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Tips for translating Chinese

Tips to keep in mind when translating Chinese:

Historically, Chinese was written either vertically, from top to bottom and right to left, or horizontally, from right to left, but for many years now the official standard has been horizontally from left to right. Many newspapers, however, often combine this with a vertical layout, for example with horizontal headlines and vertical text.

Until relatively recently, few graphics programs were designed with anything other than English in mind, and handling text layout in Chinese and other non-Latin scripts was fraught with problems.

In recent years, thanks to the development of programs such as InDesign as the industry standard graphic and text layout program, these problems have become more manageable. It is now possible to produce first class layouts in both simplified and traditional Chinese script, utilising all of the functionality that InDesign makes possible for the Latin alphabet.

Chinese presents a number of specific challenges to the desktop publishing specialist. For example, the fact that there are no spaces within a given paragraph of Chinese, nor any indication of word boundaries. This is because Chinese is a syllabic system in a which a word will never be longer than two syllables (i.e. two characters). Punctuation, of course, must follow the Chinese rules, using Chinese punctuation symbols (in fact, classical Chinese doesn’t use any punctuation at all!). As in the case of Arabic, foreign phrases are used quite freely, either in the original Latin script or transliterated into Chinese. Of course, this too must be properly handled.

Technically, Chinese does not use italics, but it has become quite common to use slanted fonts to emphasise parts of a text, and combining different weights of text (e.g regular vs. bold) remains a considerable challenge to the designer.

There are many different Chinese fonts available, and it is part of the designer’s reponsibility to choose one which is appropriate to the style and register of the document. And, in order to avoid the kind of compatibility pitfalls which were a problem even a few years ago, the font must be based on the Unicode standard in order to be able to handle all the 60, 000 + characters .

As usual with translated texts, it is very important for the desktop publishing specialist to have at least some basic knowledge of the target language. They must also be aware of the fact that, unlike Italian, for example, which generally takes up 20-25% more space than the English it is translated from, a Chinese translation will occupy a good deal less space than the original, alphabetic source. This is partly due to the fact that each character represents a whole syllable, and partly because Chinese is a notoriously concise language.

These are just a few of the issues which translators and desktop publishing professionals need to bear in mind when working with Chinese, and they serve to underline the importance of entrusting this work to experienced specialists.

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