Untangling Chinese translation

The common understanding of translation is that it’s a linguistic process, a language “flipping-over”. However, translating involves an understanding of more than just words - it carries culture, context and idioms. In this article we discuss some of the nuances of translating from English to Chinese.

“Just accurately translate what’s written,” you demand.

Well, if we’re emphasising accuracy, let’s consider this sentence: “Being a teacher is being present at the creation, when the clay begins to breathe”. If this was literally and “accurately” translated into Chinese, the embedded strong religious meaning could be lost.

Besides, the translated Chinese version will be read by a Chinese audience, who most likely have grown up in a Buddhist milieu with limited, if any, exposure to Christianity, whose concepts are referred to in the sentence above. This demonstrates that a translator must be well-grounded in the culture of both the author and target readership. (Religion is an integral part of our cultural inheritance.)

Consider translating this: “You’re a lucky dog”. In English, the saying will be well accepted and the reader may even detect the imbued light-hearted tone. But you have to be truly courageous to equate Chinese readers to a dog, as the comparison is culturally derogative.

Differences in logic

Then there are differences in reasoning and the way the different cultures process logic. A sentence like “the leather box is five times smaller than the wooden one” is well understood in English. For a Chinese mind, though, an object that is “half times smaller” will be half the size. If it’s “one times smaller” it’s reduced to nothing, and “five times smaller” is just magic.

I believe we live in an era of specialisation. All of us – with few exceptions – acknowledge quietly that we understand less than we openly admit. However, when a foreign language is involved, many of us presume the translator is a person of words who is accomplished in all fields of knowledge.

Try this: “Lamivudine diphosphate is the predominant anabolite and as such is assumed to be the rate-limiting step in phosphorylation to the active lamivudine triphosphate.”

Let’s confess we do not really understand the meaning here, even if we have the help of a dictionary. If we don’t understand, it’s fair to say that the translator probably doesn’t either, unless his specialisation happens to be medicine.

So when you’re reassured by someone that he accepts all types of translation assignments, be wary. In this regard, agencies do not provide much of a guarantee either. Smaller agencies may not have sufficient resources to do a good job while their larger counterparts may tick all the “specialisation” boxes in the register form, but may represent many, many individuals, each of whom is a mere serial number in a huge listing of translators. In this case personal interactions are anything but feasible.

In short, if you engage a translator, you should be certain about their specialisation. Better still, you need to know that they have been keeping abreast of the concerned body of knowledge.

Understanding China’s law

This is an important and, unfortunately, often overlooked issue.

Many business documents are promotional in nature. Clients typically have products or services in which they have much at stake; they are eager to impart their enthusiasm to their potential clients, so they boast about them, even though they believe they’re being modest.

Here are the latest amendments to China’s advertising law (Chapter 3, “Contents of Advertisements,” Advertisements Law of the People’s Republic of China), which stipulate that advertisements may not contain such words as “state-level,” the “highest-level” or “best”. When communicating to clients in China, legal nuisances are the last thing you need.

The take-home message here is simple. The language conversion component of translating, ironically, is only a small part of the translation process. It takes more than being bilingual. Specialised industry knowledge and life experience in both cultures are more important than linguistic training.

So the next time you have a project to be completed in Chinese, say for example you want to have your prospectus translated into that language, seek suppliers who can demonstrate this capability. It’s your best bet.



By William Wei Yue

William Wei Yue is BWD’s translator, and accredited by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters.