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I had seen the word phenomenal translated into Chinese words with an equivalent meaning "of phenomenon" in more and more text especially regarding sports. For example,

LeBron James had a phenomenal performance last night

is translated into Chinese words with equivalent meaning of

LeBron James had a performance at the level of phenomenon last night

Needless to say, that is not right in any language. However, this translation of the word phenomenal from English to Chinese is getting popular. And it becomes one of those new internet words that no Chinese reader truly understands but they sort of get it just because they have seen it many times in the same context of praising an exceptional performance of some player.

Initially I laughed at the translation. It must be a joke, I thought. Someone started this not knowing phenomenal means "exceptional, especially impressive, fantastic". But to my surprise, this translated word sticks and its Chinese version is being reused more and more popularly by the day, especially in online text. And most of these usages were not in the context of a translated English text but original writing in Chinese. I have seen more and more main stream Chinese media start to use the (Chinese version) word as if it is an accepted Chinese word.

This makes me wonder. And I actually looked it up in the online English dictionary. To my surprise, two meanings of the word phenomenal were given.

  1. Of, relating to, or constituting phenomena or a phenomenon.

and

  1. Extraordinary; outstanding

I was not aware of the first meaning before this. Now my new theory is the translation at word level is OK. But given the context, the second translation should be picked instead of the first one.

Maybe the first translator looked up the word in a English-to-Chinese dictionary and picked the first translation. He might be in a hurry and did not do proof-reading and no one questioned him. Apparently the second meaning should be picked in the context. (EDIT: or maybe the dictionary he used did not have the Chinese version of the second meaning) Maybe a lot of careless translators did this in a long period of time, and in the end the Chinese readers sort of accepted the word.

Well, the question here is if the two meanings are sort of related, or the second meaning (which is more popular in English writings I assume) is derived somehow from the first meaning. And maybe, the translators were correct and the guilty party is myself! What do you think?

  • English itself has words like awful which have migrated from a literal "inspiring awe" to "exceedingly bad." Words borrowed from classical languages like phenomenal and fantastic (same roots) are even more open to new connotations. – stevesliva Jul 28 '15 at 5:23
  • I suspect that is the case, @stevesliva, in fact, I was actually curious why my original question was such a surprise to me but not to native English speakers. So I checked the word phenomenon in a dictionary, I found the root of this issue just like you said. "Phenomenon" means both (1) fact/occurrence and (2) something remarkable. However, the direct Chinese translation "现象" only means fact/occurrence in Chinese language. A better translation would be to pick a different Chinese word when "Phenomenon" has the second meaning in some context. – Los Los Jul 28 '15 at 8:00
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...it becomes one of those new internet words that no Chinese reader truly understands but they sort of get it just because they have seen it many times in the same context of praising an exceptional performance...

There is actually nothing "wrong" with this; this is exactly how most people naturally learn the meaning of words. It also means that a certain percent of their vocabulary doesn't mean what they think it does, or that there are different meanings to the words they're using. You discovered the same thing yourself:

I was not aware of the first meaning before this.

You learned this after looking it up.

the question here is if the two meanings are sort of related, or the second meaning... is derived somehow from the first meaning.

Of course they are. And a derivation is a relation, isn't it? In in generative grammar, derivation is the set of stages that link (hence the relatedness) the abstract underlying structure of an expression to its surface form.

Phenomenon:

something that is remarkable or extraordinary; An unusual, significant, or unaccountable fact or occurrence; a marvel. - TFD

The usage sounds fine to me. Basically it's just saying that

LeBron James had a performance at the level of being a wonder/being extraordinary last night.

  • Yes. Upon further investigation, I think the English word Phenomenon should be translated into two different Chinese words for each of the two meanings in different contexts. My original question looks to me more like a translation error. You were definitely right that I was not aware of the second meaning of Phenomenon. Before today, I assumed it means "any" occurrence (as its Chinese translation), not something extraordinary (requires a different Chinese word) – Los Los Jul 28 '15 at 8:08

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