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Chinese whispers: Challenges of Chinese for localisation

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Chinese is the world's most widely spoken language. Approximately 1.5 billion people around the globe speak one of its variants, yet it remains one of the languages about which people outside Greater China have remarkably little understanding.

The multifaceted evolution, unique geographical distribution and sheer complexity of the language have all been factors in causing difficulties in communication not only between Chinese and non- Chinese speaking regions, but also within China. This clearly affects the ways in which to deal successfully with China, and yet it is not uncommon to meet specialists in Chinese translation and interpretation who do not have a clear idea of the complexity and diversity of this ancient language. A brief survey of the nature of Chinese today is a good starting point from which to gain a better grasp of these issues.

Traditional or simplified?

Localisation professionals tend to rely on these two beacons to guide them through the minefield of Chinese translation, with varying degrees of understanding as to what it means to use either. China's writing system dates back almost 3,000 years and the script has evolved along social, political and cultural lines. Traditional (long-form) characters are the oldest form of Chinese characters, and are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and amongst most overseas Chinese communities. The implementation of simplified (shortform) characters in mainland China took place in the 1950s under the auspices of the Communist administration, and this system is today used in mainland China and Singapore.

The process of simplification was intended to improve literacy, and took place in several different ways: reducing the number of 'strokes' in a character, reducing the number of characters themselves and also using one character to represent several that previously shared the same phonetic pronunciation. Simplification also took the form of selecting a single standard character in cases where several variant forms existed - the character selected was not necessarily the least complex to write, but more often the most widely used. The process was therefore multi-faceted, and was by no means predictable. In another twist, although this was the direction mainland Chinese was taking in the 20th century, traditional characters are now far more 'in vogue' than they have been over the last few decades, a trend which is likely linked to cultural and political developments.

Dialects or languages?

Chinese comprises a notoriously high number of regional variants. This is largely a result of the sheer scale of the country, and the negative effect that physical distance had on communication. Although 'dialect' is often used to translate 'fangyan' (regional variants), the differences between the major spoken variations of Chinese are such that they are mutually unintelligible. Linguists find themselves arguing about whether Chinese is a language or a family of languages. Different schemes attempt to classify the Chinese spoken language; some divide the variations into seven to ten groups (Mandarin, Jin, Wu, Hui, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Yue, Pinghua and Min). Within these broad groups, there are further sub-groups, many of which are mutually incomprehensible even within their main grouping.

The diverse nature of spoken Chinese has led to a curious situation where regions sharing the same written script do not necessarily understand each others' spoken tongues. At the same time, writers using different scripts can communicate with no great difficulty. Although Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau all use traditional characters, for example, the official spoken language in Taiwan is Mandarin - significantly different to the Cantonese predominantly used in Hong Kong and Macau. On the other hand, spoken Taiwanese Mandarin (where it is called Guoyu) is, in a loose sense, the same as the Mandarin used in mainland China (where it is called Putonghua). From a localisation perspective it is essential to establish which variety of spoken Chinese is required, as well as, crucially, acknowledging the various socio-political issues that come with it. This applies to both interpreting and written translation - while a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong will have no problems understanding a traditional Chinese text written by a Mandarin speaker from Taiwan, the Hong Konger will find certain vocabulary and turns of phrase unfamiliar, and will be aware that the text was not written with Hong Kong in mind.

Modern localisation

As with many languages, the fields of human activity which are most often localised today - such as finance, economics, IT, law and medicine - bring with them notions, phrases and terminology which are quite literally still under construction. The localisation expert often has an active part to play in the crystallisation of such terms. When overlaid with the complexities of Chinese, this phenomenon becomes even more acute. Particularly in developing and specialised areas such as technology and science, language may develop differently in different parts of China. In the former British colony of Hong Kong, English words are often used directly or transliterated, and you will find that no 'proper' Chinese word is in common use. An example of this is 'modem', which is almost universally written in English, although a Chinese word (tiao jie qi) does in fact exist. Knowing when and in which regions such terms are acceptable is a skill in itself, and one which requires ongoing study.

The production of technological systems capable of handling the elaborate Chinese scripts has been little short of revolutionary. Of particular relevance to the localisation industry is software capable of converting between simplified and traditional characters. It is, however, a common fallacy that there is a direct correlation between the two, and that conversion between them simply entails mapping from one character set to another. In actuality, there are major differences between the systems on various levels: character sets, encoding methods, orthography (choice of characters), vocabulary, and semantics. Although localisation companies are often required to produce different Chinese versions of the same text, computer systems are not sufficient to do this. In order to deliver a truly superior product, a specialised translator with an in-depth knowledge of the specific language as well as cultural awareness of the target region must work with engineers to ensure that the text, graphics and functionality of a localised document are optimised for the target audience while remaining faithful to the original. Similarly, when localising software applications - a service increasingly required for Chinese markets - complex encoding systems as well as intricate human aspects must be recognised to make a localised product suitable for the Chinese market. The intricacies of written Chinese have thus carried over into - and even proliferate in - the realm of cuttingedge technology, making successful localisation a challenging but venerable art.

How will Chinese evolve?

Largely due to the growing strength of the mainland Chinese economy, the need for simplified Chinese localisation services has recently increased dramatically, to the extent that it seems likely to eclipse its 'traditional' counterpart. On the other hand, as communication and transport between Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong also develop through both trade and tourism, and popular culture intermingles across Greater China, the language usage within the three regions may become more closely intertwined. Cross-fertilisation is apparent Chinawide: it is not uncommon to find shop signs on a street in mainland China written in traditional characters. Schools in Hong Kong teach two written languages (Chinese and English) and three spoken languages (Cantonese, English and Putonghua). Likewise, Southern Chinese provinces are particularly affected by neighbouring Hong Kong, while Hong Kong is in turn influenced by Taiwan. Information technology terminology has begun to change in Guangzhou and Shenzhen - take the word 'digital' as an example: in northern parts of China it is called 'shu zi', while in Shenzhen and Hong Kong it is known as 'shu ma'.

Zhao Yuanren’s poem picture

Observers often speculate on whether complex calligraphic Asian scripts will one day be phased out in favour of the roman alphabet or a similarly ubiquitous writing system, much as Vietnamese was transformed several centuries ago. Not long after assuming power, the Communist government of the People's Republic of China did call for a new 'national alphabet', and began considering proposals to switch over to roman, cyrillic or arabic characters (a system based on numerals was even discussed!). Out of this emerged 'Pinyin', a romanisation system that has made learning Chinese a lot easier for many foreign language students. For a time it looked as if Pinyin would replace characters altogether, but this proved unfeasible, largely due to the huge number of homonyms in the Chinese language. This was illustrated by the scholar Zhao Yuanren, who wrote a poem about eating lions which consisted entirely of the Pinyin word 'shi'. Although Pinyin now exists alongside China's customary characters, it seems that the phasing out of the Chinese script as we know it is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

If its history is anything to go by, we can safely assume that the evolution of the Chinese language will continue to produce intriguing developments, and these will create exciting challenges in its use and localisation. It is also clear that social, political and economic factors, both domestic and international, will play a large role in determining the precise nature of these advances. In a region undergoing such rapid change in so many areas, it is hardly surprising that language is no exception.

Asian Absolute supply translation and localisation services for China, Japan and the Asia-Pacific region.



This article was originally published in Communicate - the Association of Translation Companies' newsletter -

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