Top 7 Challenges when translating English to Chinese

There are over 50,000 Chinese characters, 20,000 words in use, and if you know about 500 Chinese characters, you’ll know about 80% of the language. While this may seem encouraging in terms of learning one of the world’s oldest and most complicated languages, there are several challenges in translating English to Chinese. In most cases, the translator involved will need to avoid sounding Chinglish and will need to do a thorough job of looking at the whole script first to get an idea of its essence and intended meaning before proceeding with the translation. So what are some of the obstacles in translating English to Chinese? Let’s take a closer look.

Difficulties translating English to Chinese

1. Word order

Word order is the first challenge in an English to Chinese translation. Why? Because in languages where the topic is prominent, the object of the sentence is placed first. Therefore, a sentence that reads “I eat an apple” in English will change to “Apple I ate” in Chinese. What’s more, is that the language doesn’t have singular or plural forms, and it’s crucial to look at the entirety of the text to decipher whether plural or singular word is being described. These are some of the reasons why translating English to Chinese is so difficult.

2. Lack of verb conjugation

If you’re thinking about the complexity of tenses in English, after all, there are tens of tenses describing moments in the past, present, and future, you may really struggle with the fact that there are no tenses in the Chinese language. This means that the four main tones of the language determine the sentence’s meaning. Once again, it’s crucial to get an idea of the wider context to determine which period in time is being spoken or written about.

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3. Sentence structure

Sentence structure is another aspect of translation that can really challenge any translator. In English, for example, there are rules for adjective order. For example, you would say “the nice, big, green coat” whereas in Chinese, the description could go something like this “the coat, nice, green big”. While this would be enough to make any native English speaker cringe, the fact of the matter is there is no such rule in Chinese, which can even make computers, machines, and artificial intelligence which are all involved in translation struggle to determine the correct meaning. As a final point, Chinese has two types of sentences: simple and complex. While the simple sentences may be relatively easy to decipher, complex ones may need to be broken up into shorter, simpler ones for the entire sentence to make sense.

4. Chinese characters are logograms

Whereas the English alphabet consists of phonemes, Chinese characters are considered logograms. What does this mean for translation? Essentially, every single character has a different meaning, which is highly dependent on the given context. To make things more complicated, Chinese characters can be combined together to form an entirely new one, with the new one’s meaning again highly dependent on context and placement. Here’s an example of this: 開 in Cantonese translates as “to open something”, while 心 signifies “heart.” When joined together, the expression “to open your heart,” (開心 ) now arises. And finally, when combined as a word, the meaning of the word will be “happy.” Complex, isn’t it?

5. Idioms, metaphors, and sayings

If you’ve been to China, have Chinese friends, have read some translated Chinese literature, or you’re simply interested in the culture, you’ll quickly find out that the Chinese are highly prone to using idioms, metaphors, and sayings to get their intended meaning across. This is why if you’re not a native translator, such meaning could literally get lost in translation because you may not be aware of the hidden meaning behind the saying.

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6. Different dialects

challenges translating English to ChineseIt may come as no surprise that given China’s vast size, the population spread across its land is prone to speak different dialects and sub-language groups that are part of Chinese. What’s more is that there’s simplified and traditional Chinese, implemented after the 1950s, which makes translating Chinese that much more difficult. The translator involved in your translation project should be aware of which region in the country the source document is from and be familiar with their style and language usage in order to prepare a translation that’s as accurate a representation of the original meaning as possible.

7. Tones

Chinese is a language that’s made of four main tones. While this may sound quite simple at first, it gets challenging pretty quickly. This is because one short word like “mother”, pronounced “ma”, can have four different variations depending on the way the word is pronounced and the way in which the tone is expressed. In addition, the absence of a Chinese alphabet and the characterization of words to form a sentence means that using a dictionary to find your chosen words becomes that much more difficult.

8. Bonus: Chinese fonts

Finally, Chinese strokes can also pose complications when one translates English to Chinese. There are several fonts that are most commonly used that the translator will need to be familiar with, and apart from this, we return to the traditional vs. simplified Chinese. While some Chinese calligraphy fonts appear bolder, others are more narrow and thin. This can confuse a translator who is trained in translating traditional Chinese compared to one who’s trained to translate simplified Chinese. As a final point, Chinese used to be written from top to bottom, but this changed to the Western-style left to right, meaning that translating older works may be a challenge as well. Especially with the strokes of the characters, and the font used to translate them from or into.

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Final thoughts

Given all the challenges mentioned above, it’s clear to see that an accurate rendering of a world from English to Chinese or Chinese to English will require significant effort to convey the accurate meaning that was initially intended. Whether word order or sentence structure, it’s hard for machines to provide an accurate translation and this is where native translators come to the game. However, even with native translators, there remains another challenge and that is the issue of different dialects. While the government has tried to simplify the language since the 1950s with the use of simplified Chinese, there still remain many works, especially literary works that are in the traditional style and their meaning, absence of sentence structure, placement of characters next to each other to form new words and meanings, as well as the issue of idioms, metaphors, and sayings are critical factors for a translator to keep in mind as they proceed to translate into Chinese.