A Brief Introduction of the Chinese Language

Think about what you know about the English language. Alphabet letters combine to form words. Words represent different parts of speech (such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives). To convey an idea or thought, we string words together to form sentences, paying attention to grammar, style, and punctuation. Because we understand pronunciation and phonetics, we can read other languages that use the Latin alphabet even if we do not understand the meaning of the words. However, the Chinese language functions in an entirely different way. Chinese is a conceptual language. It relies on written characters (not letters and words) to express ideas and general concepts.

Chinese, a conceptual writing system

Written Chinese does not represent a spoken language at all. In fact, the same written Chinese character will be pronounced differently depending upon the dialect of the reader. A good example is to think of this symbol: $. Universally we understand this symbol to represent a currency. This symbol conveys meaning without being composed of letters or sounds. In English, we would pronounce it as “money” and in Spanish, we would say “dinero.”

It becomes difficult when attempting to translate Chinese characters because everything depends upon context. For example, let’s look at the following Chinese character: 兵. This character can be a noun, verb, or adjective. Its meanings vary from soldier, war, or army to compete, military, or to make war. The meaning is deciphered when the character is studied and analyzed in relation to other characters. Therefore, written Chinese is beautifully poetic yet complex and difficult to translate.

Languages in China

Mandarin is the core language of China, but many other languages and dialects are spoken throughout the country including Cantonese, Hunanese, Fujianese, and Taiwanese. Each of these languages writes using either Simplified or Traditional Chinese character sets. This can be somewhat compared to the use of the Latin alphabet (A, B, C, D…) in English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, and Italian.

Differences between regions

Just like in the English-speaking world, people in different locations use different words referring to the same thing. For example, the word “rubbish” is used in the UK, whereas in the US, “trash” is used. Think “biscuit” versus “cookie”; “lift” vs. “elevator,” etc.  Within the continental United States, there are even differences. An example of referencing a carbonated beverage would be the word “pop” in the Midwest, “Coke” in the South, and “soda” in the West. Among different regions within China, a certain word or concept may be expressed differently than in another region. So if your market is mainly Taiwan it is a good idea to use a linguist from that area, not one from Hong Kong, even though they both can write in Traditional Chinese.

Written Chinese Character Sets

  • Traditional Chinese – Original written characters of China. These characters are the most complex form of written Chinese. Think of English written in elaborate or decorative cursive like calligraphy.
  • Simplified Chinese – After 1911, the Traditional character was simplified by removing some of the strokes/lines to create a similar-looking character that was easier to learn and memorize, thus helping eliminate illiteracy.

Both of these writing styles are based on Mandarin but are used to write all other languages in China as well. Simplified Chinese uses the same structure as Traditional Chinese but with fewer strokes/lines. For example, the word “close” in traditional Chinese is written this way: 關, whereas in Simplified Chinese it is written this way: 关.

Where Simplified Chinese is used vs. Traditional Chinese

Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Simplified Chinese is used in Mainland China and Singapore. In the United States, and other places that Chinese people have immigrated to over the years, Traditional Chinese is still used by some people.

Prior to translating your content, it’s important to know your audience. For further guidance on your Chinese translation, Chinese voice-over, or Chinese subtitling project, contact Aberdeen.