Translation of Chinglish
Nowadays it is widely accepted that in 50 years China will be the greatest economic and military strength in the world. What is already clear is that China is the “world’s factory” and, although there may be doubts as to the quality of the products manufactured in China, it is a well-know fact that the majority of the big European and American brands manufacture in China. Nobody would question the quality of a latest generation iPhone or of the Nike trainers worn by top-level athletes. However, the fact remains that marketing is of little value to a large number of Chinese manufacturing companies, who focus their efforts on the competitiveness of their products in terms of price and features. And it works out very well for them.
The purchase of Chinese products by European importers for their sale in Europe is a successful business model that is adopted by thousands of European companies. The evolution of Chinese imports from 2006 to 2016 can be seen in the graphic below. It can be observed that Chinese imports have grown by 76% in the past 10 years, from 195,816 million euros in 2006 to 344,911 million in 2016. Everything suggests that this trend will continue to grow in the years to come.
Source: European Commission, Directorate-General for Trade
In 10 years, Chinese imports have grown by 76%, from 195,816 million euros in 2006 to 344,911 million in 2016.
If you’re asking what all this has to do with a blog about Chinglish translation, I’ll say it loud and clear: “Everything”. One of the problems faced by European importers of Chinese products is the bad quality of the available translations of product instructions and user manuals. After all, the added value of a professional translation is an intangible value, as is the design of a logo or a brochure.
1. What is Chinglish?
Chinglish can be defined as the English produced by Chinese translators who are not native speakers of English, most common when the linguistic competence of the translator is low. If you are interested in a more detailed description of Chinglish, you can visit this Wikipedia entry.
In Europe, it is widely accepted by translation service providers, and their customers, that translators only translate into their native language. The translation market in China is different. There, it is more widely accepted for a translator who is not a native English speaker to translate into English from Chinese.
One of the reasons behind this is the greater cost that it would entail to use a native translator. If you take into account that the price of the translation for a specific language depends on the cost of living in the country where the majority of translators for that target language live, it is logical that a translation carried out by a professional English native translator based in Oxford would cost 3 to 5 times more than that of a translator in Shenzhen.
Although it is not only a matter of price, but also availability and logistics. It would be extremely difficult for native translators in the Chinese to English combination to assume the translation demand generated by the Asian giant. Besides which, many such translators live in England and the United States, with the logistical problems associated to the time difference.
The truth is that translations have an intangible value as they influence the user experience and the company’s image, but very few Chinese manufacturers place importance on this fact. The success of a Chinese manufacturing company is based on other factors rather than the quality of the translations of their manuals, a job that is left to European importers along with other marketing efforts for the sale of the product.
2. Characteristics of Chinglish
The characteristics of Chinglish are those of a text written by a person with a low level of English, with the specific traits that are present when the native language of that person is Chinese:
2.1 Grammatical errors
The most common grammatical error is the lack of subject-pronoun agreement. This error will be very noticeable by native readers, although it does not usually lead to problems related to the understanding of the text.
2.2 Lack of articles
It is common to find sentences with missing articles due to the differences between the use of articles in English and Chinese. This error does not lead to problems related to the understanding of the text.
2.3 Text that does not make sense
This tends to happen when the author of the text cannot express him/herself correctly in English, thus resorting to literal translations that create absurd sentences in English. Sometimes, these sentences can be understood correctly based on the context and certain words within the sentence. This type of error leads to problems related to the understanding of the text and requires creative solutions by the editor or translator.
2.4 Incorrect terminology
It is also common to find that terminology has not been researched correctly, leading to literal translations that sometimes cause problems related to the understanding of the text.
3. Why is it a problem translating from Chinglish?
In Europe a large number of professionals are dedicated to marketing. A good marketing strategy is essential for the success of the majority of business projects in Europe. Translations are part of a marketing strategy. If a product is accompanied by the instructions provided by the Chinese manufacturer, in the majority of cases the company will project the image of a Chinese product, with the negative impact that this can have on the brand image, because in the European collective unconscious Chinese manufacturing is not associated to an iPhone or a top end HP, but rather to a low quality product. What is true for English is also true for translations into other European languages such as German, Italian, French and Spanish.
In the European collective unconscious, Chinese manufacturing is not associated to an iPhone or a top end HP, but rather to a low quality product.
Taking into account the characteristics of Chinglish explained in the section above, it is easy to imagine why it is such a problem to translate from a poorly translated text. In the majority of cases there will be text that does not make sense or inappropriate technical terminology that the translator will have to interpret and, at times, simply guess or worse: misinterpret. When working with a poorly translated text, there is a greater risk of transferring certain errors from the source text into the translation. There are often so many errors and text that does not make sense that it is simply impossible to translate the text.
4. The Chinese government against bad translations
This has become such a huge problem that in December 2017 the Chinese government enacted a national standard to establish the guidelines for translations in 13 public service sectors, including transport and health. With a quick Google search you can easily find websites highlighting the most comical, or simply inappropriate, errors that do not project the international image of the country that the Chinese authorities would like. Below, you can see that there are racist parks in China:
There are also explosive dogs:
And even areas reserved for deformed people:
Anecdotes aside, the Chinese authorities consider it to be a national problem that affects China’s image abroad. The initiative behind the creation of this standard was based on joint efforts between the Administration for the Standardisation of China, the Ministry of Education and the State Commission for Languages. As established in the standard, translations into English that will be used in places offering public services must be examined by the corresponding authorities, such as local tourism offices, language commissions or other translation experts, according to the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China.
5. Solutions for the translation of Chinglish
The solutions offered by a translation company can vary depending on the budget, availability of the source text in Chinese and the number of languages into which the documentation needs to be translated.
5.1 Revision of the English text by a native speaker
We would have to do what the Chinese manufacturer failed to do, and ensure that the wording of the English is correct. If the Chinese text is available, we will carry out a full revision, comparing the original and the translation. In many cases we cannot use the original text in Chinese, either because it is not available, or because the documentation was written directly in English. In these cases, we will simply revise the English text, which can often lead to doubts as to the meaning of certain sentences. Therefore the assistance of the manufacturer or of employees who are familiar with the product may be necessary.
5.2 Interpretation of the text with expert help
When we are not able to carry out an initial revision of the source text due to budget restrictions, we can instruct the translator to correct any faults in the source text during the translation. During this process, the translator will point out parts where there is text that does not make sense and will provide his/her interpretation, for correction in accordance with the solution adopted by the customer. Unfortunately, sometimes the solution may be to delete a sentence when it is not possible to clarify its meaning. The translator may request a surcharge for this process, given that it entails more work to obtain satisfactory results.
5.3 Translation from Chinese
Despite the two solutions proposed above, there are cases in which the quality of the text in English is so low that it is practically impossible to understand the majority of it. In such cases, the solution would be to use the original Chinese text, when available, for translation.
5.4 Multilingual translation projects
When the translation project involves translation into several languages, it would be most advisable, in terms of budget and methodology, to carry out an initial revision of the English so that any potential problems in the original are not reproduced in all other languages.
6. The future of Chinglish
I believe that Chinglish is here to stay for many years. Firstly, because China will continue to be the world’s factory and European importers will continue to assume their role as sales and marketing department. It will be a long time before Chinese companies need marketing to sell their products in Europe or for the business culture of Chinese companies to change, making greater use of marketing. But that day will arrive and many Chinese companies have already been taking steps in this respect for some time.
Secondly, if Chinese manufacturers start to request English translations from native speakers, it will lead to a logistical problem and an increase in prices. The current pool of professional translators who are native English speakers and who translate from Chinese is very limited and would not be able to meet such a demand.
The translation problems generated by texts in English with a large number of mistranslations, grammatical mistakes, misspellings and inappropriate language use will continue to exist and to have an effect on translation processes, hindering the production of final texts with acceptable quality standards in Europe and a positive effect on the user experience.