Old dictionaries and the Olympics


Book collector Yuan Shang enjoys accumulating foreign language dictionaries. “By reading dictionaries,” he says, “we can see how western ideas were accepted by the Chinese people.”

Yuan (real name Li Kun) started collecting books during the Cultural Revolution. At the time, he was in his early teens and liked to spend his free time looking for illustrated storybooks at the used bookstores in Xidan. Once, when he couldn’t find anything interesting, an old man gave him a book on 18th Century European philosophy instead. He now owns more than 13,000 volumes, including 150 dictionaries in various foreign languages.

For a recent article published in China Reading Journal (中华读书报), Yuan dug through those dictionaries to find out how the concept of the Olympic Games entered the Chinese language. Here are some early examples of translations of the word “Olympics”:

  • English and Chinese Standard Dictionary (英华大辞典), published in 1908 by The Commercial Press: 欧林撇
  • A Modern English-Chinese Dictionary (英华合解辞汇), published in 1915 by The Commercial Press: 洼林比亚
  • A Comprehensive English-Chinese Dictionary (综合英汉大辞典), published in 1928 by The Commercial Press: 阿令辟克
  • A Practical English-Chinese Dictionary (双解实用英汉字典), published in 1935 by The Commercial Press: 奥令配亚
  • A Daily Use English-Chinese Dictionary (英汉求解作文文法辨义四用辞典), published in 1936 by The World Book Co: 奥林比亚

A Modern Dictionary of the English Language Translated into Chinese (英华日用字典), published in 1915 by The Commercial Press, doesn’t translate the word, but it does mention in the English definition that the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, something that its contemporaries left out. Yuan explains:

Before the 1930s, the vast majority of Chinese dictionaries noted only that the Olympics were a “major athletic competition” (竞技大会) held every four years in ancient Greece. Beginning around 1930, after the Nationalist government sent teams to the Games of the 9th Olympiad, held in Amsterdam in 1928, the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the English-Chinese dictionaries generally followed the ancient Greek definition with “a contemporary international sports meet (国际运动会) held every four years”; some used “global sports meet” (世界运动会) or “sports meet of the nations” (万国运动会). The translation I like best, 奥令配亚竞技大会, is from the Practical English-Chinese Dictionary, and comes closest to the current standard. Zheng Yili’s A New English-Chinese Dictionary published after 1949 contains a translation identical to the one used today.

The Dictionnaire Français-Chinois (商务印书馆法华新字典), published in 1910 by The Commercial Press, includes the term “Olympique,” translated as “a sacrifice observed every four years” (每四年祭的), showing that at the end of the Qing Dynasty, people did not really understand the ancient Greek athletic competitions that were associated with offerings to the gods. The Chinese definition seems only to stress the ritual aspect of the Olympics. However, it was the first French translation into Chinese, so at least students of French could read this incomplete explanation and gain the general idea of the existence of such an event in ancient Greece. After the fall of the Qing, The Commercial Press brought out Nouveau Dictionnaire Français-Chinois (模范法华字典) in 1923, and the Chinese definition given was more detailed than the late-Qing dictionary: “An athletic competition held in ancient Greece as an offering to the gods” (古希腊人之赛神竞技会).

Deutsch-Chinesisches Wörterbuch (德华字典) published by Chung Hwa Book Co. in 1920 and edited by Ma Junwu, includes the German word “Olympiade,” which Ma translates as “a four year period” (四年期). In the same year, The Commercial Press published Deutsch-Chinesisches Wörerbuch (德华大字典), edited by Zhai Kan and Yu Yunyou, which offered “the Olympic festival” (阿林普节) as the translation and explained in Chinese that it was “held every four years in Greece.” According to the 1996 edition of the Deutsch-Chinesisches Wörterbuch (德汉词典), these are now rare terms, with “The Olympic Games” (奥林匹克运动会) the uniform definition today. The Deutsch-Chinesisches Wörterbuch (德华大辞典), published in Shanghai in 1945 by Max Nossler & Co (壁恒图书公司), defined it only as “a world sports meet” (世界运动会).

The journey of the term “Olympic Games” through old foreign language dictionaries in China began before we participated in the Olympics as an athletic event in ancient Greece. Only after we joined the games did it truly become a sacred cause in our minds and in our language. Don’t we get a sense from these old dictionaries of our road toward world participation and achievements in creating peace? A century of Olympics: for the Chinese people, starting with the English and Chinese Standard Dictionary translation in 1908, it’s been precisely 100 years. Isn’t this the real value of those volumes as artifacts? As times change, an old book can give us all kinds of impressions and ideas. It really is a pleasure to flip through old books.

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