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English-Chinese Translation FAQs

May 30, 2016

What’s the difference between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese?

 

These are different writing systems of Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese, as the name implies, is the traditional way of writing Chinese. In the 1950s as part of a push to combat illiteracy, the government of the People’s Republic of China adopted and promoted a revised system of writing called Simplified Chinese that made Chinese characters easier to learn and write.

 

As a result, Simplified Chinese is now the standard writing system in Mainland China. Traditional Chinese, meanwhile, continues to be used in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Overseas Chinese communities generally use Traditional Chinese, but the use of Simplified Chinese is on the rise due to the recent surge of Mainland Chinese immigrants.

 

Singapore and Malaysia are the two countries outside of Mainland China where Simplified Chinese is the official standard. The United Nations made Simplified Chinese one of its working languages in 1973. 

 

What’s the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese?

 

Mandarin is the official language in Mainland China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages of Singapore. Cantonese is a dialect spoken mainly in southern Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, and many Chinese communities overseas.

 

When spoken, Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually unintelligible, as their grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics are markedly distinct. As Mandarin is now taught in schools all across China, most younger or educated native Cantonese speakers are able to understand Mandarin.

 

While Mandarin is written in either Simplified or Traditional Chinese depending on the region, Cantonese, which has its own unique characters beyond common Chinese characters, is rarely written down except in informal media such as instant messaging, online forums, and tabloids.

 

Therefore, Cantonese is not a conventional target language in Chinese document translation. Instead, translation projects are divided into Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese depending on the target audience. 

 

How does punctuation work in Chinese?

 

Chinese punctuation has a lot in common with English punctuation. The general usage of commas, colons, semicolons, periods, quotation marks, question marks, exclamation marks, and parentheses are all very similar. However, some essential differences exist. For example, two prominent divergences arise in quotation. In Chinese, commas or periods do not always go inside closing quotations marks. Also a colon, not a comma, precedes a direct quotation.

 

Some functionally equivalent Chinese punctuation marks look a bit different from their English counterparts. For example, in Chinese, the period is a small circle, the em dash is longer, and ellipses are six floating dots.

 

Then there are also punctuation marks found in English that are nonexistent in Chinese and vice versa. For instance, apostrophes, hyphens, and slashes are not found in Chinese. Meanwhile, Chinese includes distinct punctuation marks for connecting multiple short items in a list (、),  indicating book/article/movie titles (《》), and separating year/month/day or Western first/middle/last names (·). Instead of using italics for emphasis, a dot is placed under each Chinese character to be emphasized. This last effect, however, is surprisingly difficult to produce in HTML codes and word processors; acceptable alternatives include having the same font in bold and having a different font for the emphasized part.

 

How do you translate Western names into Chinese?

 

Whenever applicable, the personal choice of the described individual takes priority. Some Western diplomats, scholars, and business executives, for example, have a close relationship with China and have given themselves Chinese names.

 

For renowned Western writers, philosophers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, and historical figures, there often exists a conventional, agreed-upon Chinese transliteration of their names. There are also standard transliterations for the most common first and last names. It’s important to note, however, that Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have different rules for and approaches to transliterating foreign names.

 

For names that do not have a standard transliteration readily available, the usual practice is to use characters that have the closest sound to the original. The translator must exercise due discretion and avoid character combinations that may have negative or offensive connotations.

 

The multiplicity of translations made in different regions and by different translators is potentially confusing. Therefore, it is always advisable to include the original English name in parentheses at first mention.

 

What is the format for dates and times in Chinese?

 

The general format for dates and times in Chinese is year + month + date + day of the week + time of the day (morning / noon / afternoon) + time.

 

What is the number format in Chinese?

 

In the United States, numbers are descriptively grouped by the unit of thousands, and it’s a common practice to add commas in a large number for easy readability. In China, however, numbers are descriptively grouped by the unit of ten thousands and commas are not used in numbers. For example, 1.5 million is 150 wan in Chinese; 100,000 would be 10 wan in Chinese but rendered as 100000.

 

How do you match Western language fonts in Chinese?

 

The first thing to consider here is whether the original font is serif (Times, Times New Roman) or sans serif (Arial, Helvetica). In Chinese, the equivalent of serif / sans-serif classification is Song ti (宋体) / Hei ti (黑体). SimSun, a kind of Song ti, is one of the most commonly used Chinese fonts and is often regarded as the Chinese equivalent of Times New Roman. Microsoft Yahei, a kind of Hei ti, is often used to match Helvetica.

 

Above is my contribution to a collaborative project initiated and organized by Lily Chen in an attempt to clarify some of the potentially confusing issues regarding English-Chinese translation. Eric Chiang and Wesley Holzer are the other two members of the team. 

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