Chinese Characters

October 1, 2022
Adam Sedia

When Western academics about a hundred years ago suggested a Western-style alphabet for the Chinese language, Chinese academics retorted that Western language should adopt Chinese characters. This was more than simply a formal way to say “in your face.” Chinese characters have a versatility that alphabetic scripts lack.

In nearly every writing system except Chinese, such as alphabets (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, etc.) the signs represent sounds. Thus, as the language changes, the spelling adjusts to represent the new sounds of the words. Or sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why in English “through,” “cough,” “rough,” “dough,” and “bough” are all pronounced differently: centuries ago they rhymed, but the spelling was frozen even though the pronunciation of each word evolved in wildly different directions. That is part of what makes English spelling notoriously difficult.

Chinese doesn’t have this problem because its characters represent ideas rather than sounds. This is useful in two respects. First, ancient texts, such as the philosophical writings of Laozi and Confucius, which are more than 2,500 years old, are written with the same characters as modern Chinese. Even though their ancient language sounded radically different from present-day Chinese, present-day Chinese readers can read the exact same written characters understood millennia ago, but in their own language.

Second, the term “Chinese” covers a number of languages. What Westerners think of as standard Chinese is Mandarin, the official language of government, media, literature, and academia, and the spoken language of most Chinese. However, especially in China’s south, there are a number of other languages grouped into Yue (also called “Cantonese”), Wu, and Gan – all of which are related to Mandarin, but significantly different. Regardless of the language, the same Chinese character represents the same word in all of these languages; the only difference is that a Mandarin speaker will pronounce it very differently from a Yue speaker and so forth.

Translating and interpreting Chinese will therefore take very different approaches. Translating writing will not depend on regional language because Chinese characters are independent of the language’s sound. Interpreting a speaker, however, will depend heavily on the nature of the task and the language the speaker. In an official or academic context, Mandarin is the most likely source language. But in other contexts, knowing the speaker’s correct Chinese language will be key to understanding and interpreting.

UNIDA Translation is a professional translation company that knows these important linguistic differences and can accommodate whatever Chinese language is desired.

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