Translation, Translation Culture

Interesting Notes About Chinese Translation

Chinese translation

There are over 1.5 billion Chinese living in China. There are millions more scattered across the globe. If you wanted to communicate with this great mass of people, how would you do so? You might say, “I’d speak Chinese.” That is a good thought, however, which language would you speak to do so? While Mandarin may be the official language of China, it is only one of a dozen regional languages and each is unintelligible from the other. The four main languages are Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), and Min. The number of people that speak each of these languages vary, but Mandarin is by far the most spoken with nearly 1 billion people. Wu, Yue, and Min each have between 60 and 80 million speakers. As a point of reference, consider that the entire United Kingdom is comprised of less than 65 million people.

Within China’s vast geographical expanse there are literally hundreds of local dialects. Each dialect not only has its own vocabulary, but many also have a unique system of written language. At first blush, it may appear that localization may become a major challenge, but consider the following:

  • Businesses use Mandarin for official communication
  • Political and academic institutions use Mandarin as their primary language
  • Students in all Chinese schools are required to learn Mandarin
  • The official language of the Chinese federal and state workforces is Mandarin

Mandarin has been called the English of the Chinese world. This is actually slightly backward, since Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world. The sentiment is correct, however, as English is the go-to language for business, education, and commerce in most of the world. Within China and Taiwan, the language of business, commerce, and education is Mandarin. It is also one of the four official languages of Singapore. Even in areas where Cantonese is heavily spoken, when business is conducted, Mandarin is the language used.

The earliest Chinese writing has been traced back to 1400 BC, making it one of the oldest written languages in the world that is still relevant in modern culture. Chinese language characters are known as “logographs”, a character that depicts a word or phrase, as contrasted to a phoneme which depicts a sound. Adaptations took place in the written language through the years, and 1500 years after its inception, in approximately 100 AD, the Chinese scholar Xu Shen categorized the symbols to make it easier to teach and learn. Today, there are two main systems for writing Chinese: the traditional and the simplified. The simplified language is a compilation of the most frequently used characters. It was most popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its easier name, the simplified writing never caught on and isn’t used outside of the People’s Republic of China and Singapore.

In addition to logographs, many Chinese symbols represent parts of words so they are not true logographs but ideographs. The addition of many ideographs made the Chinese graphical system immense. Already in the late 1600s and early 1700s, there were over 50,000 characters placed in the dictionary created by K’ang Hsi. This number continued to climb and there are currently over 100,000 characters. Thankfully, to be fluent, a person need only have knowledge of approximately 2,000 -2,500 symbols.

Because the Chinese symbols represent thoughts, they can be written left to right, right to left, or even up and down. The freedom of character placement makes translation interesting, especially when translating from Mandarin to a language with specific rules of linear character placement and alignment.

While Mandarin is the most popular language in the world and English is the second, the two languages are fighting to give each other the advantage. More and more Chinese are speaking English and Mandarin is the fastest growing language in the west, even outpacing Spanish.

When Mandarin is taught as a second language, Roman characters can be used to describe the Chinese thoughts. Pinyin is the word representing Mandarin words written in Roman lettering.

For many, Mandarin Chinese is a fascinating language. For others, it is a necessary part of their everyday lives. Whatever the case may be, when considering translation into or from Chinese, choose a translation agency with experience and expertise in the source and target languages. After all, unlike many more modern languages, Chinese is rooted in millennia of culture and tradition that must be understood if the translation is to be accurate.

1 Comment

  1. Sanjay Kumar

    Hi,
    your translation blog is awesome and very help full . I read your blog an i think your blog is very interesting.
    Thanks,
    sanjay

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