The English language evolves from the English people, and the English people live way up there, away from the equator. So, it is no wonder that the English language will reflect this.

  • He was a tall, pale man.
  • She looked pale and sickly.
  • He turned pale with fright.

The Chinese language evolves from the Chinese people, and the Chinese people live in a geographically large region. It has its own vocabulary to describe the face.

  • 脸色蜡蜡黄 ("sickly skin")
  • 皮肤雪白 ("skin as white as snow", "snowy-white skin", "very light skin")
  • 浓眉大眼 ("dense eyebrows and big eyes")
  • 红彤彤的小脸蛋 ("red cheeks")

Translated into English, I realize that I am forced to describe a person's face from an English speaker's POV. The original Chinese version is very descriptive on a physical level, but a literal English translation would be meaningless. I think that 脸色蜡蜡黄 has to do with East Asian/Chinese physiology, describing the sickly East Asian face in the same way pale is being used in English contexts on sickly-looking people.

Now, my big problem is this: how to describe the physiological responses of very dark-skinned people?

I suppose you can just describe a sickly, dark-skinned person as, well, sickly or weak. The person cannot be pale, as paleness implies pale skin color as well as physical health status of the person.

2 Answers 2


Different phrases can often mean the same thing.

"Her face paled" and "she looked sick" (with context that it was a sudden change) more or less mean the same thing in American English (probably other English dialects too, but I can only speak for American). You can evoke similar meanings with phrases such as "her face went slack" or "her voice faltered." The meaning shared by all of these is that the character is in a light to medium state of shock.

If a Chinese phrase means that and is something that an American (English-speaking) reader can figure out, then go ahead and use it.

Sometimes there will be cultural differences too large to work in translation.

I have no idea what "red cheeks" means in China. In English it has two meanings, depending on if it is chronic or sudden. For chronic (or slightly lasting) versions, red (or "rosy") cheeks can evoke innocence and youth, part of why blush is part of every makeup kit. It can also refer to alcoholism or heavy drinking (sometimes paired with a red nose). Or it can be a condition that lasts a few minutes due to being outside in extreme cold. Sometimes it can be someone who is very angry and shouting for a prolonged period of time.

When red cheeks have a sudden onset, it always means embarrassment or shame. Anything from innocent blushing after being teased to severe shame at being caught out doing something horrid.

Everyone blushes, some more than others. But the redness shows up better on very light skin. So cultures that have a lot of people with pale skin may use blushing as a signifier of emotion more than a culture with few to no people with pale skin.

If "red cheeks" means something similar in Chinese, you can use it in your translation. But if it means something completely different (fatigue, sadness, illness) then you can't. Even if the context tells the reader the meaning, it will be too jarring for a reader who already knows a meaning for the phrase.

Then there are signifiers that don't overlap in the other language.

You have "dense eyebrows and big eyes" which doesn't mean anything to me in English. Big eyes can mean surprise, as can raised eyebrows. But I have no idea what dense eyebrows means. Is this a phrase used for a description of something permanent or long-term? Raised eyebrows and big eyes in English refer to fleeting actions (though sometimes big eyes can be a lasting description of innocence in very young children). If your translation focused on the dense eyebrows as meaningful (with enough information for the reader to understand), you can keep it as is.


While it is true that a language mirrors a society's worldview, the idea of someone going pale, does not mean one becomes white. It simply means one's natural colour becomes lighter and duller as there is less blood irrigating the skin. A healthy person's natural colour can go from very light to very dark. If one becomes pale, then the normal tone becomes lighter and develops a different tone: it can become whiter, yellowish, or greyish.

If I read that a black character became pale or their colour drained from their face, I picture them with a lighter but duller (sickly in the sense they look sick) tone than how I usually picture them.

In this particular example, I suggest you may be looking at the expression a bit too literally. Allow me to give a different example.

The colour 'orange' derives its name from the colour of the fruit, orange (in the past it would have been called reddish yellow or similar). The term 'olive skin' also derives from a fruit: it describes a skin tone similar to the tone of the olive fruit. Or better yet, similiar to tone of a variety of olive. I live in Portugal, and I have never seen an olive with a colour similar to my skin or most people I know. They're mostly black or green, sometimes greenish-yellow and sometimes dark reddish. I do know the variety whose colour is similar to the particular skin tone being described, but reading that someone has olive skin will always wrench me out of the story because the worl olive automatically ellicits the colours black or green.

In this particular example, the English language associates a colour to a thing which, in my culture, has a radically different colour.

I realize that I am forced to describe [...] from an English speaker's POV.

Not necessarily. When I describe someone's skin tone I cannot bring myself to describe it as olive because it's so hard for me to associate the word to the correct colour. Therefore, I use other alternatives.

In your particular case - how to describe paleness in a dark skinned person - I suggest you look up images of people with the skin tone you're after and see if you can find any of sick people. Some medical papers have photos of patients (typically with their eyes blackened out for privacy reasons - I often read such papers for research and I'll warn you that, depending on the disease being studied/described, some of those images may be upsetting) which may help you see the colour. Then, once you know what it looks like, come up with a descriptor that fits it.

You may want to look up words used to describe and distinguish colours (look up 101 texts for art students) to understand what 'becoming pale' means in terms of colour change (personally, I'd say it loses saturation, though that's a bit too technical to describe people).

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