Active and Passive Voice in English and Chinese

November 12th, 2014

Translating into Chinese from English is challenging enough – and is even more so when the passive voice is involved.

Active and Passive Voice in English and Chinese | One Hour Translation

Let’s consider the troubling existence of the passive voice. While obviously very useful, it’s also widely considered to be poor form and lazy writing – not in the sense that the writing is less difficult if you stick to the passive voice, but because passive voice tends to sound lazy, unforceful. In fact, if you trace back a lot of the advice precluding passive voice, you almost always wind up back at a marketing office, where they believe very strongly that active voice is what sells people – and it’s probably true.

In other writing, such as fiction, however, passive voice can be a perfectly acceptable and useful technique in writing. There is no absolute rule regarding the use of passive voice – you should engage in it if you have a good reason to. The trick, really, is to always be purposeful – don’t fall into passive voice simply because it’s easier that way for you. Use it as a tool, and be prepared to defend it when it’s noticed.

Passive Voice in Translation

In the world of translation services, passive voice is always a groaner because 99.9% of the time we are tasked with changing it into active voice when we bring the text over. There are exceptions to this, of course; sometimes the style of a piece is tied up with passive voice as a tool, and sometimes we’re merely told that we should hold to the original style of a text, warts and all. In those cases it can be easier to do the translation work because we don’t have to constantly recast sentences and move objects and verbs around, but in other cases working in the passive voice in the target language can be just as challenging. A good example of this is Chinese.

Bei Sentences and Passive Voice in Chinese

In English, passive voice is usually formed by adding a “copular” word to the past participle; instead of “He ate the hamburger” you have “The hamburger was eaten by him” or even simply “The hamburger was eaten” with an implied subject.

In Chinese, the simplest way (but not the only way – or, often, the best way) to change a sentence into passive voice is to use a passive verb and add the preposition “bei.” This is oversimplified, as there are some additional rules to hold to:

The verb requires an object when used with “bei” which becomes the new subject of the sentence in its passive form.

The verb used must also be combined with a particle, a complement, or an additional object.

These two rules may seem very simple, but they add just enough complexity to a translation to make it very challenging.

Chinese translation is always difficult, and English to Chinese is actually one of the most challenging combinations. One way to make it a little simpler is to stick with the active voice!

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