Lost in Translation

Translating professional documents into Chinese (or vice versa) is not as simple as asking a bilingual member of staff or friend to do it for you. This is a very common mistake. It may get the job done quickly, painlessly and at no cost, but how would you like your business described in Chinese as striving to “succeed when the horse arrives”(马到成功)

The process of translating a document from English to Chinese is an art aswell as a science. Professional translators spend years perfecting their craft, a process of study, practice and observation. Not only do they need to be highly proficient in both languages, but they also need to learn the method of capturing the meaning, flavour and expression in the language, which is so much more than a simple translation of the actual words.

We are fortunate to work with a number of excellent translators and would be happy to refer you to them. Elle Wu (吴博雅), who has worked with us on a number of occassions does great work for our clients during and after finishing her formal “Conference Interpreting” degree at Macquarie University.

Here are Elle’s observations of the five common mistakes made in the process of translating documents from English into Chinese:

1. Registers and tones

Business documents can take a variety of forms. Some formal documents, such as a proposal, letter of intent or even a legal contract, will be relied on to interpret the written (and sometimes unwritten) intentions of both the writer and the reader. It is therefore important for translators to keep the translation formal, precise and strictly in adherence with the substance of the original document. Otherwise, the reliability and integrity of the documents can be seriously affected.

However, when translating other less formal documents like brochures, profiles, web sites and even advertisements, which aim to attract or motivate the reader to act in a certain way, translators should put extra effort into creating additional colour, flavour and “spin” into the words. However, in many cases, the translation can often be dull or tedious or, worst still, even over-exaggerated and/or distorted.

Remember, translation is an art and not only a science. If you want it done well, ask a professional to do it.

2. Word for word translation

One of the most common mistakes in translation is the “word for word” approach, where translators work strictly from the original text and avoid the often time consuming task of doing some background research on industry specific phrases or jargon. Translation is not as simple as it looks. Some words may lose their original meaning when they are included in a particular phrase or a sentence (e.g. “floating policy”, “weighted average”, “compound interest” etc.). Professional translators always carry out background research on the relevant industry before getting down to work. Additionally, their previous knowledge and experience from past jobs ensure that they capture the meaning as well as the intent in producing an accurate translation.

It is always wise to ask professional translators if they have ever worked in your specific industry before asking them to quote for a job.

3. Poor language proficiency and the absence of translation techniques

Good translators are naturally bilingual and fluent at speaking in one or more languages. However, it should never be assumed that native Chinese speakers who have worked for years in English speaking countries are naturally professional at working with both languages. Professional translators spend years doing language training in schools and universities and preferably will have lived in their language speaking countries for years. Only after they have had acquired outstanding language proficiency and experience can they proceed with a professional translation and interpretation practice.

However, good language proficiency is not the only requirement for good quality translation. There are many important translation techniques and solutions involved in the training process that takes years to master, for example omitting, adding, reconstruction, combination, text analysis, minimizing cultural differences, keeping the translation in its original style and flavour, etc. In addition, good translators should also maintain a Code of Ethics to be a reliable and responsible translator for their clients. Experience, training and practice is essential in building a career as a translator and achieving a high standard in this specialist field.

4. Inappropriate word choice

Translators are never too careful about making a word choice. Dictionaries will only present a range of choices without understanding the full context or meaning. For example, when promoting a product or service, companies often use words such as “promotion” or “publicity” which are often translated in Chinese to “propaganda”. An inappropriate word choice like this could easily pose threat to a company’s image and negatively influence the way they are perceived by clients or business partners.

5. Ignorance of Language conventions

You may have read the English version of a Chinese web site and noticed a phrase or sentence which you can understand but it is a long way from being correct. For example, a Chinese company’s profile was being translated as “Now we are working hard to reach our aim of “creating world-wide famous brand and build a first-class company”, which barely conveys the meaning but could not be regarded as a good translation. This is known as “translationese”, a term coined to describe a translation which is technically correct in meaning but awkward or uncomfortable for native language speakers

All languages have their own conventions, rules and idiosyncrasies. For example, it is not uncommon for a Chinese sentence to start without a subject (e.g. A full Chinese sentence could be “Deepen the reform of our company, implement new policies and strive for our annual goals”, while its English version is a phrase not a sentence.), or for a long English sentence to be simplified and translated into a four-character Chinese idiom (e.g. take measures without attention to the changes in circumstances: 刻舟求剑). It is also widely acknowledged that the frequent use of nouns is one of the typical features of English language, while in Chinese they would usually be replaced by verbs. If overlooked the translation, whilst technically accurate, would sound awkward and unnatural, and not be regarded as a high quality translation.  

It takes years of study, practice and experience for professional translators to perfect the art of converting an English document into Chinese (and vice versa) in a way which will faithfully captivate, motivate or even delight the reader. As can be seen from the above, this involves more than just simply translating the words from one language to another. Next time you need a document or web site translated, don’t assume that a bilingual member of staff or friend can achieve the level of professionalism that you naturally expect with the English version. Whilst you may not be aware of what’s been written, the people you are trying to impress with your translated version will form an opinion of you from the quality of the translation. You wouldn’t take this risk with your English version, so why do it with your Chinese translation?

For advice, guidance or support in this area or to obtain an obligation free quotation for a professional translation, please contact Jennifer via support@thinkglobal.com.au