Chinese is the most used language in the world. It is spoken in numerous Asian regions, in addition to several more regions containing Chinese communities. The Chinese dialect is broad in variety, and complex in term and vocabulary formulation. In addition to its dialect, Chinese writing is just as complex stylistically. Being so complex, the Chinese language lends itself to several unique difficulties for Chinese translators and interpreters. Contributing factors that complicate the translating and interpreting process are geographic and demographic.
First, let us take a look at the basics of written and spoken Chinese.
- Writing: The Chinese language does not have a set alphabet. If you pick up a Chinese newspaper, what you would see are pages full of Chinese “characters” in print. Each character is a syllable, a single concept. Several Chinese characters are put together to form a single phrase or word. Characters vary in the number of strokes- the number of lines that make up each character- from just one to over thirty.
There are two versions of written Chinese: Simplified & Traditional.
- Traditional Chinese is the older, original form of the written language.
- Simplified Chinese is derived from reducing the number of strokes per character from Traditional Chinese to make reading and writing simpler.
Most Chinese people are able to understand the majority of both traditional & simplified Chinese. They are, however, likely to be more comfortable with one version over the other.
- Spoken: The Chinese language is made up of hundreds of different dialects, including:
- Mandarin (Guanhua)
- Cantonese (Yue)
- Wu (Shanghaiese)
- Xiang (Hunanese)
Mandarin is the most widely used dialect, and is considered the “common language”. Many Chinese speak Mandarin, in addition to their local dialect. During vacation in Taipei, I noticed several citizens were fluent in Hokkien (Taiwanese language) and very familiar with- if not absolutely fluent in speaking Mandarin.
There are a few elements that a translator must be aware of while working with the Chinese Language:
- Having the same Chinese dialect does not indicate same type of character usage. As aforementioned, there are two versions of written Chinese. Regions or groups that use the same dialect may not necessarily use the same version of Chinese writing. For example: The primary dialect of Hong Kong and Guangdong (of Mainland China) is Cantonese. However, each region uses different characters- Traditional for Hong Kong, Simplified for Guangdong.
Chinese dialects do share the same written characters. However, these characters do not always carry the same meaning for all dialects. For example, the Chinese character for “house” in Mandarin is 房. In Cantonese, 房 means “room”. In addition, the use of Chinese characters differs across dialects. The common form of saying “thank you” in Mandarin is “xie xie”, written as 謝謝. The common way of saying “thank you” in Cantonese for a gift, is “do jeh”, written as 多謝. Concluding a thank you note to someone fluent only in Mandarin with “多謝” will read as “duo xie”- which will seem oddly amusing to the receiver’s ear, and inaccurate.
- Forms of expression differ by region, even though two regions speak the same dialect. In other words, it is inaccurate to assume that all speakers of a single dialect say everything the same exact way. For instance, the translation for “You’re welcome” from English to Mandarin will differ for the Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese- both primary speakers of Mandarin. Saying “you’re welcome” in Taiwanese Mandarin, is “bu ke qi”. In Beijing of Mainland China, “you’re welcome” is “mei sher”. Saying “mei sher” in response to a “thank you” in Taiwan, will more than likely earn you a puzzled look.
By recognizing the issues discussed above, translators using Chinese language will not be overwhelmed when beginning their work. There are helpful, important steps a translator can take to ensure the final document/service appropriate for the client. The first crucial step for a translator is to work closely with his/her client to determine the target market or audience he/she is translating for. Afterwards, the translator is to accurately identify the proper written form to use in a written/printed document. For interpreters, they will need to determine the proper dialect to use.