China, Chinese and Translation

Chinese is originally the indigenous speech of the Han majority in China, and belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Mandarin, the standard Chinese, or Putonghua, is the official language in both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, as well as one of the four official languages in Singapore. It is one of the six official languages of United Nations.
There are other varieties of Chinese, such as Cantonese, Min Nan, Hakka and Shanghainese dialects, etc. Cantonese is widely spoken in Guangdong and is the official language of Hong Kong together with English. Min Nan is a local language in southern Fujian and Taiwan, and in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia known as Hokkien. Almost all dialect speakers in China can communicate in Mandarin after the prevailing of Putonghua in 1982. So far, about one-fifth of the world’s population speaks some form of Chinese as their first language.
There are two types of standard Chinese written languages: simplified Chinese characters and traditional Chinese characters. Simplified Chinese characters are used in Mainland China while the traditional characters are currently used in Hong Kong, Macau and republic of China, and among overseas Chinese communities. Traditional characters can still be read and understood by most mainland Chinese and Singaporeans. Simplified character were derived by decreasing the number of stokes of traditional Chinese characters, or characters with the same pronunciation and identical meaning were reduced to one simplest character. Compared with the variety of spoken Chinese, the two types of written Chinese saved a lot of troubles for users. Chinese characters were classified into six categories by a scholar named Xu Sheng in Han dynasty, including pictographs, simple ideographs, compound ideographs, phonetic loans, phonetic compounds and derivative characters. Very few were categorized as pictographs, e.g. rén人 (human), rì日 (sun), shān山 (mountain) and shuǐ水 (water) ,etc., and most of the characters were classified as phonetic compounds such as 爸bà (father), combining a phonetic component bā 巴 and a semantic part fù 父.
Since the prevailing of Putonghua in 1982 in Mainland China, Mandarin has been taught and spoken all over China. Pinyin and four tones are used to mark each Chinese character for its pronunciation accuracy and standard accent. Pinyin is the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in China, Taiwan and Singapore. It is often used to teach Standard Chinese and spell Chinese names in foreign publications and also as an input method to enter Chinese characters into computers. The use of the four tones helps to clarify characters, but there are still many characters represented by the same sound and the same tone yet with different meanings. We called this kind of words homonyms and Chinese is famous for homonyms. For example, “慢”, “漫”, “曼”, “蔓” “幔” and “鳗” all are pronounced the same, marked as “màn” in pinyin, but their meanings varies from one another widely. The first character means slow, the second originally means about to overflow, the third means graceful and soft, the forth means creep and spread, the fifth means a kind of curtain and the last refers to eels. Besides homonyms, there are many polyphonic characters in Chinese. For example, the character “差” has three pronunciations: chà, chā and chāi. As chà, it is an adjective describing a wrong or bad result, or a shortage of something. As chā, it is a noun referring to minus difference, or mistakes. As chāi, it is a verb meaning to dispatch. Therefore, we have to be cautious with both the pronunciation and the selection of words when speaking and writing in Chinese.
Chinese four-character phrase, known as Chengyu in Chinese, is a type of idiomatic phrases and usually a combination of four characters in iambic rhythm, carrying strong artistic colors, widely used in various types of writings in law, business, medical, science, etc. in China. Chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese languages, therefore, the comprehension and usage of such phrases require a studying background on Chinese culture, history, classical Chinese and, in some cases, politics. Chinese idioms are mostly derived from ancient literature including myth, story or historical facts, and the meaning of a chengyu is usually beyond the sum of the meanings carries by the four characters. A reminder, warning, lesson or certain morality are always implied in Chengyu. For example, jī quǎn shēng tiān 鸡犬升天 describes the situation that if one person becomes prosperous and successful his surroundings and related persons will be benefited, which derived from an excerpt from a Han writing (《论衡 道虚》). In the writing the author Wang Chong mentioned the story of the idiom. The emperor who started the reign of ancient China in Han Dynasty is Liu Bang and he had a grandson Liu An fascinating about going up to heaven and live forever. Liu An at last found an old monk who gave him some refined pills. Liu An took the pills and rose to the heaven. The chicken and dogs also followed him and ate the pills and rose to heaven as well. The modern meaning of the idiom has been progressed with the changing culture and people’s mind.
Due to a different origin from English, Chinese sentences are structured in a different language rule, such as topic oriented, many ellipsis, few tense markers, a great deal of measure words, different modification rules, adjectives and nouns used as predicates, etc. etc. As a topic oriented language, a rearrangement of the words could make a difference in meaning. For example, “你真是个好人” ( nǐ zhēn shì ge hǎo rén) means you are such a kind person. If we adjust the sequence of the words and make it as “你人真是好” ( nǐ rén zhēn shì hǎo) not only means you are a kind person but also indicates the fondness of the speaker expressed to the listener. In order to avoid ambiguity and wrong message, a correct way to express Chinese becomes important.
Chinese is not an easy language. Though it is spoken by the largest group of people in the world, yet it is not widely used among foreign countries as English. I guess it’s a headache and scares away many foreign learners. But Chinese is not only difficult for foreigners, but our own kind as well. So please don’t be surprised if you ever met a junior high student who cannot follow the official Chinese news broadcast. However, with the development of Chinese economy and its growing influence in the world, the number of Chinese learners are growing.
China has developed very fast since its opening to the world in 1982, and its economy and consumption power has been growing since then. In the last couple of decades, the growing middle class in China has attracted international attention. As early as 1999 it was estimated that 36.6% of China’s wealth rested in the hands of this growing middle class. According to Global Wealth Report 2013 released by Anllianz Group, China has the biggest growth in middle class and has reached the number of 413 million.
On the heel of this sight, many retailers from various industries entered China to expand their markets and many had successfully developed. Opportunities in China are not limited to retailers, but in small and medium enterprises too. Though China varies its policies now and then, yet the demands in Chinese market is as high as ever. Chinese consumers, whether individuals, corporations or the government, are all looking for better quality in products or services, and are willing to pay for a fine price for it. China still attracts many foreign investments. The data of international investments in China provided by Bloomberg Businessweek in November of 2013 are shown as follows:
The biggest surge is from the European Union, totaling $6.4 billion January through October, a 22.3 percent increase. U.S. companies, too, upped investment by 12.4 percent to reach $3 billion. And Japanese enterprises put in $6.5 billion, slightly more than the EU sum, a 6.3 percent rise. The largest amount came from Hong Kong due to its historical enterpot role that totaled $63.5 billion, an increase of 10.5 percent.
Translation is a profession.
People who can speak and write in bilingual or multi-lingual languages might not be so good at translation. A good translation requires familiarity with the culture of original and target languages and years of training and learning. Translators must be always keen on learning and able to motivate himself/ herself on language skills. A sloppy or lazy person will not be able to go far in translation. Besides, translators also have to keep well informed with the latest theories in the industry and apply them in his/her daily practice. A popular saying among the translators is “there is no perfect work, but there is always a better output”. Here are several translation cases in idioms which present the intricacy of translation.
Premier Deng Xiaoping once proposed China to keep a low profile in handling international issues, and he used the idiom “韬光养晦”( tāo guāng yǎng huì) to express the idea. Some of the translators failed to grasp the accurate meaning and translated it as “hide one’s ability and pretend to be weak” which misinterpreted the initiation and motivation of Deng Xiaoping. A well-known idiom “守株待兔” (shǒu zhū dài tù) learnt by primary school students in China and appeared frequently in newspaper is not always done properly. How should we render the deep meaning? If we translate it as “stand by a stump waiting for the appearance of a hare”, it doesn’t make much sense to the English readers. Well, if we improved it as “stick to old practice and refuse to have a change”, though it starts making sense but still lacks certain western cultured flavors. So maybe a better way to put is “hope for gain without pain”.
English has as many idioms and proverbs as Chinese, and its translation into Chinese is equally demanding. “As cool as cucumber” indicates a positive attitude towards all difficulties, so the selection of a Chinese idiom shall reflect the same emotional influence. tài rán zì ruò “泰然自若” here meets the standard. In the famous musical movie “Cabaret” performed in 1972, an impressive song started with the lyrics “Money makes the world go around” which illustrates the reality of the society. The idiom indicates certain helpless attitude and disliking even hatred from the speaker in a mocking way, so a better way to render it in Chinese is yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò “有钱能使鬼推磨” (literally means with a generous amount even ghost will strive himself to work for you).
Translation is not only a process of work from original language to target language but also a transfusion of culture, ideas and attitudes; therefore, a lot of meticulous work is involved.
Chinese and English are two languages with very big differences in pronunciation, characters, phrases and sentences. The Chinese government and schools have put great efforts in English education, but the level of English in China is still low. A great number of Chinese in China couldn’t speak or read in English. In 2013 English First did a world-wide English Proficiency Test which shows that English level in China falls far behind from Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia and India in spite of China’s highest and longest contribution in English education.
High quality translation is still essential to reach the Chinese market.

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