Posted by: Michael | December 13, 2009

I always sleep late…

This came up during one of my classes. A Malaysian would understand the title of this post to mean something different (and almost opposite to the intended meaning) than a native English speaker would.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The Malay word for “sleep” is tidur. The Chinese word for “sleep” is 睡觉 (shuì jiào).

However, both tidur and 睡觉 have two translations in English. The first is “sleep”. “Sleep” means “to rest in a state of reduced consciousness”. For example: “I only sleep for five hours every night”. “Sleep” can be used to say how long you rest for (in a state of reduced consciousness).

So you can use the word “sleep” in English to specify the duration that you “rest in a state of reduced consciousness” but not the time at which you start to rest. This brings us to the second translation of tidur and 睡觉.

To specify when you start to sleep, you must use the expression “go to bed” (“go to sleep” is also possible although the usage differs slightly). For example: “I go to bed at midnight every night”.

So when you use tidur or睡觉 to talk about the time that you started to sleep, you must translate these words as “go to bed”.

Semalam saya tidur pada pukul sebelas or 昨天晚上我十一点睡觉 must be translated into English as “I go to bed at 11 o’clock” not “I sleep at 11 o’clock”. The latter sentence sounds as strange in English as it would to a Malaysian for an English speaker to say “semalam pergi ke katil pada pukul sebelas” or “昨天晚上我十一点去床”.

Which brings us back to the title of our post. “To sleep” means “to rest in a state of reduced consciousness”. As I mentioned earlier, you use “sleep” to say how long you remain asleep.  So “I always sleep late” means “I always sleep for a long time” (meaning that you don’t get up until the late morning or possibly the early afternoon).

However, a Malaysian who, upon reading the title, immediately translates it as “saya sentiasa tidur lewat” or “我总是很晚睡觉”, would understand it to mean “It is always late when I start to sleep” or, in proper English “I always go to bed late”. This stems from the two usages of tidur and 睡觉 in Malay and Chinese and not knowing how to properly use each of them.

To sum up: You use “sleep” to talk about how long you rest for. You use “go to bed” when you specify the time at which you start to rest (in a state of reduced consciousness).

PS: For those who want more information about “go to sleep”: “go to bed” can also mean “to put onself in one’s bed”. However, while you might put yourself in your bed, you might not go to sleep. For example, you could read a book. “Go to sleep” cannot be interpreted in any other way except “to fall asleep”.

For example “I went to bed at 11 o’clock and read for an hour. Then I went to sleep”.


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