Chinese has several challenging aspects that make it one of the easiest languages to make mistakes in while translating.
China is increasingly the topic of conversation as its economy grows and its rather bizarre political culture – a Communist government that has all but abandoned communist theory – become better known.
For those of us old enough to remember, China has sort of taken on the old Japanese role in Western thinking – the opaque Asian economic superpower who will eventually rule the world. Just as Japan was going to steamroll everyone with their high-quality cars and gadgets, China is now supposed to steamroll the world with its infinite population and cheap manufacturing. As a result, China – and Chinese translation – is an increasingly bigger topic, especially in translation circles. Which brings out some of the peculiarities of translating Chinese, which of course I find fascinating.
The Four Corners of Chinese
To begin with, there are several misconceptions and misunderstandings about Chinese that you have to be very clear about when hiring any sort of Chinese translation pro:
- Simplified vs. Traditional: Many folks assume that ‘simplified’ means dumbed-down and thus deprecated, but that’s inaccurate. Traditional Chinese writing is used solely in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in the United States among its Chinese population. Simplified Chinese is what’s used elsewhere – which means the vast, vast territory of China’s mainland. And let’s not forget that in China there are 400 million people who don’t speak Chinese at all!
- Mandarin vs. Cantonese: These terms don’t refer to writing at all – there is no such thing as ‘written Mandarin.’ It’s a way of speaking. Mandarin is the official spoken language of China’s government and is predominant, and Cantonese is the alternative still used in some southern provinces and Hong Kong. As for a ‘Mandarin’ translation – it is meaningless!
Chinese Translation Follies
There are plenty of ways for a Chinese translation to go wrong, most of them providing translation professionals everywhere with plenty of reasons to tear out their hair.
Chinese characters, for example, usually take up much less space than English words. A page of English text can often result in a quarter-page of Chinese characters. This makes translating within formatted text very challenging, as entire textbooks can be shrunk by sometimes half. On the other hand, many times a single English word require two or more Chinese characters to represent, meaning that even if the document is shorter in length, the word count can often go up, creating even more headaches for both translator and client.
There are endless examples of the challenges of Chinese translation. Numbers cause translators fits, because there are specific characters for sums – for example, the concept of the number 10,000 has a single character, so if you want to say 50,000 you would write 5 and then that character. For translators working from Chinese to English this throws them, because it seems like there should be more zeros. That’s why you have to be very careful when hiring a Chinese translator!
Image courtesy accesschina.com.za