I’m sure you have heard of translation disasters in advertising campaigns launched by international companies doing business in China. Funny, in some instances, but nonetheless disasters that harmed product launches. There’s something about one chance to make a good first impression in those stories.
There are three “C’s” that impact translating Chinese to American English, and each of them must be understood and taken into account when making translations. They are “character,” “context,” and “culture.” Each of them is of equal importance, and without that understanding, translations will oftentimes fail, and sometimes with disastrous results.
The written Chinese language consists of characters, not letters as in the Latin alphabet. Beautiful in appearance, works of great art that take many years to master, these characters refer both to words and to phrases. The words represented by a character can have multiple meanings, however, and can be used in multiple ways.
A simple example: 好, hao. This character means “good,’ an adjective. However, when encountering someone, it may also be used as a greeting, as in English we might say “Hi,” or “Hey.”
When I see my friend Frank Teng, or chat with him on WeChat, I say “Ni hao,” as in “Hey.” (“ni” means “you”). I could just as easily and properly say “Hao,” too.
And by adding “ma” to the end of the phrase, as in “Ni hao ma,” I have made it a question: “How are you?” or “Are you good?” If he was good, he might just say “Hao,” meaning “good.”
So, is “hao” just a greeting, a noun? Well, not exactly.
It can also be an adverb, as in “well,” or “fine,” or “okay.” To the question posed above, “Ni hao ma?”, my friend Frank might also respond “Wo hen hao,” I am well, or I am fine, or I am okay.
One character, a simple one, having multiple meanings, and used in multiple ways. This is an over-simplified example of a common word written and spoken, but you get the idea.
Context In Chinese Translation
Let’s stay with the Chinese character 好, and dig a little deeper. Although not often used as such, the character and word (hao) can also refer to a feeling. Like and love would be included. It would not be incorrect to use the character and word as such, to refer to both the noun and verb version of each word, like and love.
More often than not, though, the Chinese character 爱 would be used when referring to love, as in “Wo ai ni,” I love you. Still, hao has been used in the same way, and its use is not wrong.
How do you tell the difference in the various uses, “good” and “well,” “like” and “love” when using the Chinese character 好, noun, verb, adverb? The context determines the difference, the situation in which it is being used, and the person(s) involved in its use.
Culture in Chinese Translation
Sometimes Chinese people like to express themselves indirectly, especially when it comes to feelings and emotions. This can also be true even in the simplest of circumstances.
For instance, while a native English speaker might refer to the big yellow moon in the sky, a native Chinese speaker might, instead, speak of the silver plate in the sky. Reading the Chinese character 镀银 (silver plate) on its own would make little sense to an English speaker who was looking at the night sky.
But, with an understanding of the Chinese culture and tendency sometimes to express themselves indirectly, and an awareness of the context, the English speaker will understand the use of the character.
This is, again, an extremely over-simplified example, but one easily understood.
The Combined “C’s” in Chinese Translation
These three “C’s” are crucial to an accurate translation from Chinese to English.
- A Chinese character can have multiple meanings and can be used in multiple ways (noun, verb, adverb, adjective)
- The context determines how the word is being used – where, when, with whom, under what circumstances
- An understanding of the Chinese culture is crucial (another “C” word) in translating Chinese to English.
Chinglish Translations can help sort out the three “C’s” in assisting you with translating your Chinese document into English. Xu Shui and Frank Teng grew up in China, and their essence is Chinese. Yet, they have also stayed in the US for many years: Frank is a naturalized citizen now; and, Shui holds a green card and is living in the US today.
I grew up in the US, but also lived in China, a monk at a small Daoist temple in Hubei Province, and traveled extensively throughout the country alone as I learned both the culture and the language.
These are the backgrounds and the cultural familiarity we bring to our translation work. Let us help you with your translation needs.