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Most of the World Speaks Chinese, Does Your Business?

October 18, 2018

The number of first-language Chinese speakers far exceeds the number of first-language English speakers yet most businesses don’t offer even the simplest customer support in Chinese. In fact, according to research conducted by Statista, only 1.8 percent of websites are translated into Chinese. That means less than two percent of websites offer self-help content in the language spoken by most of the world. Yikes!

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While the auto repair shop down the road or the cute boutique downtown might not need multilingual customer service, multinationals certainly do. But the problem with multilingual customer support is that it’s tricky. Generating quality translations is much more difficult than entering a phrase into Google Translate and hoping for the best. That’s why we’ve asked Robert Liu, BLANK lLocalization pProject mManager for Language I/O, to explain why Chinese translations, in particular, are best left to professional human translation and machine translation.

While machine translation from Chinese into English has been making significant progress over the past few years, most translations still require a human touch.

Many technical papers have been written on the difficulties of machine translations from Chinese to other languages, and ideas on how to improve them. However, this piece touches on one simple challenge non-Chinese speaking people might have with English to Chinese translations. 

Each “word” of Chinese is composed of one or more characters, most of the times one to four. There are tens of thousands of different characters. Elementary school children spend years learning about a small set of these characters and building up their vocabularies. The standard basic set in the national curriculum is around 3,000 characters.

However, when writing a sentence, there is nothing to separate one word from another. That is to say, unlike in English or most other modern languages, there is no space or any other “separator” between the words. 

In ancient or classical Chinese, not even sentences are separated. Luckily for modern Chinese, e.g., simplified or traditional Chinese, things are bit easier in that sentences are terminated with punctuation marks, such as the “。” symbol.

Furthermore, the grammatical phenomena familiar to European-language speakers, like conjugation, tenses, or even plural forms are non-existent in Chinese language. These linguist features (and many more nuances that are not mentioned here) make machine translations from Chinese to English much more difficult and challenging than the other way around.

Here’s an example sentence in Chinese.

他这个人谁都不相信。

This sentence can be “segmented” or broken up as below:

这个

相信

with its English representation as:

He

this

person

Who

all

no

believe

.

 

Running the Chinese sentence through Google Translate and Baidu Translate, the results in English are different.

MT

Translated result in English

Google Translate

He does not believe anyone.

Baidu Translate

No one believes him.

 

Both translations make sense depending on the context, but machines don’t consider context. He doesn’t believe anyone and no one believes him have two different meanings. By only using machine translation, this phrase would get lost in translation.

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