Chinese - English - Chinese Translation
Translation into Chinese
presents some unique challenges. GCT Taiwan (in conjunction
with GCT China) handles translations for both the Mainland
Chinese and Taiwanese Chinese markets - two very different
versions of the language. Below is a little primer on what
makes translating Chinese such an interesting challenge,
plus some tips in planning your translation and avoiding
upsetting political sensitivities.
What do you mean by 'Chinese'?
Saying that someone 'speaks Chinese' is somewhat misleading,
akin to saying someone speaks 'European'. China is a nation
of regions, each with their own language (confusingly referred
to as 'dialects') and traditions. Today, when someone refers
to 'Chinese' they are usually referring to 'Mandarin Chinese',
the language imposed by the imperial Qing court in Beijing
as the 'national language'.
After the 1911 nationalist revolution, and later after the
1949 communist revolution, each succeeding government has
continued to use Mandarin Chinese as the language of all
education, broadcast and official business.
Sometimes, especially in Hong Kong, when someone refers
to 'Chinese' they are referring to a 'dialect'. In Hong
Kong, Macau and Guangdong Province the 'dialect' is Cantonese.
Hong Kong and Macau remain exceptions, using Cantonese as
the primary language of education and government.
TIP: When planning your translation,
specify 'Mandarin Chinese' or 'Cantonese'
script: simplified, traditional and other forms of the script
Unlike phonetic or alphabetic written languages, Chinese
is character based - one character represents a concept.
Each character may be a word on it's own, but many words
are a combination of two or more characters.
Historically, all written Chinese languages ('dialects')
used the same basic script - but often two characters put
together in one language mean something entirely different
in another. Today, many dialects in China don't have written
scripts - some because they never did, some simply fell
out of use. The two most commonly written Chinese languages
are Mandarin and Cantonese. While the characters used are
the same, the meaning doesn't always carry across the linguistic
Significantly complicating matters was the switch after
1949 by the communist government of Mainland China to a
new simplified written script. Nationalist Taiwan continued
to use the traditional script. Today, very few Taiwanese
or Mainlanders can read each other's written materials without
great difficulty - even though they both speak Mandarin
Hong Kong and Macau continue to use the traditional characters
for written Cantonese, while overseas Chinese in places
like Singapore, Malaysia and the West use one or the other,
and sometimes both.
TIP: When planning your translation
determine if your target market uses traditional or simplified
Linguistic changes in
Mandarin after 1949
After the communist revolution of 1949, the nationalist
government of China decamped to Taiwan. For ideological
reasons, China closed itself to the world, and Taiwan closed
itself to China. With virtually no linguistic contact, the
two Mandarin speaking societies developed in significantly
As a general rule of thumb, any concept or invention developed
after 1949 has a different word or term to describe it in
China and Taiwan. Common daily terms like 'software', 'CD'
and 'database' are different. It is not unusual for Taiwanese
and Chinese, when speaking about technical issues, to revert
to the English terms! Even the very word for their common
language is different, Mandarin being referred to as 'national
language' (GuoYu) in Taiwan and 'common language' (PuTongHua)
Additionally, Taiwan and China have each changed their ways
of phrasing and approaching sentences as part of the normal
progression of a language. Taiwanese Mandarin is especially
influenced by the local dialect (Taiwanese Hokkien) and
TIP: Determine if your firm
will be targeting the mainland Chinese market, the Taiwanese
market or both.
your Mandarin: avoiding making major political errors
It is standard procedure in East Asia to do two versions
of everything Mandarin. Occasionally, however, a major international
company continues to embarrass itself by assuming one will
do for both markets - a major faux pas in this politically
sensitive part of the world.
A more common mistake is to simply change the script without
taking into account the linguistic changes and different
terminology. At best the result sounds stilted and odd,
at worst it is misunderstood or even offensive.
An Analogy: Imagine if the
UK and US had a horrible war in the late '40's, resulting
in a complete cessation of contact and a continuing tense
political standoff. One side switched to the Greek alphabet,
and each side continued to develop their languages completely
TIP: If your firm plans to
operate in both Taiwan and China, make sure that two different
versions of the materials are made - carefully taking into
account the differences between the two.
Audio Recording of Mandarin
There are many different accents associated with different
regions of China and Taiwan. In Taiwan, it is best to use
the standard 'Taipei accent'. In China, it is usually best
to use a Beijing accent, though there are times when a regional
accent is appropriate - especially if the target market
is a specific locality.
Common mistakes when
translating from Chinese to English
The most common errors centre around political sensitivities
and romanisation. Many major international companies have
run afoul of China's authorities by referring to Taiwan
as a country. Similarly, cases of companies referring to
Taiwan as a province of the People's Republic of China will
make the newspapers in Taiwan - and not in a positive light!
Ideological differences and differing points of view on
historical events can also lead to trouble.
A particular difficulty on translating Taiwanese Mandarin
Chinese to English is the choice of romanisation. Currently,
there is an ongoing tussle over the 'official' choice of
romanisation. Traditionally, the Wade-Giles system was used
- and is still sometimes seen. The Ministry of Transportation
(major road signs, town names, etc.) uses the MPSII system.
Inside the cities, however, some use MPSII while others
are switching to the system used in mainland China (Hanyu
Pinyin). As if this weren't enough, the central government
is encouraging the use of Tongyong Pinyin. For example,
one common street name can be romanised as 'ChungHsiao',
'JungShiau', 'JhongShiao' or 'ZhongXiao' - depending on
the system used.
TIP 1: be politically sensitive
TIP 2: when choosing romanisation
for Taiwan, determine who is going to be reading the materials