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McElroy is continuing this series of interviews that highlight some of the characteristics of languages used in doing business globally. This month, we look at Chinese.

What are some pitfalls specific to Chinese to avoid that a client should be aware of when translating into this language?

The most common pitfall of the Chinese language is whether to use Simplified or Traditional Chinese or both. This is the first thing the client needs to specify when requesting a Chinese translation. There are two different categories of written Chinese. While Traditional Chinese is for people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese population residing in the United States, Simplified Chinese is for mainland China–Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc. The difference lies not only in the characters, but also in the manner of expression.

Sometimes a client may ask for a translation into “Mandarin” Chinese. Actually this does not make sense at all because Mandarin only refers to spoken Chinese and to the official Chinese used everywhere versus Cantonese which is a dialect in the southern province Guangdong, Hong Kong, and some “old” Chinese communities in the States, especially in the San Francisco area.

So, when it comes to written Chinese, we always translate into either Traditional or Simplified Chinese, whereas we speak or interpret in either Mandarin or Cantonese.

Unfortunately, many translation agencies and clients used to take it for granted that their Chinese translators were “universal.” They were not aware of or even didn’t care that most Simplified Chinese translators don’t have the real ability to do a decent Traditional Chinese translation, and vice versa. They just use the Traditional fonts. The difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese is not merely about fonts, but more importantly about the manner of expression and terminology.

If the agency or client is still not sure what to specify, the translator needs to know where the translation product is going to be used, or who the target audience is. An experienced professional translator can easily figure this out for you.

What are characteristics of Chinese that are unique or different from English and/or other languages?

The characteristics of Chinese comprise, among other things, the following aspects:

  • The Chinese language is written in characters each of which consists of one up to dozens of strokes, and a phrase/sentence can be made of several characters. Since the characters are much shorter than the corresponding English words, the Chinese translation version always takes much less space than the English original if the “font” sizes remain the same. So when you translate a brochure or localize a website from English into Chinese, the layout of the pages will be affected by the shrinking text. One whole paragraph of English could become one or two lines, and the Chinese version of one full web page of English original could end up as two–thirds of a page or even less.
  • However, in many cases, one English word may be expressed in two to three Chinese characters, such as gao–xing for “happy” and kai–che for “drive,” making the “word” count of Chinese translation always higher than the English original. The ratio of English to Chinese is roughly 1:1.5 depending on the nature of the document and the style of the translator. So if you want a 1,000–word English document translated into Chinese, the word count of the “target language,” Chinese in this case, will be 1,350 to 1,500. And a 1,000–character Chinese document will be translated into an English version of about 700 words.
  • Moreover, since Chinese has different grammar than English, the order of words/phrases in the English original may be reshuffled in the translation, sometimes even reversed. If you use a translation memory tool such as Trados or déjà vu, the TM is not smart enough to adjust the word order, and you have to do it yourself. This is especially true in the titles/subtitles of books, brochures, catalogs, etc. For example, when the upper line of a title says “Features and Advantages of,” and the lower line says “Computer–Assisted Designing System,” the translator or the formatter should reverse the order and put the “Computer–Assisted Designing System”(计算机辅助设计系统的)above “Features and Advantages of”(特点和优势).

How do these characteristics make it important to use properly qualified, professional translators?

Properly qualified, professional translators can help agencies to avoid pitfalls in Chinese and provide a translation product which lives up to the expectations of the client in the following ways:

  • Although most of the time there is no established style guide available, professional translators will use generally accepted practice or common sense to select fonts, adjust tone, and bridge the language gap by avoiding common mistakes, oversights, or mistranslations. They will keep the basics consistent and make sure that the choices they make are in conformity with the general practices and customs of the trade.
  • Professional translators will use their training and experience to exhaust all resources to find appropriate terminology or create terms which make sense. Looking things up in the dictionary or on the internet may sound simple and convenient, but picking the right word from a large range of choices and using it in an appropriate way requires good judgment and experience. The wrong word choice may jeopardize the integrity of the translation.
  • Professional translators will pay close attention to the accuracy of the translation. They also attach great significance to the rhetoric. Professional translators regard translation as an art. As a matter of fact, as a certified Chinese translation QC reviewer/grader, my initial evaluation of a translation is often based on the “first impression,” i.e., the flow, the professionalism or craftsmanship, the appropriate tone, the sophistication level of nuance, etc., of the target language.
  • Professional translators have sufficient experience and training to judge the edits/changes from outside reviewers or clients. They will gladly accept what is a “good catch,” consider or reconsider those “subjective” or “preferential” suggestions, and reject unjustified changes.
  • Professional translators always take great pride in their work. They feel very responsible for the quality of their translations and make it very personal.

Do you know examples where translation or localization mistakes have occurred with Chinese, such as problems with text expansion, date/time formats, counting errors, character encoding, etc., or mistakes with the translation itself? Perhaps you’ve been asked to review a translation that did not seem to be the work of a properly qualified, professional translator.

A major oil company wanted to translate about 800 PowerPoint slides and a lot of lecture handouts for a driving safety training program for its distributors’ trucking fleets in Asian countries. As the program coordinator was not aware of the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese, he only ordered one set of Chinese translations for use in China. By this he meant “mainland China.” So a Simplified Chinese translation was done and provided accordingly.

Later on, after the first a couple of sessions were successfully completed in mainland China, the training expanded to Hong Kong, which is also a part of China now. However, after the first day of class, the local trainees and instructors who were used to reading Traditional Chinese complained, saying they had trouble understanding the slides and handouts in Simplified Chinese. This is when the training coordinator at the company’s headquarters first realized something was wrong. Unfortunately, it was too late to prepare another set of translations in Traditional Chinese. The classes had to go on without visual aids. Needless to say, the results of training in Hong Kong were disappointing.

Relate an example or two of times you found a website page or form difficult to use because it was poorly localized. How might a business lose money, prestige, or incur legal risk due to this bad translation?

Another example is related to a government agency and just happened last week. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Bureau wanted a forty–page Guide for International Visitors to be translated into Chinese. However, they made two mistakes:

  • They decided on Traditional Chinese for this brochure, despite the fact that the absolute majority of the target audience are visitors from PRC reading Simplified Chinese.
  • They used an in–house translator without sufficient Traditional Chinese experience to do the job. And worse, the translator, though he may speak perfect Mandarin, did not have much experience in translation [the misperception of the government agency being that as long as a person is bilingual, he or she can certainly do translation].

This resulted in a mix of mistranslations and awkward expressions. As of today, the project is still pending, while the agency decides on whether to spend sixteen extra hours to overhaul what they have or to retranslate it.

If possible, provide one example of a particular phrase or concept that only a properly qualified, professional translator would be able to correctly communicate.

Professional translators know how to handle a translation based on the basic rules and customs of the language in the country/area where it is used.

  • When it comes to numbers, there are established, well–accepted Chinese units which do not exist in English. For example, for the Arabic figure “10,000,” Chinese has a specific character [wan] (Simp万 / Trad 萬). So for 50,000, the proper Chinese translation is 5万 or 5萬. Also, for “100 million,” Chinese has a specific character [yi] (Simp 亿/ Trad億). So for 400 million, the proper Chinese is 4亿 or 4億. This usage is often questioned by non–Chinese proofreaders from agencies or clients, because they think that some zeros are missing.
  • For dates, the proper format in Chinese for June 25, 2007 is “2007年6月25日.” And in Chinese letters and documents, the date is always shown at very bottom of the stationery–under the signature–not at the top of the page.
  • For a person’s name, there are always some rules to follow. Except those established names such as John(约翰), David(大卫), Peter(彼得), transliteration is generally acceptable. However, to mimic the pronunciation, only “benign” and “meaningless” characters should be used, such as for Sheldon we use 谢尔登 or 薛尔顿. Awkward words, although they have the same pronunciation, like 斜儿蹲 or 鞋二吨 should be avoided. And unless a middle name or initial is used between them, there is always a centered dot between the first name and the last name such as 约翰 ∙ 史密斯 for John Smith, but 约翰 R. 史密斯 for John R. Smith.
  • For addresses, contrary to the western practice, the proper order is always from top to bottom: country (China), province (Jiangsu), city/town (Nanjing), street (Jinshan Rd.), house number (1234), and postal code (300025).

This list goes on and on...

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