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I needed to translate into Chinese some material for our magazine. The sentence is:

I'd rather eat a hamburger than eat a sandwich.

Apparently, in Chinese the word "rather" is used to make a value judgement about the items in discussion, such that a sandwich is bad, and a hamburger is good. We had some other sentences which used "rather" and our translator suggested they be changed so that a Chinese speaker could more easily understand the sentences, namely the objects being discussed could be culturally understood. For example "I'd rather take a taxi than walk home," was good because taking a taxi was understood to be preferable to walking, but "I'd rather listen to music than play video games." was not good because "listening to music" and "playing video games" were equally good.

I made the point that in English, there is no value judgement about the items and that "rather" just indicates a preference, to which one person agreed but another said that if you prefer one thing it means you don't like the other. I said I would rather have double stuff Oreos than original, but that I didn't have any judgement about people who liked original Oreos.

Does the word "rather" make a value judgement about the things being considered?

  • Well, if you say "I'd rather vote for X than for Y" you are implicitly expressing a judgment. – user66974 Nov 27 '16 at 8:35
  • @JOSH the problem is that when I want the sentences translated, the translator asks if one thing is better than the other, and for sandwiches and hamburger, I don't think English speakers have opinions...I just want this and not that. – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '16 at 8:37
  • Consider turning the issue around: what's the Chinese equivalent of the verb prefer? Does that imply a value judgement as well? If not, try to have them explain the difference to you. If yes, then I guess it may be some subtle difference of implicit cultural perspectives, – m.a.a. Nov 27 '16 at 8:53
  • @m.a.a. We're teaching the expression "would rather" to Chinese speakers, and want to keep the English sentences and not change them so they are easier to understand or fit their language. The translator asks what I mean by the sentences so that he can use the correct Chinese word for "rather." For now, we are using the word "prefer" but apparently even that has connotations. – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '16 at 8:57
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One point to make about the word rather is its etymology: the OE hraþor is a comparative, meaning "more quickly, earlier, sooner, more readily".

The question is about the collocation "I'd rather", the meaning of which can be rendered by "I'd sooner" (reflecting the above etymology). As remarked by others, it indicates order of preference; namely, the preference of the speaker. The "I'd" matters here, making the expressed order purely subjective.

So both the presence of the personal pronoun in the collocation, and the temporal aspect offered by "sooner", may help to point out that there is no inherent judgment in the collocated phrase, but only a bit of subjective and temporary decision making.

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    I agree with "purely subjective". It hits the nail! – user140086 Dec 2 '16 at 15:12
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That's not true in the English language, but it could have value connotations in Chinese. To get around this, I would use a word like "prefer," which more strongly expresses a wish, and is openly "subjective."

The word I would use to translate "rather" into Chinese is, Ning ke, which has the connotations of "better," or at least "sooner." Thus, "I would rather eat a hamburger than eat a sandwich," back translated into "I would do better to eat a hamburger than eat a sandwich." That would express a value judgment.

This may or may not have been the word you used, but when words are translated from one language to English and then "back translated" to the original, these permutations can occur.

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    Check out the comment I sent to M.a.a – michael_timofeev Nov 27 '16 at 8:59
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You are using rather in a specific sense of the word, which expresses a preference. This sense of the word is signaled by the accompaniment of would:

I would rather eat a hamburger than eat a sandwich.

The sentence you gave is simply a contraction. The words I would contract to I'd, but it's still the same semantically.

I don't think that any sense of the word rather expresses a value judgment, per se. You are right, in that preferences are not necessarily value judgments. They are most often subjective.

Consider,

I would rather have these glasses than those because I am near-sighted.

The other pair of glasses could be perfectly good for far-sighted folk, but since I'm near-sighted, I prefer the glasses that work for me. This is not a value judgment, since the far-sighted woman sitting across from me on the bus, trying very hard to read To Kill a Mockingbird without a pair of glasses, would rather have the other pair of glasses, because they would work better for her.


In summary, I don't think it's the word rather on its own which creates a value judgment, or the appearance of one. I think it's the context which creates the appearance of a value judgment.

Here's an experiment. I'm with her was one of Hillary Clinton's slogans. When Oprah said it, did she express a value judgment? Probably. But do these words on their own create this value judgment? No. It's the context.

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Rather in English makes no general value judgement.

The rest of the question seems to be based on a two unsupported assumptions, one or both of which might be false:

  1. There exists at least one word in Chinese equivalent to rather.

  2. The translator consulted knows at least one such word.

If both of these are false, one can get around it by using however many Chinese words might be necessary to make an equivalently accurate and unambiguous distinction.

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    +1 for "using however many ... words might be necessary". 'Equivalent' words in different languages often differ somewhat in semantic range. And this is before taking idiolects into account. – Lawrence Dec 2 '16 at 15:24

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