Become a member of TranslationDirectory.com at just
$8 per month (paid per year)
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
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
So, when it comes to written Chinese,
we always translate into either Traditional or Simplified
Chinese, whereas we speak or interpret in either Mandarin
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
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
- 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,
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
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
- 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
If possible, provide one example of a particular
phrase or concept that only a properly qualified,
professional translator would be able to correctly
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
This list goes on and on...
Submit your article!
Read more articles - free!
Read sense of life articles!
this article to your colleague!
more translation jobs? Click here!
agencies are welcome to register here - Free!
translators are welcome to register here - Free!
Please see some ads as well as other content from TranslationDirectory.com: