Bad Translations of Chinese Translations of Orchestral Instruments

By James Chang – Quite comical, yet clearly systematic. These literal re-translations reveal how the Chinese conceptualized these instruments and represented them in their language (often, via a characteristic or a material).


Flute long flute 长笛
Piccolo short flute 短笛
Oboe double reed pipe 双簧管
English horn England pipe 英国管
Clarinet single reed pipe 单簧管
Bass clarinet low tone single reed pipe 低音单簧管
Bassoon big pipe 大管
Contrabassoon low tone big pipe 低音大管


Horn round horn 圆号
Trumpet little horn, or pee (slang) 小号
Trombone long horn 长号
Tuba big horn, or poop (slang) 大号


Timpani low tone drum 低音鼓
Triangle three angle iron 三角铁
Glockenspiel bell instrument 钟琴
Xylophone wood instrument 木琴
Bass drum big drum 大鼓
Snare drum little drum, little military drum 小鼓,小军鼓
Castanet sound plank 响板


Piano steel instrument 钢琴
Celesta steel sheet instrument 钢片琴
Accordion Russian hand wind instrument 俄式手风琴
Harp vertical instrument 竖琴


Violin little lifted instrument 小提琴
Viola middle lifted instrument 中提琴
Cello big lifted instrument 大提琴
Bass double low tone lifted instrument 倍低音提琴

Of special note is how they translate the stringed instruments as “lifted” instruments, even if it’s just the violin and viola that are lifted to the shoulder. This perhaps implies that they were likely first familiar with the violin (viola works too, I guess, but it probably wasn’t the viola…sorry, violists) and applied size labels retroactively after the introduction of the other instruments of the family.

I also find it interesting how the word that came to mean “instrument” is itself an instrument, the qin, an ancient Chinese zither. It’s interesting to consider how this instrument, so incredibly important to Chinese cultural history, became the “mother,” linguistically speaking, of all other instruments.

Food for thought, as far as thinking about instruments is concerned!

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