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GCT-Taiwan English Chinese Translation and Web Site Localization

Mandarin Chinese - English - Chinese Translation

Translation into Chinese presents some unique challenges. GCT Taiwan (in conjunction with GCT China) handles translations for both the Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese Chinese markets - two very different versions of the language. Below is a little primer on what makes translating Chinese such an interesting challenge, plus some tips in planning your translation and avoiding upsetting political sensitivities.

What do you mean by 'Chinese'?
Saying that someone 'speaks Chinese' is somewhat misleading, akin to saying someone speaks 'European'. China is a nation of regions, each with their own language (confusingly referred to as 'dialects') and traditions. Today, when someone refers to 'Chinese' they are usually referring to 'Mandarin Chinese', the language imposed by the imperial Qing court in Beijing as the 'national language'.
After the 1911 nationalist revolution, and later after the 1949 communist revolution, each succeeding government has continued to use Mandarin Chinese as the language of all education, broadcast and official business.
Sometimes, especially in Hong Kong, when someone refers to 'Chinese' they are referring to a 'dialect'. In Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong Province the 'dialect' is Cantonese. Hong Kong and Macau remain exceptions, using Cantonese as the primary language of education and government.
TIP: When planning your translation, specify 'Mandarin Chinese' or 'Cantonese'

the written script: simplified, traditional and other forms of the script
Unlike phonetic or alphabetic written languages, Chinese is character based - one character represents a concept. Each character may be a word on it's own, but many words are a combination of two or more characters.
Historically, all written Chinese languages ('dialects') used the same basic script - but often two characters put together in one language mean something entirely different in another. Today, many dialects in China don't have written scripts - some because they never did, some simply fell out of use. The two most commonly written Chinese languages are Mandarin and Cantonese. While the characters used are the same, the meaning doesn't always carry across the linguistic barrier.
Significantly complicating matters was the switch after 1949 by the communist government of Mainland China to a new simplified written script. Nationalist Taiwan continued to use the traditional script. Today, very few Taiwanese or Mainlanders can read each other's written materials without great difficulty - even though they both speak Mandarin Chinese.
Hong Kong and Macau continue to use the traditional characters for written Cantonese, while overseas Chinese in places like Singapore, Malaysia and the West use one or the other, and sometimes both.
TIP: When planning your translation determine if your target market uses traditional or simplified characters.

Linguistic changes in Mandarin after 1949
After the communist revolution of 1949, the nationalist government of China decamped to Taiwan. For ideological reasons, China closed itself to the world, and Taiwan closed itself to China. With virtually no linguistic contact, the two Mandarin speaking societies developed in significantly different directions.
As a general rule of thumb, any concept or invention developed after 1949 has a different word or term to describe it in China and Taiwan. Common daily terms like 'software', 'CD' and 'database' are different. It is not unusual for Taiwanese and Chinese, when speaking about technical issues, to revert to the English terms! Even the very word for their common language is different, Mandarin being referred to as 'national language' (GuoYu) in Taiwan and 'common language' (PuTongHua) in China.
Additionally, Taiwan and China have each changed their ways of phrasing and approaching sentences as part of the normal progression of a language. Taiwanese Mandarin is especially influenced by the local dialect (Taiwanese Hokkien) and English.
TIP: Determine if your firm will be targeting the mainland Chinese market, the Taiwanese market or both.

Choosing your Mandarin: avoiding making major political errors
It is standard procedure in East Asia to do two versions of everything Mandarin. Occasionally, however, a major international company continues to embarrass itself by assuming one will do for both markets - a major faux pas in this politically sensitive part of the world.
A more common mistake is to simply change the script without taking into account the linguistic changes and different terminology. At best the result sounds stilted and odd, at worst it is misunderstood or even offensive.
An Analogy: Imagine if the UK and US had a horrible war in the late '40's, resulting in a complete cessation of contact and a continuing tense political standoff. One side switched to the Greek alphabet, and each side continued to develop their languages completely separately.
TIP: If your firm plans to operate in both Taiwan and China, make sure that two different versions of the materials are made - carefully taking into account the differences between the two.

Audio Recording of Mandarin Chinese
There are many different accents associated with different regions of China and Taiwan. In Taiwan, it is best to use the standard 'Taipei accent'. In China, it is usually best to use a Beijing accent, though there are times when a regional accent is appropriate - especially if the target market is a specific locality.

Common mistakes when translating from Chinese to English
The most common errors centre around political sensitivities and romanisation. Many major international companies have run afoul of China's authorities by referring to Taiwan as a country. Similarly, cases of companies referring to Taiwan as a province of the People's Republic of China will make the newspapers in Taiwan - and not in a positive light! Ideological differences and differing points of view on historical events can also lead to trouble.
A particular difficulty on translating Taiwanese Mandarin Chinese to English is the choice of romanisation. Currently, there is an ongoing tussle over the 'official' choice of romanisation. Traditionally, the Wade-Giles system was used - and is still sometimes seen. The Ministry of Transportation (major road signs, town names, etc.) uses the MPSII system. Inside the cities, however, some use MPSII while others are switching to the system used in mainland China (Hanyu Pinyin). As if this weren't enough, the central government is encouraging the use of Tongyong Pinyin. For example, one common street name can be romanised as 'ChungHsiao', 'JungShiau', 'JhongShiao' or 'ZhongXiao' - depending on the system used.
TIP 1: be politically sensitive
TIP 2: when choosing romanisation for Taiwan, determine who is going to be reading the materials and where.


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english chinese translation and localisation with GCT Taiwan Did You Know?
  In a typical Japanese sentence three different written scripts will be used! Kanji refers to the around 2000 Chinese characters imported into Japanese writing. Hiragana is a 46 character phonetic alphabet used to write words of Japanese origin. Katakana is another phonetic 46 character script used mostly for foreign loan words. Today, it isn't unusual to see a fourth script in a Japanese sentence - the Roman alphabet (usually English words).


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