Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

A Comparative Case Study of the "Subject" in Chinese and Its Parallel English Translation

Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

A Comparative Case Study of the "Subject" in Chinese and Its Parallel English Translation

Article excerpt


As one of the basic grammatical concepts, the grammatical function of "subject" is an important topic in the linguistic field. Many scholars have investigated this function from different perspectives. However, what causes the similarities and differences between uses of the subject in Chinese and English remains unclear, as Chinese and English are the two totally different but widely used languages. In view of this, the present paper attempts to make a systematic comparative study of the subject in a Chinese novel and its parallel English translation, based on existing studies.

In previous similar studies, the analysis is either focused on the novel itself or on the similarities and differences between the Chinese and English languages from the perspective of linguistics. This paper not only compares a Chinese novel and its parallel English translation in terms of linguistics, but also thoroughly investigates the factors accounting for these differences and similarities.

In discourse analysis, data collection plays a critical role. As Halliday (1964) mentioned, all texts, including prose and verse, which fall within any definition of "literature", are accessible to analysis by the existing methods of linguistics. By "the linguistic study" of literary texts, we do not refer to the study of the "language", but to "the study (of the language) by the theories and methods of linguistics" (Halliday, 1977: 5). In order to have a clear view of precisely parallel data, this paper makes a case study on the Chinese novella At Middle Age (Rendao Zhongnian) written by the well-known female Chinese writer Shen Rong in 1 980 and its English translation by Yu Fanqin and Wang Mingjie in 1 987.

At Middle Age is a story about people and events in the 1980's China, but the important background for this story is that all its main characters lived through the ten years of the Cultural Revolution2 period. In the story, ophthalmologist Lu Wenting and her friends devoted themselves to China's new society, but find themselves overduefor rewards and nearly exhausted. Therefore, some of them, like Wenting's best friend, Doctor Jiang Yafen, start having doubts about it. It shows the life that they have just experienced in that period, the worries, upsets, struggles and hopes of people.

At Middle Age was the most popular and prestigious novella in 1979-1980's "second blooming" of Chinese literature. It won a National Best-Story Award in 1980 for the author's writing skill and courage to reveal the problems of the middle-aged intellectuals during that time in China. As Perry Link comments, "[t]he author is skillful in weaving disparate aspects of the doctor's life into a narrative whose consistent tone gives it unity" (Link, 1984:261).


Different linguists have different interpretations about the same term, because their research emphases are on different aspects. The situation for the term "subject" is the same since the sufficient condition to define it is very complicated.

Interpretations of the "Subject" in the Chinese Language

"Subject" in Chinese grammar is a rather controversial issue. Since Ma 's Grammar (1898)3, the study of the grammatical relationship between sentence elements has mainly emphasized the relationship between the subject and the predicate. From then on, the definition of the subject for Chinese, a so-called "parataxis" language, has become a focus.

In his book, Ma named the element which explains what the topic is "qici" (subject) (1898:10); the noun or pronoun functions as the object of the main verb "zhici" (object) (1898:12); and "dongzi" (verb) explains the act of the subject (1898:11). Li Jinxi criticized that Ma 's Grammar imitated Western grammar and imposed a Western grammatical tradition on the Chinese language. In his view, when a person speaks, there must be a "what" to be the "zhunao" (main topic) of his/her sentence (which may be somebody, something or some action). …

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