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The verb 保护

7 March 2016 (updated 27 Oct 2018)

After many years of struggling to translate English sentences like 'Tariffs are designed to protect industry from foreign competition' into Chinese, I recently decided to go back to basics and figure out the grammar of the word 保护 bǎohù 'to protect'.

When using the verb 'protect', English expresses the source of danger as an argument of the verb by using prepositions: 'protect from' or 'protect against'.

JapaneseJapanese and Mongolian adopt similar strategies. A fairly uncontroversial Japanese equivalent of 'protect from foreign competition' is:

    海外の競争から守る
    kaigai no kyōsō kara mamoru
    'overseas competition-from protect'

The postposition から kara is roughly equivalent to English 'from'. 競争から守る kyōsō kara mamoru 'protect from competition' is thus almost a literal equivalent of the English. 守る mamoru could be replaced by 保護する hogo suru 'to protect', but this is used in exactly the same way:

    海外の競争から保護する
    kaigai no kyōsō kara hogo suru
    'overseas competition-from protect'

MongolianMongolian is similar, although it uses a case ending rather than a postposition:

    гадаадын өрсөлдөөнөөс хамгаалах
    gadaadin örsöldöönöös khamgaalakh
    'foreign competition-from protect'

The Mongolian uses the ablative case ending -өөс -öös, which has a function and meaning similar to 'from'. The Mongolian is therefore also a literal equivalent to the English.

But using a direct Chinese equivalent, that is, using the coverb / preposition () cóng roughly 'from', results in a decidedly awkward, indeed virtually ungrammatical construction:

    * 竞争保护 (競爭保護)
    cóng jìngzheng bǎohù

ChineseRecently I decided to take a look at Internet resources to figure out the correct usage of the Chinese verb 保护 / 保護 bǎohù 'to protect'. Unsurprisingly, I found that 保护 (保護) does not enter into this kind of construction.

To gain a picture of how Chinese handles this, let's look at the online Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary iCIBA (爱词霸 / 愛詞霸: àicíbà). We will extract Chinese translations equivalent to English sentences using 'protect from' or 'protect against'. Most (but not all) use 保护 / 保護: bǎohù:

protect the environment against pollution


保护环境, 防止污染
     bǎohù huánjìng, fángzhǐ wūrán
(Literally) protect the environment, prevent pollution’
Such laws could protect the consumer from harmful or dangerous remedies.


这样的法规可以保护消费者免受有害或者危险药品的威胁。
     zhèyàng de fǎguī kěyǐ bǎohù xiāofèizhě miǎn shòu yǒuhài huòzhě wéixiǎn yàopǐn de wēixié
(Literally) ‘Such laws can protect the consumer, prevent exposure to the threat of harmful or dangerous remedies.’
The problem was to safeguard sites from encroachment by property development.


问题是要保护遗址免受房地产开发商的侵占。
     wèntí shi yào bǎohù yízhǐ miǎn shòu fángdìchǎn kāifāshāng de qīnzhàn
(Literally) ‘The problem was to protect sites, prevent exposure to encroachment by property development.’
It protects against environmental hazards such as wind and sun.


它可以保护免受风、太阳等环境因素的危害。
     tā kěyǐ bǎohù miǎn shòu fēng, tàiyáng děng huánjìng yīnsù de wéihài
(Literally) ‘It can protect, prevent exposure to environmental hazards such as wind and sun.’
Your arms and legs need protection from light bouncing off glass.


需要保护你的手臂和双腿免受玻璃反射光线的照射。
     xūyào bǎohù nǐ de shǒubì hé shuāng tuǐ miǎn shòu bōlí fǎnshè-guāngxiàn de zhàoshè
(Literally) ‘Need to protect your arms and legs, prevent exposure to reflection of light bouncing off glass.’
Troops have been sent to protect aid workers against attack.


已经派出部队保护援助工作人员免遭袭击。
     yǐjīng pàichū bùduì bǎohù yuánzhù gōngzuò rényuán miǎn zāo xíjí
(Literally) ‘Have already sent troops to protect aid workers, prevent (from) encountering attacks.’
So, what can women do to protect themselves from heart disease?


那么,女性怎样做才能使自己不得心脏病呢?
     nàme, nǚxìng zěnyàng zuò cáinéng shǐ zìjǐ bùdé xīnzàngbìng ne?
(Literally) ‘So, what can women do to make themselves not get heart disease?’
Many manufacturers have policies to protect themselves against blackmailers.


许多厂家都购买了保险,以防遭到敲诈。
     xǔduō chǎngjiā dōu gòumǎile bǎoxiǎn, yǐ fáng zāo-dào qiāozhà
(Literally) ‘Many manufacturers have purchased insurance, so as to prevent encountering blackmail.’
A long thin wool coat and a purple headscarf protected her against the wind.


一件薄薄的羊毛长外套和一条紫色的头巾为她了风。
     yī jiàn báo báo de yángmáo cháng wàitào hé yītiáo zǐsè de tóujīn wèi tā dǎngle fēng
(Literally) ‘A long thin woollen coat and a purple headscarf stopped the wind for her.’

The common feature is that 保护 is unable to be directly used with an argument equivalent to English 'from xxx' or 'against xxx'. All Chinese versions use additional verbs to express this meaning, or use different expressions.

The most common additional verb is 免受 miǎnshòu, literally meaning 'prevent receiving', that is, to prevent being affected by or exposed to something. Others include 防止 fángzhǐ 'to prevent', 免遭 miǎn zāo 'prevent (from) meeting or encountering'.

Some of these are found in double verb constructions (保护免受 bǎohù miǎn shòu 'protect and prevent from receiving/being affected by'), others are used in separate clauses (保护遗址免受... bǎohù yízhǐ miǎn shòu 'protect relics to prevent being affected by...').

Other sentences use completely different verb constructions, such as 防遭到 fáng zāodào 'prevent (from) meeting or encountering' and dǎng 'obstruct', 使...不得 shǐ zìjǐ bùdé 'cause ... not to get'.

But none of them follow the English, Japanese, and Mongolian type of structure.

A live example of the issues caused by the grammar of 保护 is the following partial sentence from Jane Eyre:

    to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day.

The key issue is the inability of Chinese to directly represent the parallelism of 'protect from' and 'separate from'. The fragment is rendered in one of the published translations (《简爱》 jiǎn'ài) as:

    左边却是明亮的玻璃窗,它保护着我,受不到阴郁的十一月天气的侵袭,却又不把我与外界隔绝
    Zuǒbiān què shì míngliàng de bōlí-chuāng, tā bǎohù-zhe wǒ, ràngshòubùdào yīnyù de shíyīyuè tiānqì de qīnxí, què yòu bù bǎ wǒ yǔ wàijiè géjué.
    (Literally) 'On the left is a bright glass-window, it protects me, makes me not receive the attack of the gloomy November weather, but also does not isolate me from the outside world.'

The parallelism is lost. The part pertaining to 'protect me from' is rendered:

保护着我,受不到...
bǎohù-zhe wǒ, ràngshòubùdào
(Literally) protects me, makes me not receive...’

The second part pertaining to 'not separate me from' is rendered as:

不把我外界隔绝
bù bǎ wǒ yǔ wàijiè géjué
(Literally) ‘does not isolate me from the outside world

In contrast with 保护 'protect', which does not allow the use of a coverb/preposition, 隔绝 géjué 'isolate' pairs with ('with', also 'from'). The problem thus lies entirely with the verb 保护, and results in the translator supplying a separate word, 外界 wàijiè 'outside world', to serve as the object of 隔绝 géjué 'isolate'.

Just for comparison, the Mongolian translation goes:

    нөгөө талаас тув тунгалаг цонхоор үзэгдэх гуниг дүүрэн арван нэгдүгээр сарын бүүдгэр өдрөөс зааглах аж. Гэлээ ч энэ өдрөөс намайг юу ч бүрмөсөн тусгаарлаж чадах биш.
    nögöö talaas tuv tungalag tsonkhoor üzegdekh gunig düüren arvan negdügeer saryn büüdger ödröös zaaglakh aj. Gelee ch ene ödröös namaig yuu ch bürmösön tusgaarlaj chadakh bish.
    'From the other side, separated me from the gloomy November day that was visible through the clear window. But it could not completely isolate at all me from this day.'

For both verbs, Mongolian uses the ablative өдрөөс ödröös 'from the day'.

To sum up, in translating verbs having the meaning 'protect' in languages like in English, Japanese, and Mongolian, Chinese cannot directly render case endings, postpositions, or prepositions because of the lexical properties (valence) of the Chinese verb 保护.