Chinese: how to avoid the pitfalls

With over one billion, two hundred thousand speakers, Chinese is the world’s most used language, the language of the immense Chinese mainland and of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. It is the language of China’s impressive economic growth; of the import-export activity that has made for the movement of millions of products, both “good and bad”, around the world; of delocalisation; of large-scale deposits of raw materials; of price battles; and of new riches. For some it is the end of the West, for others it is the West’s saviour, and for others still, it is the West itself, only with a change of address.

And yet these new markets, immortalised by the Shanghai Expo and the annual Canton trade fair, pose a great barrier: that of a form of linguistic communication which can be characterised by ambiguity. The numerous misunderstandings and severe damage that can result from these, the complaints about counterfeit goods, the resounding failure of numerous businesses are, for the most part, the result of a mutual inability to comprehend cultural differences between East and West. When it comes to relations with a country that is so distant in geography, culture and tradition, the importance of linguistic precision cannot be overestimated. This ranges from the extensive paperwork needed to obtain entrance visas to the handling of customs documents, from the complexities of contracts to the editing of manuals, technical specifications and communications relative to production and to quality control.

English, the lingua franca of much of the world, is not sufficient for those wishing to venture into business in the Far East. The Chinese admire foreigners who communicate in Chinese because they are intensely proud of their language, a written code that, over the centuries, brought the unification of the immense territories of the Celestial Empire and that, by its very nature, both hides and reveals much about Chinese culture. In addition, to present documents and instructions directly in Chinese represents a fundamental factor in the protection of a company’s interests. It guards against the sometimes ambiguous and distorted interpretations of bridge languages such as English, usually caused by difficulties in understanding the foreign language or the absence of a concept in the other language. It is clear that the preparation of a good translation in Chinese requires great care and expertise: in the understanding of its content, in the recognition of the country’s diverse institutions and systems, and in the choice of the appropriate spelling and linguistic variants.

With regard to the linguistic differences in Chinese language, it is appropriate to remember that in the vast land of China there exist two forms of script, the simplified and the traditional, and that the choice between them will depend on the destination and nature of a document (e.g. the vast public of the People’s Republic or a public restricted to the island of Taiwan? a technical text or a volume of picturesque elegance?). One must also remember that the linguistic register of, for example, daily newspapers or contracts tends to express modern concepts and needs while at the same time utilising the elegant, classical linguistic forms and structures of centuries ago. Furthermore, with regard to the linguistic variants, one must recall that the Chinese language comprises at least a dozen ‘topolects’, in other words, languages more or less independent of one another, as in the case of Cantonese Chinese which differs greatly from Mandarin.

Finding all the necessary skills in a Chinese translator is often difficult: whereas people at the beginning of the last century were encouraged to travel and learn foreign languages, achieving significant cultural expansion and considerable linguistic results, the subsequent Maoist period and the famine problems that hit China in the middle of the 20th century generated a strong policy of autocracy that froze cultural exchanges abroad, censored numerous works of literature and blocked the learning of foreign languages and cultures. In that period of closure, academic discussion and the development of translation theories, necessary to form good translators, were frozen too.

In those few cases where study of foreign languages was permitted, the tendency until the 1990s was to use a memonic approach, that is, the learning of single phrases by memory, typical of the centuries-old Mandarin tradition but now proven to be ineffective, since it does not develop the critical-analytic capacity of a linguist and does not allow him or her to communicate freely, beyond the few phrases learned.

Adding to the poor knowledge of foreign languages in a population born around the middle of the last century were the phonetic difficulties that the Chinese population has in pronouncing foreign languages such as English. This can make understanding their English speech extremely difficult.

It is evident, furthermore, that the vast majority of translators who live outside their country of origin come from an agricultural or commercial background and throw themselves into the translation market without having the necessary linguistic expertise.

Finally, nascent Chinese companies who provide translation services tend to be focused on making short-term profit rather than having solid professional ambitions. It seems that, as in many emerging economies, even the communication and culture sectors are seen as representing a way of making quick profits, often without even investing in the development of a quality service or contributing to the common good.

Our professional translation services in Chinese

SMG UK Translations Limited (SMG UK) provides translation and terminological revision services to businesses that require high-quality texts in Chinese. Our organisation makes use of internal staff who are suitably trained and active in academic-level research.

With the objective of contributing positively to the overseas image of our clients and of developing their business, we take on translations of commercial, technical, legal, scientific and literary texts in Mandarin and Cantonese and in other variants of Chinese, also offering the localisation services necessary for cultural and technical adjustments to be made to the translations, while respecting the conventions of the target public.

Among the main translation areas, our work includes contracts, letters of attorney, manuals, instruction booklets, technical drawings in AutoCAD, catalogues, company presentations and websites, press releases, balance sheets and medical texts.

Assistance of competent Chinese interpreters

Conscious as we are of the central role that oral communication and cultural mediation play in obtaining good results from negotiations, we have organised an interpreting service for the Chinese language in China and in various Western countries.

We can also do simultaneous translation, ideal for media events, company meetings, factory visits, conventions and international trade shows.

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