The Top 5 Challenges Marketers Face Translating for Chinese Markets
Invaluable Lessons from one of Hong Kong’s Top Language Providers
Let’s start with some staggering figures to set the baseline for this article:
- The Facts: 20% of the world speaks Chinese—that’s over 1 in 5 people globally, more than Spanish, English, French, and German combined!
- The Opportunity: Mainland China’s eCommerce market is valued at over $590 billion and growing at double digits per annum.
- The Challenge: There are two types of written Chinese: simplified v. traditional, which is defined by the difference in strokes in a character. To add complexity to the matter, Chinese languages do not use a phonetic alphabet, but a system of over 20,000 characters, many of which can mean different things depending on the context.
Is your head spinning yet? We absolutely understand how overwhelming that can be because we’ve been in the business of helping clients translate their marketing materials for the Chinese market the past 16 years. It requires a deep level of experience and a unique understanding of how to translate English products and services in a way that will resonate with the Chinese consumer.
So, what are the key challenges? Here’s a brief list of our Top 5:
- Vastly Different Language Structures: As we’ve mentioned, Chinese and English do not have a shared pedigree like most romance languages do. Chinese is the only modern language that is entirely based on a character system, which means that a unique vocabulary can be assigned to each character since characters are based on memorization rather than phonetics.
For instance, did you know that a Chinese reader must have 2-3,000 characters memorized just to read the daily newspaper? While there are actually 50,000 characters in existence, there are about 20,000 characters actively used, and each character can have more than one independent meaning.
Additionally, there are unique grammatical characteristics of the Chinese language that make translation accuracy highly dependent on word order and context. Here are some examples:
- Chinese does not have articles like a, an, the to define a noun as specific or unspecific.
- There are no plurals in the Chinese language, rather modifiers are used to define one v. many.
- Tenses are indicated by adverbs and the context, not by the verbs themselves.
- Chinese has a different syntactical structure compared to English; while English words are based on both form and function, Chinese characters depend mostly on function.
- Significant Cultural Differences: Believe it or not, cultural understanding plays as much of an important role to translation as the technical syntax. If how we communicate and express ourselves varies greatly among English-speaking countries like the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia, imagine how different that looks and feels in a completely different language! Obviously, there’s a big potential for misunderstanding.
It may really surprise you to know how differently Chinese process information from Westerners! For instance, while Westerners tend to value truth and questioning norms, Chinese thinkers tend to focus on acceptance and building harmony. This is because Chinese focus decision-making around societal needs and expectations rather than individual requirements and goals.
Why does this matter to you? Because translating English materials into Chinese requires a touch of finesse and a keen awareness of unique cultural prisms that inform decision-making. Chinese thinkers tend to make decisions based on a holistic understanding while Westerners tend to rely on linear decision-making and problem-solving. The ability to decode those cultural differences comes not only from linguistically-talented translators but from depth of experience marketing products and services from the West to the East.
- Traditional v. Simplified Written Chinese: If the vast cultural differences between Chinese and English aren’t enough complexity for you—layer to that the translation requirements for different types of written Chinese!
There are two types of written Chinese: simplified v. traditional characters. Traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, incorporates more brush strokes for greater legibility and guidance in its distinctiveness. The vast majority of reading materials, advertising slogans, signs and even TV captioning found in these countries is written in Traditional Chinese.
On the other hand, mainland China adopted simplified Chinese in the mid-1900s to improve literacy by creating characters with less strokes that could also be used interchangeably so less characters had to be memorized.
What does this mean for your business? Geography-based decision making necessitates the type of Chinese we use to translate your materials. If you want to market primarily to mainland China, we’d help you translate your documents, marketing or services into simplified Chinese. Likewise, if you prefer to market to Hong Kong, Singapore or Taiwan, we’d need to help translate everything into traditional Chinese.
- Mandarin v. Cantonese Spoken Chinese: If you’re developing audio materials or video campaigns, you should be aware of the dialectical differences in Chinese as well. As we mentioned, since Chinese is not a “phonetic” language, while characters are shared, the dialect is not. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the dominant spoken form of Chinese while Mandarin is spoken in mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore.
Theoretically, it would seem there are enough shared roots for both languages to be understood by a Chinese speaker, but the truth is, like Traditional v. Simplified Chinese, not all Chinese read and speak the same language.
This means that depending on where you’re marketing, your audio translations will vary between the two main dialects: Mandarin or Cantonese, though like written Chinese, many companies opt to do both.
- Translating Tone and Style: Along the lines of cultural differences, spoken and written Chinese tends to be wordier than English. Chinese often emphasizes repetition to make a point, rather than drawing on the more subtle ways English usually adopts to coax a potential consumer into engagement.
Where Chinese language tends to revolve around circular concepts and showy, exaggerated language to make a point, English language marketing campaigns tend to focus on the message and benefits of a product, service or offering in a more precise way. Neither is wrong– it’s just a cultural difference that comes into play when translating materials from one language to another.
Ever noticed how a Chinese commercial is significantly louder than a typical English commercial? That’s a deliberate tone and style choice. Chinese marketing language tends to be more emphatic and verbose.
So, what are the key lessons to be derived from these challenges?
- Avoid Being Too Literal: Translating English into Chinese (in any form) requires a degree of flexibility as Western consumers are very different from Chinese consumers in how they process information and make buying decisions. Talk to your translation experts about your goals and allow us to help you craft a message that supports that goal while making it culturally relevant for your target Chinese consumer.
- Learn & Reapply: The great thing about today’s technology is that your marketing spend can be much more easily optimized based on faster access to data. You understand much more quickly than traditional ad campaigns what is and isn’t working for the consumer. Take that knowledge and continue to refine and reapply your learnings about the Chinese marketplace. As one of the fastest growing markets in the world, your ability to market effectively will be dependent on your willingness to adapt and evolve the messages.
- Hire Experts with Cultural and Industry Experience: In order to maximize your investment, select a language provider with linguistic skill and a depth of experience to help you craft your China market campaign. So much can be lost in translation—choosing the right partner from the beginning enables you to hit the ground that much faster in a new marketplace.
After all, there are 1.2 billion Chinese speakers in the world—shouldn’t a percentage of those be your customers? Let us help.
Who We Are:
DataSource is a high-quality Language Service Provider (LSP), offering Translation services in about 80 languages and covering about 400 language combinations for clients in multiple industries. Additionally, we offer expanded services including:
- Desktop Publishing and Typesetting
- Audio Guides, Books and Recordings
- Technical Writing and Manuals
- Photo Shoots for Products, Manuals and Packaging
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can help translate your business for China today!