Translating the Mandarin Word for Festivals: 节日

The English word “holiday” is seemingly not that complicated − simply two words, “holy” and “day”, stuck together.

However there are differences between the way the word is used in American English and British English. In American English, we normally reserve the term for a religious or culturally significant day; while in British English it can be used to refer to time off from work or travel for a leisurely purpose.

Another way to think of this, is that British English uses the term “holiday” for both religious/culturally significant events as well as what Americans would refer to as a “vacation”.

This difference is interesting to consider alongside the Mandarin word, 节日 (jiérì), which is literally translated into the English word “festival” and describes the same idea as the American English usage of “holiday” or “vacation”.

The question then becomes, is 节日 a festival, holiday, or vacation when translating into English?

Let’s consider for a moment the most important festival in China, 春节 (chūnjié). 春节 is normally translated as “Spring Festival” although it is also often referred to as Chinese New Year. 春节 marks the end of the lunar calendar and is a time for Chinese to return home and spend a period of time with their families.

It is tempting to refer to 春节 as a “vacation” or “holiday” but these two words seem to lack the essence we get from “festival”. Moreover, it is probably safe to say that most speakers of English and Chinese would agree “festival” is preferred over the other two options.

The reason for this is that “holiday” and “vacation” are so commonly used in daily English that they leave no semantic room for a celebration outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. To say that Chinese festivals are “holy” might seem to be a half-truth. Certainly they are important, but they are not overly concerned with a single deity. These occasions are steeped in their own tradition/ethos altogether.

By allowing 春节 and other festivals in Mandarin a word outside of the more frequent “holiday” and “vacation”, we are providing space for another type of celebration to exist alongside traditionally western ones.

This trend in translation is not limited to the word 节日, but also extends into many other aspects of the Mandarin language. Oftentimes a word that we might think is archaic or absurd fits quite perfectly with its Mandarin counterpart. My favorite among these is 吉利 (jílì), which is commonly translated as “auspicious”: quite a wonderful word indeed.

Other major Chinese festivals include 清明节 (qīngmíng jié) – Tomb Sweeping Festival,端午节 (duānwǔ jié) Dragon Boat Festival,and 国庆节 (guóqìng jié) National Day.

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