Writing is an inevitable part of our lives. Professional writers, in particular, face the challenge of writing texts for a specific audience with a limited number of words. Whether blog articles, social media posts, landing pages, web content or even marketing emails, there’s very little space online to say what needs to be said and this is because copy generally needs to be relatively short, crisp and to the point, grabbing your reader’s attention, and at the same time, be able to answer all your reader’s questions. This brings us to the question of word count vs. character count as they relate to Asian languages. When undertaking a translation for this type of language, which system should you follow? How should you instruct your translation partner? In this post, we look at the differences between word and character count and discuss some of the peculiarities of Asian languages and which system you should follow in a translation project.
What is a word count?
A word count, as the name implies, refers to the counting of the number of words in a sentence or a piece of writing as a whole. Whereas longer novels will have a longer word count, shorter posts for social media, for example, are limited to a set number of words. This sentence for example “This is a flower.” contains four different words. This number of words is easily and automatically calculated using your PC’s word and character counting tool.
What is a character count?
A character count, on the other hand, looks at every single character in a given sentence or text. This includes periods, commas, and other punctuation marks, spaces and every letter in each word in the sentence. Therefore, the sentence “This is a flower.” contains 17 characters and this number is, unsurprisingly, a couple of times higher than the word count mentioned above. Character count is usually used for social media posts, because these are quite limited in terms of the content that can be posted. Twitter is one example of this.
Word count or character count for Asian languages?
Unlike English and other Latin-based languages, Asian languages have some interesting features. This makes it a bit more difficult to determine whether one should use a character count or a word count when instructing your translation partner with the next translation project.
The Chinese language uses characters as its writing base and another interesting feature is that the same sentence above, “This is a flower.” is written out as one word without any spaces and the word count of a complete sentence will be considered one word in total. This means that when translating from Chinese to English or English to Chinese, this factor must be taken into account. One standard practice in this type of translation project is to evaluate text volume in a Chinese translation project by looking at the character count instead of the word count. What does this mean in practice? Essentially, it means that a 1,000-word English text which is translated into Chinese will be between 1,300 and 1,800 characters, while a 1,000-character Chinese text, which is translated into English, will be between 650 and 750 words. This is why it’s important to quote for characters (Chinese) and words (English) in your next translation project.
Unlike Chinese, the modern Korean language, despite using characters, is written with spaces between the different words. This is why when providing quotes for a translation job in Korean, you can consider the total word count.
A translation into and from Japanese should ultimately be based on characters without spaces. This is because the language is a mixture of three main systems – “hieroglyphs and two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana.”
Thai is another language that does not utilize spaces between words, and therefore, character count is the preferred method of determining translation pricing.
Other oriental languages such as the various Indian languages, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Indonesian or Farsi use spaces between their words. This makes it easier to estimate and provide a translator with a total word count of a given project, rather than using a character count.
Asian languages are some of the most fascinating in the world and as an Asian language translator, you’ll need to know the difference and importance of whether a character count or word count should be used in your next translation project. This difference will help you cite correct quotes for your translations and you’ll also be able to provide more accurate details and peculiarities for each project that comes your way.