What Makes Chinese Translations So Difficult?

Chinese translation

With 1.3 billion native speakers, Chinese is the most spoken language worldwide. Interestingly, it is also thought of as the most difficult language to learn. In Mandarin alone, there are more than 80,000 characters, making Chinese translations seem especially cumbersome. Additionally, Chinese is exceptionally nuanced because of its tonal nature.

Here are some of the challenges that linguists face when working on Chinese translations.

Several Dialects are Part of the Language

Mandarin is the official language of China, but it is only one of several distinctly different dialects of Chinese. The four primary languages are Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), and Min. In Mandarin, there are four tones that determine how a word is pronounced, so one word can have four meanings. For example, the word ma can mean mother, scold, rough, or horse, depending on how the word is spoken.

Since the dialect that is being used affects word choices and meanings, it is important for translators to have a thorough understanding of which dialect is needed for the Chinese translation.

Understanding the Use of Characters

The most important aspect of the Chinese language to understand is that its writing system is based on symbols, which are known as ideographic characters. Each character often represents a thought, rather than just a single word, and can have one or more meanings. In addition, there are about 3,000 characters that are used most frequently, along with 6,000 characters that are commonly used in technical writings and literature.

One of the unique aspects of Chinese writing is that symbols can be written right to left or left to right, as well as up and down, depending on what is being conveyed. As such, translations can be difficult, particularly when Chinese is paired with a language that has a linear writing style. Because accurate translations depend not only on the literal meaning of each character but also the context, the translator working on your project should be a native speaker of Chinese.

Working with Idioms

As a language that is embedded in culture and tradition, Chinese is rich in its use of idioms. Known as chengyu, Chinese idiomatic expressions consist of four characters. The chengyu largely stems from ancient literature, where a story, myth, or historical fact can be explained in an efficient and brief way. With more than 5,000 official chengyu ingrained in the language, it is vital that translators comprehend and relay the cultural context of the idioms in the translated text.

Knowing How to Structure Sentences

In Chinese, there are two sentence structures; they are simple and complex sentences. Although the simple sentence structure seems straightforward with a subject, predicate, and object, there are many differences between this structure and English. For example, in Chinese, the predicate is not always a verb, as it is in English. Additionally, the Chinese complex sentence is comprised of groupings of simple sentences. Therefore, translators need to have a thorough understanding of Chinese sentence patterns to accurately transfer the concepts to another language.

Mastering the Complex Grammar System

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the Chinese language for translators is the differences in the grammar system as compared to other languages, such as English. For example, words do not have singular and plural forms; there is just one word for both. Another grammar rule that might not resonate with speakers of other languages is that Chinese sentences are focused on the topic, meaning that the topic of the sentence is stated first.

Additionally, verbs are not changed to express tenses. As such, the meanings of words have to be figured out by considering the context in which they are stated.

Considering the challenges of Chinese translations, partnering with a language services provider that specializes in Chinese is the best way to ensure that your translation is precise and takes into account all of the cultural nuances that are part of the language.


With 1.3 billion native speakers, Chinese is the most spoken language worldwide; it is also one of the most challenging languages to translate.

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