Regional Translation - Asia Pacific

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The East Asian perspective:

Challenges:

  • Technical
    • Three standards – language itself, way of thinking/expressing, and cultural.
    • Faithfulness
      • Accuracy, writing style, etc.
      • Language level is most straightforward, though requires review. However, English/Chinese translation is quite different – Chinese is character based, not letter based.
      • Expression and way of thinking in Chinese is different. E.g., for Chinese, “translation is a way of communicating between cultures.” For English, “translation is a method of converting text in one language into another language.” Often backed up with very different types of examples (abstract versus concrete, e.g.). There is something called “language sense” which is closely related to the particular way of expressing yourself in writing and requires close study and understanding.
      • Cultural backgrounds are obviously very different, and it can be challenging to translate particular idioms and turns of phrase accurately.
    • Expressiveness
    • Elegance
  • Industry
  • Government censorship

General notes:

  • There is a bigger question regarding “what should be translated?” Much of the text that is translated is related to business practices, not so much literature.
  • Is there a colonial signature to the ways that two different societies communicate? There is not currently much direct translation among east Asian languages. However, this situation is changing, and while English still serves as a bridge language, it is becoming less necessary.
  • There is a lack of understanding about the particular formatting of the languages, such as word breaks, which can be challenging to deal with, especially in software localization which often presumes a certain structure for conveying meaning (and machine-readability).
  • Natural language processing is really challenged by the linguistic differences, and these challenges have resulted in fewer, less powerful toolsets. Chinese in particular has many interpretative challenges for any given character, so the number of permutations of meaning for any given written phrase is quite daunting.
  • English is the medium of communication for more educated people with international connections. But much of the cultural evolution is probably happening outside of these academic circles, spurring cultural exchange in ways that are not necessarily recognized by those who are dealing directly in the issues.

Original write-up

Translation Challenges in China

-- Translation is communication between different cultures

The challenges come from multiple levels:

Level 1: Translation itself or “technical challenge”

There are three standards/difficulties presented by a famous Chinese scholar and translator Yan-Fu: “faithfulness(信), expressiveness(达), elegance(雅)”.

Translating and explaining the three standards in English even become the hardest tasks, which is also a good example of translation challenges (from Chinese to English). :) Actually, it's been a question in the admission exam for graduate students in English major at Shandong University in 1994.

Those standards reflect three levels of difficulties:

  • the language itself
  • the way of thinking/the way of expressing
  • the culture

Generally speaking, it is easier to resolve problems at the language level, but harder at the other two levels. Yeeyan can ensure the accuracy of the translation for The Guardian's Chinese UGC site, but it met difficulties to make the translations fluent and elegant. Training translators and having editors to refine the translation may be necessary.

1) The language itself

The two languages are so different. Chinese is based on character, while English and most western languages are based on words. A single Chinese character could be very “rich” and usually very abstract in terms of the meanings it may contain. (Chinese culture admires “in sense but not in words”.) It makes translation from Chinese to English extremely difficult.

For example, the first standard, “信”, could be translated and interpreted as “accurate”. However, many Chinese scholars and translators argue that it actually covers the other two standards from a broader perspective, because being faithful to the original work means being not only accurate but also in accordance with the writing styles, and even the cultural tradition.

2) The way of thinking/the way of expressing

Chinese people are thinking and expressing in different ways from westerns. Chinese people usually pay more attention to macro-scope, abstract conclusions, while westerns emphasize on concrete examples and details. For example, the subtitle, “translation is communication between different cultures”, is very typical of Chinese thinking. If you google it, you can find a web page with exactly the same sentence from a paper abstract by a Chinese scholar.

From language perspective, “the way of thinking/the way of expressing” usually means how you structure your sentences, paragraphs, and articles. At the sentence level, sometimes western languages have specific structures and usage of words to express special meanings, on which Chinese translators may get wrong. For example, in Kevin Kelly's “Out of Control”, 2.1, it reads “It's a rare bee, except for the scouts, who has inspected more than one site.” A Chinese translator may interpreted this sentence as “the bee, who has inspected more than one site, is excellent”. Well, this may not be a good example, but it gives the rough idea of how Chinese translators may get wrong because of lack of the so-called “language sense”(语感). And usually people believe that “language sense” is closely related to “the way of thinking”.

3) The culture

Different cultures have different paths, different histories and different statuses. Those differences are inevitably reflected in their languages. A good example is Chinese idiom, which often consists of four characters and is accompanied with vivid historical stories. It's believed that using these idioms in translation is the way to achieve “elegance”. It's a higher requirement for translators.

However, it's not only a fear, but a reality that the traditional culture is being forgotten in the mainland of China. People rarely use idioms in their writings. Even they use, in many situations, they misunderstand and misuse the idioms. A common example is the idiom “明日黄花”, which, by direct translation, is “tomorrow's mumm (chrysanthemum)”. The idiom came from a poem and its true meaning is “something in the past, something so out”. Many Chinese people use “昨日黄花”, which, by direct translation, is “yesterday's mumm”.

English also has it's own cultural background, which many Chinese translators are not familiar with. One example is about “gumball machine”. Most people born before 1990s have never seen “gumball machine” in China. On dict.cn (one of the most popular online English-Chinese dictionaries), “gumball” is interpreted as “the top light on a police car”! Another example comes from “Six Words”. A very popular entry is “Ex-wife and contractor now have house”. For Chinese readers, it's hard to understand the story behind the six words, because they don't know who the contractor is and what the relationship between “contractor” and “house” is.

Translating from Chinese to English is even harder for there are fewer English-native speakers who can read and understand Chinese very well. Translations done by Chinese translators are often awkward to western readers, sometimes only Chinese-native speakers can understand the translation, thus a new term “Chinglish” is created to describe how bad the translation is.

An interesting story is a German multimedia producer, whose name is Oliver Radtke, loves to collect Chinglish cases, and he published two book on this, calling for “saving Chinglish” because Chinglish has special cultural meanings in it, which is not completely useless to westerns.

Level 2: Industry

Translation is a low-paid work (or at least not well-paid work) in China. In western countries, the rate for translating from English to Chinese is usually $0.18 per word. In China, the rate is usually below 100RMB per thousand Chinese characters, which is equivalent to about $0.01 per word. Western companies follow Chinese traditions once they enter the Chinese market. For example, HowStuffWorks.com (博闻网) paid translators for about 600RMB per thousand Chinese characters in the first year after it launched its Chinese site, but then reduced the rate to between 100RMB and 150RMB after.

Professional translators or freelancers treat translation as a way of making a living. They've lost passion to make a translation work an “art”. The quality of translation is often unacceptable. An editor of a big Chinese financial newspaper once told me that their paid translators can't compete with Yeeyan's volunteered translators.

That leaves room for community/amateur translation. However, it further reduces the translation rate for general content. We hope that the emergence of community translation will change the pattern of translation industry, raising the rate for high-end works while reducing the rate for low-end tasks.

Level 3: Censorship

This is a particular problem for community/open translation in China.

It's commonly said that government's control over Internet is increasing. However, “the line” is not clearly defined. Some words and topics are definitely “sensitive” or even “forbidden”, but some are in the gray zone. The government is also in a “error and trial” stage to learn how the Internet would impact China's political and social progress. To some extent, tightening doesn't necessarily mean a negative change, it reflects the government's awareness of the importance of Internet. A newbie is usually cautious, even nervous. So I believe it's a issue of time, a issue of a learning process.

A dramatic thing happened after someone at Cambridge University threw a shoe at the Chinese prime minister Wen, Jiabao. Many blogs, forums were heavily flushed with posts and discussions right after the event. In the early morning of the next day, all involved sites were blocked for about two hours. All the sudden the “ban” was removed and all major media started talking about the event.

While the government tightens its control over Internet, it pushes all publishers to transform from state-owned to private-owned. The impact is unclear yet, but the move itself is definitely significant.