How Good Translation Pays for Itself

Everyone has heard funny stories about bad translations involving Chinese and English. One needn’t look any further than the streets of Beijing to find hundreds of examples of hilarious bilingual signs. They range from the obvious typo (长城宽带 / Great Wall Broadbang Network) and the simply amusing (家常菜 / Homely Style Food) to the truly bizarre (小心溺水/ Careful Drowning).

But translation is a two-way street. Getting an English message across accurately in Chinese can be just as problematic. An inappropriate choice of words can result not just in misunderstandings but even in unintended offense or negative word of mouth. And when a mistranslation costs a company business, it’s no laughing matter at all.

English and Chinese Couldn’t Be More Different

Because Chinese uses ideograms to communicate words and ideas, it features a wonderfully rich written language. A single word in English, such as “strong,” can be written in more than a dozen ways, from 强烈 with its connotations of strength, intensity and violence to 强硬 referring to unyielding toughness or 壮 meaning strength that is magnificent, robust or grand.

What’s more, spoken Chinese has an astounding number of homonyms. There are 421 distinct syllables in the language, which map to thousands of different written characters with completely distinct meanings and connotations. For example, according to one Chinese dictionary, no fewer than 34 different characters in common usage are all pronounced “mo.” Their meanings range widely, from copy, feel, kneel, model, touch and worship to bubbles, ink stick, mushroom and steamed dumpling, to name a few.

Then there is the matter of syntax and grammar. The juxtaposition of characters in a sentence can change its meaning. And although English and most Western languages use verb tense to indicate the time of events described, Chinese employs adverbs and contextual material to serve that purpose.

This tremendous complexity of written characters, similar sounding words and sentence structure increases greatly the variety of errors that can occur in translation. In fact, it can make something as seemingly simple as naming a product one of the keys to success or failure in Chinese markets.

Major Blunders to Avoid

The Coca Cola Corporation learned this the hard way when they launched in the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and discovered that “Coca-Cola” rendered phonetically can sound like words meaning “bite the wax tadpole.” They quickly renamed their local brand 可口可乐, which is pronounced “Kekou Kele” and means “delicious happiness.”

Pepsi followed a similar tact and named their brand 百事可乐, which is pronounced “Baishi Kele.” It means “be happy with everything.” But the story is still told of how the multinational beverage maker ran into trouble when translating their catchphrase into Chinese. Instead of inviting Chinese consumers to “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation,” they were apparently saying “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave.” Needless to say, the slogan drew more giggles than sales.

On the other hand, before Microsoft introduced their Internet search engine called “Bing” in Chinese, they did their homework. Research revealed that some Chinese characters sounding like Bing meant “sick” or had other negative connotations. As a solution, they added an extra syllable that changed the pronunciation to “Bi-ying” and chose the name 必应, which means “certain to respond.”

The Pitfalls of Machine Translation

Huge corporations like Coke, Pepsi and Microsoft have done the world a favor in demonstrating just how critical good translation can be to a company’s bottom line. Still, many are tempted to go with low budget alternatives, such as machine translations to transform their web sites or produce written materials in Chinese.

While free services such as Google Translate can be useful in helping with travel directions or getting the gist of a news article, they can only translate words, not cultural nuances. The errors they make may be completely logical, such as mistaking “cosmetic solution” for “liquid make-up,” but by the time the problem becomes evident, damage may already have been done.

Unfortunately, no computer translation program currently available has an accuracy rate of higher than 85%. A simple test of this is to machine translate a few paragraphs from English to Chinese and then translate the result back to English and compare it to the original. The differences can be quite revealing. Idiomatic phrases such as “It’s over as quick as a flash” turn into 这是一个闪光一样快 and come back meaningless—“This is a flash as fast.”

Machine translation should therefore never be relied upon for any work that requires both linguistic and cultural understanding, where accuracy carries great importance, or when such information may have serious health or legal implications. Specific business areas that demand the highest quality translation include:

  • Sales and marketing materials
  • Patents and similar technical literature
  • Medical and pharmaceutical instructions or descriptions
  • Legal documents such as contracts, court orders and wills

Additionally, all written communication that represents the public face of a business or organization, from web sites to brochures, manuals and reports, deserves to be presented in the most professional manner possible.

There’s No Substitute for Quality

Just like advertising, translation is an art as well as a science and, over the long-term, it pays its own way. When developing promotional materials, most companies are willing to budget a little extra or wait a little longer if they believe it will make a difference in terms of higher sales volume, more satisfied customers, fewer complaints and greater brand awareness. The same measures of success can be applied to translation. Quality work should help bring in more money and promote loyalty, while alleviating headaches and establishing a reputation for excellence.

Fortunately, quality English-to-Chinese translators are not hard to identify. They must be intimately familiar with all the nuances of both languages and sensitive to the cultural aspects of communication. Although their styles may vary, the best translators are always asking themselves two questions: “Is it clear?” and “Is it accurate?”

Because top translators are focused on avoiding misunderstandings, they typically ask their clients lots of questions, too. Anyone who professes to know everything already or who doesn’t know enough to know what to ask is probably not the right person for the job.

On the flip side, those who commission translation work can also take a few steps on their own to make sure they get the best quality. Being clear about the assignment and the time frame, providing sufficient background material, having a key contact available to answer questions, identifying a reviewer to check the finished Chinese … these are all ways to support the process and bring it to 圆满的结果—a successful outcome.

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