orchestra wear in black and its show the respect to the audience. “Black-hall” means the hall which many VIPs and important persons in it. However, the word “black” is always connected with the black-skinned people, in early times, the black-skinned people were called “Negro”, but they thought this salutation was pedagogue, so they choose the word “black”. In western black-skinned people culture, things are connected with them are dubbed the prefix “black” such as “black English”, “black belt” and “black nationalism” ,etc.

Cultural Equivalence Between “White “and”白”

White is the color which opposite to the color black.


In Chinese, animals with white such”白鸽”and others is a lucky symbol, it bring the symbol of peace to people. In western countries, people think angles always in white, and the angle is the hand of God, they bring outlook and happy to human beings.

Death and Failure

White is the color of death in Chinese traditions. When a person died, his or her relatives wear in white, and the clothes called”ä¸æœ”, they believe the deaths could go to the heaven. In western countries, the color white also connected with death.

White and “白” also means failure. This phenonmen can be seen in the war, when one side of the war hang the white flag, it means they accept the failure and the other side is win.

Other Connotations Enjoyed by both”white”and”白”

White also makes people feel clean and honest. “White man” means the person is very honest.

White also refers to the White-skinned people; the opposite of the black-skinned people.

Cultural Non-equivalence Between “White” and”白”

In Chinese operas, White face, for example: CaoCao in Three Kingdom period, symbolizes villainess and brings contempt, people can hardly see the true meaning from his face. Nowadays, white also describes the man who do not understand the meaning the other people says, such as”你真白啊。”

“White” in English also has its unique meanings—love. White Valentine’s Day is the day lovers stay together and celebrate the day. And it originated in 3rd century in Rome. If a girl or boy receives a gift from a boy or girl on February 14th, and he or she gives another gift on March 14th, the actions are called White Valentine’s Day.

Cultural Equivalence Between “Red” and “红”

Happiness, Luck, Love and Beauty

“红”is the favorite color among Chinese. In Chinese traditional festival-Spring Festival, people in his animal year are wearing in red, and he or she want to get higher. The elders give money to the youths in a red bag called”红包”. And the youths always be happy when they receive “红包”. In the Chinese traditional weddings, red candles, red veil and red dresses of the brides, all bring the festival atmosphere and make people think that days after wedding will become better and better. Red eggs are given away to friends and relatives on the birth of a baby

In western countries, red is the color that shows the love to someone: if a young man give a woman red rose, that means he want to fall in love with the woman, he loves the woman.

Aggravation, Violence, Danger and Shyness

Red is also linked with same emotions in both English and Chinese.

In Chinese, “杀红了眼” is used to describe rage and violent actions. The fire truck and alarm light are all painted red to indicate danger. In minds of native speakers of English, “red” is also associated with sanguineness, danger and violence. However, red face doesn’t only mean angry, as we all know, if a boy says “I love you.” to a girl, the girl also turns her face red, and that’s not angry, it’s shyness.

Red is the color of blood, if a person was beat by others and he is injured, the blood could come out from his body, and that’s violent.

Cultural Non-equivalence between “Red” and”红”

The color terms “red” and”红”are not equivalent in many ways. In China,”红”is the symbol of “revolution” and “communism”. Chinese national flag,”五星红斓, is red which means being stained red by the blood of the revolutionaries, while”红领巾”is a corner of it.

What’s more, “红”in Chinese is often used to express one’s envy such as”眼红”, while in English the word having this function is “green”.

“Red” in English has some other usages. For instance, “Red Nose Day” is a day on which an appeal is made for donations for research into sudden infant death syndrome, marked by the distribution of plastic red noses to donors. And this is apparently not embodied in the connotations of “红”in Chinese.

3.2 Causes for Equivalences and Unequivalences

Causes for Equivalences

Human beings have common factors. They live on the same globe. Although their living and working environment are much different, they’re much in common. Cultures of various countries also have something in common. All these similarities are inevitably reflected in languages. That’s why equivalents can be found in terms of linguistic from and meaning.

Black is the color of darkness and some secret and illicit activities always go on in the darkness. So black is extended as “illicit”. In “black market”, the business goes on in violation of publicly imposed regulations. Money got through being against one’s conscience, such as corruption and bribes, is “黑钱”, and smuggled goods are “黑贔

The similarities in connotation of color terms not only result from the similar perception to the world, but also have something to do with customs of people. In both China and English-speaking countries, people usually roll out red carpet for an important visitor, so there is “roll out red carpet” in English and”铺展红地毯”in Chinese, which indicates a lavish welcome.

Causes for Unequivalences

In the process of translating, a translator is more often faced with cultural differences. Every country has its own ethnic groups, geographical location, religions beliefs, values, political systems and so on. All these form the differences of national culture, which are also certainly embodied in language, which means culture determines the differences in connotations of color terms.

As Lamb (1982: P358) observes, “It’s clear that religion and culture are inextricably entwined”. Most experts agree that religion has endeavored to explain those motions about life that otherwise could not be understood or resolved. The study of religion not only for offers insight into the spiritual and psychological needs of people, but also gives us clues into the social aspects of a culture. The usage of color in religions and their sacred writings exert great influence on the connotations of the color terms.

Besides the factors mentioned above, there are other factors influencing the usage of color terms. Some expressions with color terms come from myths, tales and some from literature works. Here we have only named some of the major causes due to the length limitation of this thesis paper.

Chapter Four Compensation for the Loss in the Translation of Color Terms

Literal Translation

“Catford (1965: P25) argues that translation takes word-for-word translation as its starting point, although because of the necessity of conforming to TL(target language) grammar, the final TT(translation teaching) may also display group-group or clause-clause equivalence”. In other words, literal translation aims at preserving the most possible cultural information of the meaning without changing the linguistic forms of the source text, so by offering a foreignized translation it can get not only a very high degree of the informativeness of the cultural meaning transferred from the SL (second language) text, but also a rather high degree of the effectiveness of the transferring of the cultural meaning. Of course, the translation can only be foreigized to such a degree that the target text is still readable.

Besides, in a mass of linguistic facts, there are some expressions both in English and Chinese adapting the same color symbols and carrying the same cultural connotations, thus literal translation becomes the only appropriate strategy.

Free Translation

Newmark (1988: P46) defined free translation as reproduce the matter without the manner or the content without the form of the original.

From the perspective of cultural translation, the awareness of culture is of great importance for a translator to obtain an ideal rendering in translating practice. A good or ideal translation should accord with the demand and tendency of a particular time and should be understandable and acceptable so that is can enlighten readers to recognize foreign cultural elements. Because of lack of communication, in the past domestication (e.g. free translation) was preferred and most of those renderings that employed foreignizing methods (e.g. literal translation, transliteration) couldn’t widely spread. However, because of tendency of cultural integration, foreignizing, methods can serve better for the purpose of cultural translation.

Chapter Five Conclusion

In the past several decades, cultural translation became an important issue in the field of translation. This paper deals with studying the color terms and its method of translation.

It is easy to see that word meaning is the mirror of people’s cultural and social backgrounds. But it may be different in its meaning of this word from the other cultural groups.

To better explain the methods of translation in color terms, the author compared the English and Chinese cultures in color terms from sources including historical background, religions, and so on. According to these Chinese and English cultural discrepancies, it is easy to understand the reasons why these two peoples think in different ways, which we should take into consideration.

However, there are some shortcomings in this paper. First, the comparison of this paper only focuses on the basic color terms. Second, there is a large number of expressions with color terms in both Chinese and English, and the author cannot write them all, but examples given are enough in this paper because the target of the paper is not only to show the differences and same points., the more important point is to understand the reasons why the similarities and differences between these two cultures.

With the development of globalization and international communication, it is necessary to learn cultures well before translating the language which comes from the culture. Color terms are more and more important in translating language. Moreover, mastering color term’s translation improves the abilities of translation practice and cross-cultural communication.

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