Searching for the meaning of “找”

As you can see already, English and Chinese words do not exactly match one to one.

A Taiwanese acquaintance of mine recently told a third party (who shared the story with me) that he was going to Taichung to meet up with his wife, who lives with him in Taipei but was temporarily down there. In American English, the story might be rendered just as I did above, or a person might say he was going down to Taichung to “see” his wife. But in Chinese he used a character that is seldom translated in English-language textbooks to mean “see” or “visit.” On Google Translate, which I use a lot, the first definition offered for is what I have always thought to be the primary one, “to look for.” At the bottom, as the very last definition, one finds “to want to see,” and even though it appears to have escaped the attention of Google Translate my understanding is that it also has the meaning of “to meet up with.”

As you can see already, English and Chinese words do not exactly match one to one.

Language is sort of a carpet on top of reality, and every language carpet is woven differently. The threads that link different parts of reality together (i.e. words) in English simply do not exist in Chinese, and vice versa. You can easily imagine how frustrating a student of English might be to discover that “run” is the proper word for “run a race,” “run a company,” and “run out of gas.” Similarly, if I were to directly translate the Chinese sentence mentioned above that was conveyed to me, but translate it into English as “I’m going to Taizhong to look for my wife,” it would indisputably be taken to mean that I don’t know where she is and want to find out.

This kind of mistake will usually play out not as you actively saying something wrong but you failing to catch the implications of something someone else has said. When you want to actively speak, you can use a word like to mean “look for” with perfect confidence. What you will sometimes be surprised by, and have to learn for future reference, is when somebody else uses to mean “meet up with.” So always be aware that a Chinese word might be being used in a different way from the translation you were familiar with. Interestingly, Chinese textbooks for English speakers written in Taiwan or China often include translations other than “to look for,” while this is in my experience by far the dominant translation used in textbooks published by Western companies.

And another lesson here is to be very careful about simply translating English words into Chinese in the exact same sequence and in the exact same context as they are used in English. Much of the time, you will be wrong.

This is especially the case for figures of speech or metaphors. The words “cloud” (, yún) and “wall” (, qiáng) in isolation occupy pretty much the same space In the reality carpet in both languages, but do not ever try to translate “on cloud 9” or “I was banging my head against the wall in frustration” word for word into Chinese; you will sound ridiculous.

Sometimes you will find that even though the wording is different, both languages have adages that mean the same thing. For example, English has “water under the bridge” and Chinese has “the wood has already become a boat” (木已成舟, mù yǐ chéng zhōu). But sometimes you will find (as I often have, to my disappointment) that certain ideas are expressed in very catchy ways in one language but have no similarly catchy equivalent saying in the other language. So, unless it’s a very standard, even simple idea, be very wary of direct translation from one language to the other.


Evan Osborne (歐思博) is a professor of economics at Wright State University in Ohio. He has studied Chinese off and on for almost 30 years. Once for three months in Taiwan he had Chen lǎoshī as a teacher, and considers her to be the best of the well over 30 teachers he has had in the various languages he has studied.

Posted by Evan Osborne

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