“Finnegan’s Wake,” the last novel written by Irish author James Joyce, is one of the most critically acclaimed novels in the English language. It’s also one of the most perplexing and difficult to parse. Consequently, most of the general English-speaking public has not even attempted to read it.
Language barriers and mistranslations are fertile ground for comedy. Chinese translations of English seem to be particularly vulnerable to gaffes, possibly due to a shortage of fluent English speakers and a corresponding over-reliance on translation software.
As an aside, it should be noted that English speakers have their own problems when it comes to translating Chinese characters. Also, at least our Eastern brethren’s translation failures seem to be confined to signs and menus as opposed to permanent tattoos. You can always change a sign! Read more
Is your business looking for Chinese translation services? The potential benefits are tremendous:
- Mandarin Chinese has approximately 955 million native speakers, making it the most commonly spoken language in the world.
- China is the world’s fastest-growing consumer market, and the second-largest importer of goods.
- And China’s One Belt One Road initiative is set to reshape global trade.
Chinese translation can also help you reach communities of Chinese speakers closer to home.
But while the potential benefits are real, the potential pitfalls are, too. To avoid mishaps, read our beginner’s guide to Chinese translation services for businesses.
What language do they speak in China, anyway?
If you answered “Mandarin,” then you only get partial credit. Mandarin (often called Standard Chinese or Putonghua), is an official language in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. But it’s not the only language people speak in China. Far from it. According to Ethnologue, there are 299 living languages spoken in China today. Around 70% of the Chinese population speaks Mandarin, although the government would like to increase that to 80% by 2020.
The bottom line? It’s important to know your audience. Depending on the content you’re translating, the medium you’re using, and the audience you’re trying to reach, Mandarin may be sufficient. But in some areas, like Hong Kong, it’s important to show respect for local languages like Cantonese, too.
And referring to standard Chinese as “Mandarin” is, in itself, a bit of an oversimplification. “Mandarin” also refers to a group of dialects used across northern and southwestern China. When spoken, these dialects are not all mutually intelligible. Read more
China’s General Administration of Press and Publication has ordered Chinese newspapers, publishers and websites to stop using foreign words and acronyms. Chinese media has also been ordered to avoid using examples of the Chinese/English linguistic Frankenstein monster known as “Chinglish.”
According to the People’s Daily Online, the new rules were put into place to protect the Chinese language and to make sure that news is intelligible to all Mandarin speakers, whether they speak English or not:
“Abuse of foreign languages, including arbitrary use of English words; acronym mixing in Mandarin and coined half-English, half-Chinese terms that are intelligible to nobody, are commonly seen. All these have seriously damaged to the purity of the Chinese language and resulted in adverse social impacts to the harmonious and healthy cultural environment.”
To make sure that everyone can understand the news, when foreign words must be used they are required to be translated. Ensuring that everyone can understand what’s on the evening news is a laudable goal, and there’s nothing wrong with expecting professional media outlets to use proper grammar, but protecting the “purity” of the language may be an uphill battle. Also, having to translate or explain even commonly understood acronyms creates unnecessary hassles for both news professionals and consumers. Read more
Q: When is an apricot kernel not an apricot kernel?
A: When it’s an almond, as droves of Chinese grocery shoppers are learning to their dismay.
Apricot kernels have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat afflictions such as colds and coughs. Almonds have a similar flavor, but are not believed to have the same medicinal value. So, Chinese grocery shoppers were dismayed to learn that the “American big apricot kernels” they’d been buying from retailers like Walmart for years were nothing more than common American almonds.
According to the Global Times, the misunderstanding is a result of a translation error that dates back to the 1970s. When the Almond Board of California began marketing their products in China, at first they used several different translations for the word “almond:”
- xingren, or “apricot kernels”
- badanmu, or “almonds”
- biantaoren, or “flat peach kernels”
“Xingren” was the translation that stuck around, and most if not all Chinese consumers believed they were, in fact, buying apricot kernels.
Walmart shopper Zhao Hong told the Global Times:
“But when I heard that the nuts I bought are in fact almonds, I felt I’d been cheated…”The translation misled me, and I thought the almonds were apricot kernels from the US.”
She wasn’t the only one taken aback. The Chinese government was, too. The decades-old translation error only came to light in 2009, when the China National Food Industry Association tried to create an industry standard for apricot kernels. Weng Yangyang, secretary-general of the Specialized Committee for Roasted Seeds and Nuts, said the committee was “shocked when the ABC told us the ‘American big apricot kernels’ are not apricot kernels, and so have no association with the compilation of the industry standards.”
Even worse, “American big apricot kernels” go for several times the price of actual Chinese apricot kernels, with prices buoyed by the fact that produce from America is often believed to be superior. Plus, almonds are naturally bigger and thus have an advantage over real apricot kernels, as Meng Xianwu, director of the Working Committee of Apricot Kernels at the Association of Cash Forest of China under the State Forestry Administration, explained:
“Almonds can be easily puffed up during processing, while apricot kernels will be broken during the process. Consumers naturally would choose the bigger ones over the small ones.”
All of this goes to show how important it is to get your product names translated correctly the first time. The translation error may have given California almonds an advantage in the past, but it remains to be seen what will happen to their sales once the mistake is corrected.
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