Your company translates into Chinese: what do you need to know?

Published on 05/08/2019

Managing projects that involve the translation of languages we do not know is a real challenge. When these languages use an alphabet other than the Roman alphabet, the challenge is even greater. Chinese is one of those cases where the alphabet will make us feel totally disoriented. Learning Chinese with the sole aim of being able to manage translation projects is totally unfeasible. However, you can learn some peculiarities of Chinese that will help you at least prevent some of the problems that Chinese presents in your translation and take them into account when hiring a freelance translator or translation agency.

Languages are the most visible part of the cultural differences between different countries. Chinese, as an Asian language, presents great differences from French, English, Spanish or other European languages: it is a tonal language, its writing does not represent sounds, it has no articles..

1. Not all Chinese speak Chinese

So far we have presented Chinese as if it were a single homogeneous language. That's not the case. Up to 13 different dialects (or 6 depending on the language classification) are spoken in China. There is talk of dialects, but they are really different languages. Speakers of these dialects do not understand each other orally. The differences between the languages in this family of languages are greater than those between the Romance languages! Yes, Spanish is more like French than Cantonese is like Mandarin.

Not all Chinese speak Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language. Currently, the official language spoken is based on a standardization of Mandarin spoken in Beijing. During the last two generations, the use of this standard Chinese has doubled. According to 2007 data, the use of standard Chinese among 15-29 year olds was 70.12% (this percentage is increasing in cities and among the more educated population). However, among the Chinese aged 60-69, the percentage is 30.97%. 

2. So, what Chinese do I translate into?

If you've read the previous section, you probably already know the answer. Yes, we will translate into Mandarin Chinese preferably in all cases. Even in neighbouring Taiwan, which represents the opposition to the communist regime, the official language is Mandarin Chinese, even though the most widely spoken language among the population is Taiwanese.

So, what Chinese do I translate into?

The truth is that we can also translate into Cantonese Chinese or another language spoken in China, as they will all use the same characters. Well, when it comes to the Chinese guy, it couldn't be that simple. The truth is that there may be certain differences between the sinograms used according to the dialects/languages of Chinese. Therefore, if we have our target audience very localized in a region where the Mandarin dialect is not spoken, the best approach is to use a translator who speaks that dialect.

If you are having an interview with your Chinese client and need interpretation, it can be important to find an interpreter who speaks your client's dialect, especially if you want to surprise and please him. As we have seen most people with higher education will speak in standard Chinese, which works as a lingua franca in China. So if your interpreter speaks standard Chinese that will solve the problem. But if your client speaks Cantonese or Taiwanese and you get an interpreter of this dialect, it will be a pleasant surprise and you will surely make him feel more comfortable.

Ah! I forgot, it should be noted that Mandarin Chinese, like all other Chinese dialects, can be written in two different ways: traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.

3. But then, do I need to translate into traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese?

When we talk about translation, this is the most important aspect to take into account. With the 1966 Chinese cultural revolution, the reforms in Chinese writing that had begun in the 1950s were consolidated. This gave rise to simplified Chinese, a form of writing in Chinese that sought to facilitate the writing of Chinese, while at the same time being charged with a political tinge by a regime that longed to break any link with the past.

But then, do I need to translate into traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese?

As might be expected, the Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan, a refuge from resistance to political change in mainland China, continued to retain the traditional Chinese script. So, if your company has China, Malaysia or Singapore as a target market, you will need your Chinese translations to be in simplified Chinese. But if you are looking for the market in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao or the Chinese community in the United States, you will need the texts written in traditional Chinese. And, yes, if your company is targeting all Chinese speakers you will need to translate into both traditional and simplified Chinese. On the other hand, it is true that the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese are few and, without much difficulty, a reader of traditional Chinese will read the simplified one and vice versa.

4. What fonts can I use in my content translated into Chinese?

One of the surprises that we can find when introducing the Chinese translation in our designs, is to see the appearance of squares. If this happens, it means that the font we are using does not contain Chinese characters and therefore we will have to choose a font that contains them.
Whether you're working on a Mac or Windows, there are now a large number of Unicode-encoded fonts that contain Chinese characters. So simply by choosing one of these sources we can see our texts translated into Chinese. As a generic font we can use MS Arial Unicode, but we can also choose from a wide selection of Chinese specific fonts. In these cases, it will be important to consider whether our translation is in traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese. You can see some of these sources here.

What fonts can I use in my Chinese translation

5. Other curiosities of the Chinese

If you are concerned about your future prospects and are thinking of learning Chinese to fatten up your professional resume, you may be interested in these aspects of Chinese:

5.1. What does it mean that Chinese is a tonal language?

Well, you could say the Chinese sing to talk. This is a characteristic that it shares with other Asian tonal languages such as Vietnamese or Thai. This is a characteristic that frustrates many Westerners when it comes to learning Chinese. But we're in luck. If, like me, you are considering learning Chinese, you will be pleased to know that standard Chinese has "only" 4 tones: far less than the 9 tones that Cantonese can have!

What does it mean that Chinese is a tonal language?

The tones are at syllable level. So imagine being able to take the syllable "yes" in Spanish and give it four different tones to mean completely different things. Crazy, right? But don't be discouraged, we Europeans managed to learn Chinese.
The four tones used in standard Chinese are: first tone, which is pronounced in a sustained way, without any variation; second tone, which starts low and ends high; third tone, which starts in the middle, then goes down a lot and ends high; fourth tone, which starts high and ends low. Can you imagine? Do you want to try?
The result of all this can be seen in the example of the syllable "ma": mā, in the first tone, means "mother"; ma, in the second tone, can mean "sesame"; mǎ, in the third tone, can mean "horse"; mà, in the fourth tone, "to scold". We have less left to translate Chinese!

5.2. Why do the Chinese find it harder to learn to read?

Well, for basically the same reason it's gonna cost you, too. Because it's much harder. As it is not a phonetic alphabet, as it is German, French, Russian, Arabic and we could say that most of the languages, we have to learn "one by one" each of the symbols that compose it. Each of these symbols will represent a word, usually monosyllabic words.

Why the Chinese find it harder to learn to read

So, if to learn to read Spanish, we need to memorize the representation of the phonemes, which we do by combining the 27 letters of the alphabet in Spanish; in Chinese, a person considered educated masters 10,000 symbols. Don't despair, if you memorize 3,000 you'll be able to defend yourself and read a newspaper. In addition, the Chinese characters are built with a certain logic that helps in their learning. It includes small symbols, called "radicals", which contain semantic or phonetic information.

5.3. Chinese is not sexist

When I say that it is not sexist, I mean that the words are not masculine, feminine or neutral, thus saving the effort and pirouettes that have to be made in German, French or Spanish to use an inclusive language. In fact, as a reflection of society, Chinese has elements in writing that we can consider sexist. Specifically, there is a radical (small symbols included in the sinograms) that means woman and appears in words like "envy", "suspicion" or "devil". Another example is that the character for "adultery" is written with three radical "women" piled up.

5.4. The Chinese speak like Tarzan

The Chinese speak like Tarzan

Well, yes, the Chinese speak like Tarzan and understand each other perfectly. I mean specifically that verbs are not conjugated in Chinese. Those who learn Spanish or French would like it already! The way verbal tenses are expressed in Chinese is through particles that indicate time and auxiliary verbs, as long as the context does not make the verbal tense clear. Not everything had to be complicated to learn Chinese! 

5.5. They write to each other, but they don't speak to each other

If you have come this far you will know that the Chinese speak different languages so different from each other that they cannot understand each other speaking, it is as if a Frenchman is determined to speak French in Spain and understand it. However, as I mentioned, Chinese is written using symbols (or sinograms) that have an associated way of pronouncing them. The practical result of all this is that a Chinese person who speaks only Cantonese can communicate through writing with a Chinese person who speaks only Mandarin or Taiwanese.

It occurs to me that a writing based on symbols is not so far-fetched after all. It seems reasonable to think that in the origins of Chinese writing was the idea of being able to have the same writing system for a multilingual population. This system has undoubtedly contributed to maintaining political and administrative cohesion over the centuries.

They write to each other, but they don't speak to each other

Chinese as a language reflects the richness, diversity and complexity of a country and culture that is determined to take over from the most powerful nation on earth, as Spain, England, France and the United States once did. Chinese hegemony is the most certain future for future generations and knowing their language is an advantage for those who dare. 


Josh Gambin's picture
Josh Gambin

Josh Gambin holds a 5-year degree in Biology from the University of Valencia (Spain) and a 4-year degree in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Granada (Spain). He has worked as a freelance translator, in-house translator, desktop publisher and project manager. From 2002, he is a founding member of AbroadLlink and currently works as Marketing and Sales Manager.

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