There have been a number of borderline off-topic questions on this site in recent days. This is in part related to an increase in traffic to the site and is only going to increase as time goes on. I would like to get some debate on whether these are on topic or not.

In most cases the asker is not learning the language and are asking "Is this Chinese" or "What does this Chinese say"

Some examples:

I propose once we get a consensus here that we add it to our FAQ and questions will be judged and closed accordingly.

  • Can you put this up as a featured question to get more people from the community to participate?
    – 杨以轩
    Aug 6, 2013 at 4:44
  • @QuestionOverflow Right, we forgot it. :) Added.
    – Alenanno
    Aug 6, 2013 at 8:17

5 Answers 5


I suggest we use the following standards:

  • Has the OP attempted to translate this themselves. Even if you are not learning Chinese, if you haven't put any effort, in all honestly you are only interested in the answer out of curiosity.
  • Is there any benefit to learners of the language in either seeing the answer or doing some research into finding the answer. Maybe the OP has posted some characters written in a novel way or they are from a famous text and by our users attempting to research the answer we all learn something.
  • We have to be sure it is actually Chinese we are looking at. I don't want our site to be responsible for doing fact checking. Because checking whether or not something is Chinese is off-topic, questions that ask "is this Chinese" should be automatically off topic.

To narrow this down:

  • Show research effort or more than a passing interest in what you are asking
  • Is this question not overly narrow (only interesting to one person)
  • Is this question related to the Chinese language

I'm not a big fan of questions like the stamp one "what does X say / mean", but I think that it generated a good answer. However, if there are questions like this where after a period of time it generates no good answers (even if there are one or two poor answers) these should be deleted from the site as they are overly narrow and don't provide benefit to people who come here to learn.

  • I was just about to write a post detailing pretty much this question, after seeing chinese.stackexchange.com/q/8313/3561 and chinese.stackexchange.com/q/8325/3561 (one got voted up, one got put on hold) and I guess this is covered by your point 2: the voted up one can be considered useful to many, but the on hold one is useful to only the OP really. I think this should be made part of an official standard, as I agree, this is a good way to go about it. It's not just "not a translation service" but also "does the translation benefit one, or many?"
    – Ming
    Jun 13, 2014 at 2:16

I'd like to add two points to xiahouzi79's answer:

  1. Passing interest: I'm not sure how we can prove that the interest is "passing". If we can't enforce it, we should probably ignore this. Even if we could prove it, the passing interest is not necessarily a sign of bad question. If the OP has a passing interest but the question meets our standards and is an outstanding question, is that a problem?

  2. Culture: I've seen questions more about culture than the language. I was not sure so I didn't close anything but if users and mods see these questions, please act as well. This site works as a community. Mods are exception handlers but those that should be checking the quality the most are regular users because, well... that's how it works.

  • 1
    I think what @xiahouzi79 means by passing interest can be determined from the amount of research effort shown in the question.
    – 杨以轩
    Aug 6, 2013 at 4:42

The question on whether character identification/translation is allowed can be very frustrating. As I am trying to learn the language if one cannot ask about a basic logogram then how could they build a foundation of learning Mandarin?

I believe that closing such questions without acknowledging the prior effort is a disservice to language learners. Every person had to be taught basic character recognition at some point. I think it unreasonable to have questions considered off-topic that show obvious effort.

I put up a series of questions (currently on hold), A, B, C that clearly show effort and place the question into an appropriate conversational context (producing obvious benefits to other learners). These were placed off-topic because I included the word translation but in fact, I just needed character identification in most cases.

If the deciding factor is to be that some effort is shown and the work must be useful to others, then I would say that my examples are on-topic. If there is never to be any translation assistance then maybe this is not a site for those who want to learn but rather a site for those who are already native speakers (or those who have more than a beginner's knowledge).

Character recognition is the foundation of learning Chinese. If such questions on the basics is not allowed, then something seems wrong with the site mandate. I agree that frivolous posts detract from the content. I do not believe that my examples were frivolous because they clearly show effort and are helpful to others (note the up-votes, I assume the down-votes are those who think any translation is banned).

This question of showing effort and utility when looking at translation/character recognition requests really ought to be made clear and adhered to by the community.

Did I misunderstand the instructions??

If so, please advise.


I'm hereby pleading for amendment of this off-topic rule:

Questions asking for translations are off-topic unless prior research effort is clearly indicated; we're here to help you learn, not provide a bulk translation service.

  1. We should specify which kind of questions need "prior research". In my humble opinion, for some character identification questions (especially those about cursive or seal scripts, like this one), the OP doesn't have enough knowledge to even start a google search.

  2. In practice we seldom see bulk translation questions, and this condition putting with the "prior research" requirement in the same clause is obscure. In concrete terms, I don't know which rule we should follow:

    • "Lacking prior research" and "bulk translation" make a question off-topic.
    • "Lacking prior research" or "bulk translation" makes a question off-topic.
  3. The original aim of this rule seems "encouraging higher quality questions". But I think the criteria for "high quality" are not clear; "being helpful to other users" sounds subjective, too.

Thus, my proposal of the amendment is

Questions asking for simple textual translations are off-topic unless prior research effort is clearly indicated.

By simple, I mean those can be easily found in a dictionary, but I think we all can judge which kind of questions show the laziness of the OP, and we can vote them off-topic – so the explanation of simple doesn't have to be put in the clause, just leave it to our discretion.

  • 1
    Agree. And I prefer to give the definition of simple to avoid confusing. Such as: (1) the answer could be easily found from dictionary or google translate, (2) for the character identification question, the character is pretty clear and could be easily recognized and then the answer could be easily found from some online dictionary or ocr sites.
    – user4072
    Mar 25, 2016 at 17:42
  • I think the aim of this site is to collect searchable questions with answers. Questions that only say "what does this mean" plus a picture of some artwork are not searchable and not really useful for anyone but the asker.
    – KWeiss
    Mar 26, 2016 at 5:47
  • 1
    @KWeiss First of all I think "searchable" shouldn't be the barrier :) Google image search is becoming more and more advanced (and furthermore a picture with textual descriptions in the same webpage will be hit more easily if the search includes fragment of recognized characters as key words). And, the usage of this website may not be limited to "search for answers" – it could also be a "book", people can just "read" it for fun and knowledge.
    – Stan
    Mar 26, 2016 at 6:25
  • 2
    I always thought the 'bulk translation service' was referring to this site as a whole should not become a collection (bulk) of translation questions.
    – NS.X.
    Apr 7, 2016 at 18:58

There are different types of "translation" questions, and I think they should be handled differently:

The picture post: This common question has a picture of some artwork or product packaging and some text like "Is this Chinese? What does the character mean?". These questions should normally be off topic.
On the other hand, posts asking about the translation of a picture should be ok if the asker has already understood most of the text (and shows it) but wants help to identify specific characters.

Bulk translation: I haven't seen this happen, but if somebody just posts a block of text and asks for a translation into Chinese or English, that should be off topic.

How to say X in Chinese: The questions in the OP illustrate different variations of this point. Questions like this should be on topic if they ask how to use a short phrase, that can not easily be found in dictionaries. Examples would include "salutations for a formal letter", "colloquial way to say ..." and so on.
On the other hand, questions asking to translate a specific sentence should be off-topic unless they show some effort - and in that case, the question probably won't be about the sentence as such.

I would not have deleted the question in the OP, because I think "is this a famous / common Chinese expression" is a legitimate question about something found in an English text (that like to make up Chinese sayings). But I'm not sure what the official policy about this is, as it may fall under culture by some definitions.

  • Agree with the "Bulk translation" and "How to say X in Chinese" points. But just for the "picture post" point, before such posts flood the website, I think the rule can be milder.
    – Stan
    Mar 26, 2016 at 6:37

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