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Language fact: CJK

Language fact: CJKFor ForeignExchange and many other medical translation specialists, the CJK languages (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) account for a large part of our business. Chinese and Japanese, in particular, are in high demand from medical device and pharmaceutical clients and are regularly among our top 10 languages. Despite this, many clients know very little about Asian languages in general and CJK languages specifically.

The three languages have a lot in common. First and foremost, they use several thousand ideographic characters, historically dating back to the Chinese Han dynasty. These Han ideographs are called hanzi in Chinese, kanji in Japanese, and hanja in Korean.

The One Hour Translation Blog ran a good overview of how these languages differ from western and Indo-European languages. Here are some of the highlights from that post:

  • Lack of plurals and singulars: Like with the English word "sheep", there is no plural form for nouns like "cat" in most eastern languages, particularly Japanese. You can get away with simply saying "cat" and referring to either one or a thousand felines by doing so. Context and the addition of a number with its "counter (a part of speech used to determine what’s being modified by the number) serve as a person's only clues in regards to the singularity or plurality of a given being, concept, or thing.
  • Lack of gender distinction: Moreover, Asian tongues don't identify the gender of a given subject (that is, whether someone or something is of male, female, or neutral gender). Languages like Spanish usually refer to a male cat as "gato", while in English it's referred to as a "tomcat". There’s a lack of any such gender distinction in languages like Chinese or Japanese. Japanese translation services and other east languages translation services would probably need extra context research in order to tell whether a person being referred in the text is a he or she.
  • Lack of inflection: Compared to languages like Spanish and French that have three moods (imperative, subjunctive, or indicative) and a multitude of verb conjugations, or Russian and German that have adjectives and nouns that continually change endings depending on what they are accomplishing in a sentence, or most European languages that have many "the" forms, words hardly ever get altered in any way, shape, or form in eastern languages.
  • Lack of verb tenses: Only in a language like Japanese can "The dog died tomorrow" be grammatically correct. It’s a perfectly natural occurrence in Japanese syntax because as long as the event has already happened, the perfect tense can be used and an adverb of time can be casually added without any incident. Human translation becomes a key factor here in order to keep tabs on what the intended tense of a document is.
  • Lack of word order: Korean and Japanese follow one rule in word order management-the verb always comes at the tail end of the sentence. As for Chinese and other Sino-based languages, the verb is reserved in the second position. Ergo, a normal Japanese phrase can usually be transliterated like a saying made by Yoda of Star Wars fame. Professional translation firms need to take particular note of this fact in order to keep themselves in business when translating Asiatic documents and correspondences.
All three languages can be written both left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

One interesting thing to note is that CJK languages take up the bulk of the Unicode character space. Check out Unicode's CJK FAQ for more details.

And one final tidbit: If you are interested in the stroke order used to produced CJK "characters", visit Wikipedia's excellent overview.

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ForeignExchange Translations provides specialized Chinese, Korean, and Japanese translation services to pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Contact us to learn more.

1 Comment:

  1. Tom Roland said...
    This is a very nice overview, Andres. I would like to clarify a couple of points:

    Lack of gender distinction:
    It is true that CJK nouns do not, by default, have a grammatical gender (as compared to nouns in Latin or Spanish, for example). But CJK languages are certainly very gender-aware, as are the cultures which these languages reflect. And it is generally quite easy for writer and reader to distinguish between male and female subject and objects by adding characters that signify gender, such as 男 / 女 for people and 公 / 母 for livestock, taking Chinese as an example. And when it comes to familial relationships the distinctions are very fine in Chinese, with eight different words for "cousin" depending on whether it is a male or a female, from the mother's or the father's side of the family, and older or younger than the subject.

    Direction of writing:
    In addition to left-to-right and top-to-bottom, all three languages can also be written right-to-left. The traditional direction for text in all three languages was vertical columns, right-to-left. Both the vertical and the horizontal right-to-left layouts are still very common in Taiwan, with many books and some newspapers printed in this style. And in mainland China, right-to-left text is still often seen on the right side of trucks and buses, with left-to-right text on the left side so that the public can read front-to-back as the vehicle drives by, regardless of the side of the street we're standing on. Wikipedia has a nice discussion of text direction in East Asian scripts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizontal_and_vertical_writing_in_East_Asian_scripts

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