The mistranslated Chinese character - 很 hěn

“很 hěn” is a commonly used adverb to indicate the degree, such as in “我很好 wǒ hěn hǎo”. In a traditional Chinese-English dictionary, “很 hěn” is usually translated into “very, quite, awfully”. In Google translate, “很 hěn” can be translated into “very, quite, extremely, mightily”, and so on. As one of the top frequently used Chinese characters, Chinese learners always learn this character or its pinyin at a very early stage, and its meaning is always translated into “very”. Thus, a literal translation of “我很好 wǒ hěn hǎo” becomes “I very good”, which sounds like a broken version of “I am very good.” 

In reality, unless it is emphasised in speaking, “很 hěn” does not mean “very”. The correct understanding of “我很好 wǒ hěn hǎo” is “I am good”, not “I am very good”. And if someone tries to understand the meaning of “很 hěn” in “我很好 wǒ hěn hǎo” through a word by word tally with its correct English translation “I am good”, that “我 wǒ” is “I”, “很 hěn” is “am”, and “好 hǎo” is “good”, it will turn out to be an even bigger mistake that “很 hěn” means “am”. 

The fact that “很 hěn” is translated into “very” is because there isn’t any equivalent corresponding word in English. The only solution of translation is a mistranslation. “很 hěn” is not alone in this category. There are other Chinese characters and words which do not have an equivalent part in English. 

For beginner students of Chinese language, the best way to understand the meaning of “很 hěn” is by comparing it with other degree-indicating adverbs in Chinese, such as “非常 fēi cháng”. 

Commonly used adverbs which indicate a small degree

有一点儿 yǒu yī diǎnr

比较 bǐ jiào

Commonly used adverbs which indicate a great degree

极 jí

太 tài

非常 fēi cháng

格外 gé wài

十分 shí fēn

极其 jí qí

最 zuì

顶 dǐng

相当 xiāng dāng

真 zhēn

好 hǎo

多么 duō me

Degree-indicating adverbs which are somewhere in between the above two categories

很 hěn

挺 tǐng

Degree-indicating adverbs which indicate various stages of the development of the same thing, or when comparing two things, indicate a step further from the norms.

更 gèng

更加 gèng jiā

Practice makes Perfect

Fill in the blanks with an appropriate adverb introduced in this article:

tā qù nián de shēng yì hěn hǎo, xī wàng jīn nián ____ hǎo.

wǒ yǒu sān ge hái zi, _____ dà de shí suì, lǎo èr qī suì, ______ xiǎo de sì suì.

zuó tiān tiān qì hěn nuǎn huo, kě shì jīn tiān _______ lěng.

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An additional note, when emphasised in speaking, “很 hěn” does mean “very, awfully”. And under certain circumstances, “很 hěn” is not required in sentences. “很 hěn” first appears in Mandarin Express Intro Level A Student’s Book, together with other degree-indicating adverbs, including “有一点儿” and “非常”, so that students can have a more comprehensive understanding about the meaning of “很 hěn” from the very beginning. The character “很 hěn” is first taught in Chinese Reading and Writing 1. 

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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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