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Language fact: Chinese

Language facts: Chinese (medical translation)"Do you translate Mandarin or Cantonese?" "Does everyone write characters the same?" "How many characters do you need to know to read a Chinese newspaper?" "I've heard that Chinese doesn't have any grammar. Is that true?"

These are examples of the sorts of questions people ask about Chinese, which—largely because of its writing system—is often thought to be a mysterious system of communication. So, here are some facts to clear up the confusion.

Languages vs. dialects
First, Chinese is actually the name of a group of related languages, including Mandarin (modern standard Chinese), Wu (spoken in the Shanghai region), Cantonese (spoken in Guangdong), and Min (spoken in Fujian and Taiwan), among a host of others. People who speak different forms of Chinese may not be able to understand each other and may need to use an interpreter to communicate. The Romance languages are a useful analogy: Spanish and Portuguese are close, but not quite the same thing. French and Romanian are mutually unintelligible. One should remember that there isn't a clear distinction between a "language" and a "dialect," and for some reason China ended up with dialects while Europe got languages.

The "alphabet"
Fortunately for translators, all of the Chinese languages share a common script—they are all written in Chinese characters. Therefore, unless one is dealing with literature, it doesn't matter whether a text to be translated is from Guangdong, Shanghai, or Beijing. The characters were written in essentially the same form for over two thousand years. However, in order to promote literacy, the mainland government initiated a series of language reforms in the 1950s. These reforms resulted in mainland China adopting simplified characters, characters that are based on traditional characters but that use fewer individual strokes to write each character. Taiwan still uses the traditional characters. When requesting a translation, it's important to know whether a given text is being translated into or from simplified or traditional characters.

An educated reader of Chinese can recognize about 6,000 characters. A person needs to know 3,000 characters to read a newspaper. Some of the largest dictionaries contain over 40,000 characters. Each character corresponds to one syllable. Many words in modern Chinese consist of two characters, and so have two syllables.

Chinese is a tonal language. Each syllable can be pronounced in one of four tones in Mandarin; some forms of Southern Chinese have up to 10 tones. The meaning of a word changes depending on the tone. For example, ma in first tone means mother; in second tone, hemp; in third tone, horse; and in fourth tone, to scold.

Ma in the paragraph above is a transliteration or romanization of the Chinese pronunciation of the character. There are several romanization systems, which is why one sometimes sees the same Chinese name written in different ways (Chao and Zhou are pronounced the same, but represent different romanization systems). The most commonly used system at the moment is pinyin (that's the one with all the z's and x's).

The idea that Chinese has no grammar came about because there are no conjugations or declensions in Chinese. Another way of saying this is that the form of words doesn't change, while in English and other Indo-European languages such changes are used to express grammatical relationships (e.g., go/goes; she/her). Chinese, on the other hand, relies on word order and independent grammatical particles. This is typical of isolating languages.

Another grammatical feature of Chinese is that it is a head noun language. All the words that modify a noun come before it. In contrast, English makes frequent use of dependent and independent clauses, which follow the noun being modified. Chinese is also a null-subject, pro-drop language, which means that it is possible to omit the subject of a clause and to leave out pronouns when they can be inferred from context. Translators need to be aware of these features in order to create a natural-sounding target language document.

Chinese is a lovely and fascinating group of languages. We hope this quick overview of linguistic facts has made people want to learn more about this group of languages.

[Thanks to linguist Diane Howard for her help with this blog entry.]

For further reading on Chinese and China, take a look at the following articles:

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  1. cgtradmed said...
    Very interesting, indeed. There's something I am puzzled over : How can a translator, or even a simple reader, of a Chinese text know which one of the four possibilities (4 tones), i.e. which of the 4 meanings, is the right one when the document is only written and not read out ?
    Anonymous said...
    to reply to the query about tonalities and how to differentiate meaning in written Chinese: There is one character for each tonality. In spoken Chinese, the tonalities are important in order for the listener to know which of the four meanings it represents, in addition the relevance of the subject matter and the statements.
    amaxson said...
    As a non-Chinese speaker/reader/writer, it is interesting to note that after working with the langauges for several years in the DTP setting, I can usually pick out the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese, but beyond that, they look too similar to my untrained eye. Any tips? Things to look for?

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