5 Challenges of Chinese Translators When Working on Projects


Translation is never a walk in the park. Skillful Chinese translators face challenges every day. They are exposed to different kinds of texts and documents.

That’s why sifting the diamonds from the pebbles of translators is critical in producing high-quality, rather, 99.9% accurate deliverables.

As Ma Xuesong – who led the Chinese Translation services since 2011 at the China’s Foreign Ministry for the United Nations put it, “There’s no room for mistakes. If there was a mistake, it would spread like virus.”

He said that in the context of institutional texts. But I think it also applies to all kinds of deliverables and industries.

The Chinese language is widely used around the world, and yet it’s also one of the most challenging languages to translate.

When working on legal documents that need Chinese translation, we would work with translators who are fluent in both languages and have the specialization in legal matters. (e.g. English or Spanish into Chinese).

Legal translation has certain rules we need to follow. Translators should master them and practice a lot. Other fields such as marketing translation and literary translation, things can be more complicated (We will share more insights in our future articles).

Here are the 5 common challenges our Chinese translators face and what the team does to overcome them.

1. Ambiguous instructions on the target market

Sometimes clients overlook the regional dialects and written scripts in Chinese. There are two written forms in China.

When there’s ambiguity in what type of script to use – China is diverse including its language and dialects where the Mainland people use Simplified Chinese and Hong Kong, and Taiwan citizens use Traditional Chinese – the project manager should make sure the deliverables are suitable to client’s target audience.

The different dialects often influence word choices and meanings as well, and translators must consider these as they work on the projects.

For example, the word strawberry in Simplified Chinese is “草莓.” The traditional Chinese that is used in Hong Kong is “士多啤梨” although both of them means the same thing in English.

草莓 cǎo méi

士多啤梨 shì duō pí lí

2. English colloquialisms and untranslatable cultural aspects

Punchy lines for marketing and advertorials in English are the norms.

But when professional Chinese translators stumble upon these phrases and taglines that can’t be translated, it’s a challenge for them.

Questions such as:

“Are we going to translate this literally? If yes, it doesn’t seem and sound right to the native speaker.”

“What does this word mean in this phrase?”

“Would it make sense to rephrase this sentence first before we translate it?”

Our CEO, Sophie Ao, shared her insights about this point and gave examples.

“We Do Chicken Right” can’t be translated into Chinese accurately because the word “chicken” has an implied meaning of “hookers” no matter how translation goes – it fails to deliver the message.

Another example is Maxwell’s Coffee: “滴滴香浓,意犹未尽.” This is a successful translation. It delivers the message completely, she said.

Not all punch lines can be translated as good as Maxwell’s.

She added, “Cultural specific terms like “home run” is not well accepted and translated into Chinese. Global companies should likely avoid these cultural specific terms especially if they’re writing for international markets.”

Here’s a short video explaining why foreigners found these Chinese hard to translate in English: 加油、便当、小吃、撒娇、热闹、龟毛、亲戚 cousins/uncles/aunties/默契、计较、缘份.

According to Sophie, when translators encounter these “untranslatables,” they do much work than mere translation.

They’d have to take down notes on supplemental information that were not mentioned in the source texts, but critical as well for a better understanding of the original message.

3. Inconsistency of the same term or word

There are instances when English writers use different words but have the same meaning.

Writers of technical documentations using terms interchangeably can cause confusion among translators. And as Sophie put it, “This inconsistency would result in a lower match rate, and that company would see a higher cost for multilingual translation on technical manuals.”

4. Projects that have figurative language

There’s a saying that “English can be weird. It can be understood through tough, thorough thought, though.”

And when translators encounter figurative language or figures of speech in English – literary translations appeal to the reader’s emotions rather than bare facts on business translation – this can be challenging for them.

We leave the literary translation to the poets.

Professional translation requires a different skillset. Marketing content can sometimes have these figurative languages as they want the texts to be creative and punchy.

However, the texts are difficult to translate into Chinese and are culturally irrelevant to the readers or hearers.

Here are some of the examples:

“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

“I’m sweating like a pig.”

“Out of reach, I pull out with a screech.”

5. Understand the writer’s or author’s attitude and perspective

Translators should step into the shoes of the writer’s or author’s attitude and perspective.

As each one has a different writing style and voice, it can be challenging for professional translators to figure out the sarcasm in the texts and how they can convey the concept into Chinese.

Aside from being good at vocabulary, grammar, and tenses, it requires creativity and sensitivity to the translator when working on written documents.

Translation is a fulfilling job for professionals

But despite these challenges, it’s fulfilling for the translators that they have an opportunity to learn and improve their skills.

Translation is not for amateurs.

And when it comes to business deals there’s no room for mistakes, so allowing the experts do their job will make your life easy.

Challenges in translation provide us opportunity to learn and improve our work.

Why Not Give Us a Try?

We save your time.

We save your money.

We make your life easier.