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I am translating a Chinese sentence into English, and here is my version:

This kind of fish eats weeds such as Zhumaocao (Schoenoplectus wallichii) and Yashecao (Monochoria vaginalis).

I think their English names may be too technical for my target readers who are not experts in plants. So should I:

  1. only use their Chinese names? (words in italics)
  2. only use their English names?
  3. use both Chinese and English names?

I prefer option 1, because readers can guess these are names of certain weeds, but I am not sure how native speakers think about it.

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  • That looks fine to me. If you think your readers may want to know the literal translation of the word, then I don't see the problem with including that too. It might interest them.
    – Billy Kerr
    Mar 13, 2022 at 13:23
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    "Schoenoplectus wallichii" isn't an "English" name. It is a language-neutral scientific term - it is equally Chinese as much as it is English. You can't consider "Schoenoplectus wallichii" to be a translation of anything
    – James K
    Mar 13, 2022 at 20:26
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    @JamesK Scientific names aren't exactly language-neutral. They are euro-centric, generally. Mar 13, 2022 at 22:23
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    How to handle the names depends a lot on the audience/what type of work it is. If it's a novel, and you want to keep a Chinese flavor, then you can keep just the Chinese names. If it's a journal article, keeping just the scientific names might be appropriate. Mar 13, 2022 at 22:26
  • Is it important that they are weeds (plants not planted or wanted by gardeners)?
    – mdewey
    Mar 14, 2022 at 13:30

3 Answers 3

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For a non-technical audience, you could describe Zhumaocao as a sedge, and Yashecao as a pickerelweed or a water hyacinth.

You need to be savvy about the subject and the audience to make an effective translation. Now I note that these plants are very dissimilar and the fish are not restricted to these particular species. Fish that can eat both Zhumaocao and Yashecao can probably eat a wide range of sedges, rushes, and other water plants.

The Latin-based, scientific names are of limited use in this context, (and in the case of Monochoria, technically incorrect, according to Wikipedia, as the Monochoria group has been renamed. This happens a lot to scientific plant names). A possible solution is to include a footnote:

This kind of fish eats sedges and other water plants*

* Zhumaocao (Schoenoplectus wallichii) and Yashecao (Pontederia vaginalis)

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    I would strongly disagree with "useless". The reader might or might not recognize "kenep" when referred to as genip, guinep, genipe, ginepa, kenèp, quenepa, quenepe, quenette, chenet, skinup, talpa jocote, mamón, limoncillo, canepa, skinip, kenepa, kinnip, huaya, or mamoncillo, but they're all Melicoccus bijugatus.
    – stangdon
    Mar 13, 2022 at 16:27
  • Yes "useless" is too strong - will change
    – James K
    Mar 13, 2022 at 20:10
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    However the point is that the Chinese author used a term that would be easily understood by a Chinese reader (I assume) and didn't use the international scientific terminology. To preserve the sense the English translation should use a name that is reasonably understood by a non-technical reader. And " Schoenoplectus wallichii" is therefore a poor translation. On the other hand "sedge" generally understood and so is a fitting translation.
    – James K
    Mar 13, 2022 at 20:14
  • Perhaps this answer should go on [translation.se] if such a thing existed. Since translation is a separate skill from learning English, or any other language.
    – James K
    Mar 13, 2022 at 20:14
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It sounds like you know your audience, and you have already decided they would probably not know the technical names. For that reason, I would agree with you that option 1 is the best - italicise their Chinese names, which makes them stand out as being possibly non-English names. Readers can look them up if they want to.

'Monochoria vaginalis' appears to be known by two common English names - heartshape false pickerelweed and oval-leafed pondweed. I'm no botanist, but I've heard of neither, so I'd have to say they are not widely-known plants. However, Wikipedia does note that it is in the water hyacinth family of plants - depending on how verbose or informational your text is, that might be a slightly more familiar piece of parenthetical information.

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  • "Readers can look them up if they want to." Do you have a lookup for translation of pinyin without tones to English common names? Wikipedia works really well for scientific names to English, and google gives a location in China for 'humaocao'.
    – Mitch
    Mar 14, 2022 at 18:54
  • @Mitch I had no trouble looking them up. I literally just googled the words. And then JamesK had no trouble stealing the information I looked up and amending his answer to get the +++
    – Astralbee
    Mar 14, 2022 at 19:13
  • I presume you looked up both the Chinese and the Latin in exactly the same way, so as far as that goes there is no difference. The main difference is that readers of English are more likely to know how to look up and interpret Latin names than Chinese ones.
    – Mitch
    Mar 14, 2022 at 19:17
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As mentioned in the comments, it depends on your target audience. Unlike the rather simple cases mentioned there (writing a scientific journal article - give the scientific names; writing a novel - don't) I consider a more intereting middle ground: non-fiction for a broad audience, whether that's popular science, or a guide to keeping exotic fish.

Neither of your two Chinese plant names return anything sensible for a curious English-speaking reader to learn more, but the scientific names do. One of those scientific names helps us learn via Wikipedia that Yashecao is an invasive species in much of the world, information that might be of interest to many readers. So if you are writing something along those lines, the scientific names may well be appropriate, probably in addition to the Chinese names.

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