Asian Tongues

Out of Asia

First, a brief clarification. Although Asia certainly includes India, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, as well as Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and numerous other fascinating and important nations, this article will address only those languages which fall in the Sino group (Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Burmese, Thai, Laotian, etc.) or the Altaic group (Korean and Japanese; Turkish is omitted for geographical reasons). Apologies to the numerous other languages of the region, but they come from different families and are not relevant to this discussion. For convenience, I’ll refer to the above languages as the Asian languages. Please also note that when I refer to European languages, I mean those members of the Romance, Germanic, or Baltic-Slavic families. This excludes Basque, Hungarian, and Finnish, whose origins have nothing to do with PIE (Proto Indo-European).

Modern Asian languages are much older than most modern Indo-European languages. French, Spanish and the other Romance languages all find their origins in Latin. English, German, and the other Germanic languages find their origins in Proto-germanic. Baltic-Slavic is the original form of the current Baltic languages and Slavic tongues which include Russian and others. Note that all the proto-forms of these languages date from roughly 100-200 C.E., or even more recent.

Not so with the Asian languages. We have extant examples of Chinese which date from three thousand years B.C.E. (half a millennium before the Giza pyramids were built). Classical Japanese texts date from the very beginning of the Japanese writing system around 700 C.E. And the language itself is considerably older.

Moreover, while Chinese and its sisters are clearly descended from something generally called Proto-Sinic, Japanese and Korean are Altaic, tracing their roots back to a hypothetical ancestor called Ur-Altaic. In other words, Asian languages stem from a completely different part of the language family tree than do European languages. And, as a note, Japanese has virtually no linguistic connections with Chinese except for the use of Chinese characters and the adoption of some ancient Chinese idioms and adages. Knowing Japanese will help you learn Chinese about as much as knowing English will help you learn Arabic.

I realize that I am ignoring the other fourteen language families in the world, including Dravidian, Amerindian, Bantu, Semitic, and the others. This is not to slight or ignore their importance, but instead to keep the focus of this article on a comparison between Asian and Indo-European languages, the former being too common in the current translation market to be ignored, the latter being represented by three most commonly spoken languages in this hemisphere (English, Spanish, and French), and encompassing the majority of European languages. Similar material involving the differences between Arabic and European languages could and should be written, but I am not the person to do so.

From the Sublime...

Asian languages lack much of the linguistic equipment we take for granted in an Indo-European tongue. For instance, neither Japanese nor Chinese distinguish the singular or plural unless absolutely necessary, they have no verb tenses as we are used to them in say French or Russian, no gender, cases, articles, or declensions as we know them in English, Spanish, or German.

There is no plural form for a noun like ‘cat’. You simply say ‘cat’ (which means one or many); the number of cats, if important, is revealed either through context or the addition of a number with its counter (a part of speech used to identify what is being counted). Similarly, there is no gender (masculine, feminine, or neutral). In Spanish, the word ‘cat’ is ‘gato’ and is masculine. No such distinction exists in Japanese, Chinese, or other Asian languages.

Words hardly ever change in Asian languages (they are uninflected, to be technical about it). Unlike German or Russian, where nouns and adjectives constantly change endings depending on what they are doing in a sentence; unlike Spanish or French, which have numerous verb conjugations and three moods (indicative, subjunctive, imperative); unlike most European languages, which have many forms of the word ‘the’; Asian languages require no such changes.

Asian languages also lack verb tenses as we think of them in English. At best, Japanese has a perfect and imperfect tense. For instance, we cannot say, “The bridge collapsed tomorrow,” in English (if you’re wondering why we would need to say this, recall the collapse of a bridge in Seoul, Korea. I heard about this event only one hour after it happened, around 3:00 p.m. in California. Thus, it was already tomorrow in Korea, requiring me to answer the question “When did it happen?” with the statement, “The bridge collapsed tomorrow.”). In Japanese, there is no such problem. Because the event is complete, the perfect tense is used and an adverb of time indicating tomorrow is added. Perfectly natural.

Japanese and Korean also have little in the way of rules governing word order, except that the verb always comes at the end of a statement. Chinese (and other Sino languages) requires the verb in the second position, but little else is regulated. Thus, a literal translation of a banal Japanese phrase can end up sounding like poetry in English.

Moreover, Japanese (along with Korean) can omit virtually everything from a sentence which is not vital. The subject is rarely expressed in a sentence (and unlike Spanish, is not specified by the verb conjugation because there is none). Objects are often dropped. In its conversational form, many Japanese statements consist of nothing more than an adverb or adjective plus a verb (making eavesdropping somewhat more difficult than it is in English).

And, of course, we have the writing systems. Only Vietnamese is currently written using the Roman script, though in a slightly modified form. Chinese uses its characters; Korean, the Hangul script (though Chinese characters are sometimes used); Japanese, the Hiragana and Katakana phonetic scripts plus over 2,000 Chinese characters; and Thai, Khmer, Burmese, and Laotian each use their own phonetic alphabets. In other words, when dealing with an Asian language, at the very least you will have to deal with an entirely unfamiliar alphabet.

All of these characteristics (plus many others) have doubtlessly helped the Asian languages earn their reputation of being ineffable, inscrutable, or just plain mystical. They aren’t. They are just different. Very different. So different that you have to climb way up the historical tree of languages to find the connections between Japanese and English, Korean and French, or Chinese and Russian. So different that they all appear on the State Department’s list of exotic languages. So different that the time to master one is considerably longer than that for a European language. And so different that an article like this one can only begin to do justice to the subject.

…To the Ridiculous

Not only do these languages differ vastly from English, but the cultural and historical backgrounds do as well. Virtually all European languages can trace at least some of their history through the Roman Empire and back to the ancient Greeks. The Asian languages find much of their cultural heritage in ancient Chinese history and philosophy, but are also influenced by many other sources, including Buddhism.

Certain fundamentals which include how information is presented and described, how an argument is devised and constructed, or how instructions are given differ vastly. For instance, in Japanese an argument is presented roughly as follows: first, the background and general origin of the idea, next the details and information, third, the pivotal point of the argument, and last, a general, and by Aristotelian standards, vague conclusion.

Moreover, there are major differences in rhetorical style. For instance, in Japanese, people are regularly quoted out of context in newspapers. The passive voice is used so frequently that an English teacher’s skin would crawl. Triple and even quadruple negatives are often used for emphasis, particularly in speeches. Japanese has a structure best described as the impersonal intransitive passive (which for those of you who study Latin should be familiar). Flowery idioms whose origins lie in ancient Chinese parable pepper modern writing and speech.

In other words: virtually everything is different!

And Thus

Translators of Asian languages (into or out of English) cannot be expected to work in the same way that a translator of Spanish or German does. Neither can they be expected to produce the same results as someone working with English and French can. Nor should they be expected to translate the same volume.

Why? you ask. The answer is simple and has nothing to do with native intelligence. The reasons are as follows: linguistic, socio-cultural, and logistical. Let’s look at each individually.

As described above, there are far more differences between Japanese and English than German and English. While no language is so similar to another than a translator can simply plug in words from the target language to replace those in the source language (and if there were, translators would go extinct), the structure of some languages is more readily rendered into other languages.

For instance, when I translate from Japanese into English, I spend a lot of my time converting passive voice sentences without subjects into something acceptable in English. I wrestle with convoluted, lengthy, and often unending Japanese sentences. I struggle to convert Japanese phrases which have two subjects into an English phrase which has only one. I also have to take care of such matters as deciding if a word is going to be singular or plural, adding articles and prepositions, creating subjects and objects so that my English sentences are complete, and working carefully with verbs so that the English verb tense I use matches the intended meaning of the Japanese verb.

Though the specific problems differ, translating to or from any Asian language requires considerably more linguistic manipulation than working to or from a European language. Please understand that I do not mean to suggest that European languages are easier or simpler to work with (though I know Asian-language translators who do believe this), but the linguistic fact is that Asian languages are more different than European languages when compared to English (which of course, is a European language too).

In fact, I often consider translating from Japanese to English as something of an exercise in creative writing. I also translate from French and Spanish into English, so I have experience dealing with those language pairs. The problems are different. Which is more challenging or interesting, I cannot say. However, the linguistic problems involved in going to or from an Asian language and English are more time-consuming.

Socio-cultural issues can become quite important when translating. Anyone who thinks otherwise would probably be happy with the ‘magnetic meadows’ produced by the first Russian-English machine translation system (the machine’s translation of ‘magnetic field’ in a technical paper). Matters such as how information is presented and described, how directions are given or explained, and how a subject is treated all fall into this category. Because the European languages (and I include English here) have a shared socio-cultural history, these matters differ considerably less in comparison to the Asian languages.

I already pointed out the basic structure of an argument in Japanese. Similarly, such fundamental concepts as God, a King or Emperor, nationality, race, ethics, law, and history (to name a few) are quite different in Asian societies. Although these issues will never affect a translation at the word-level, they will impact on the overall impression a translation makes. For instance, how do you handle such concepts as race for a society like Japan's or Korea's, which really has only one race, or for one like China's, which predates all of European history? Or what do you do with a phrase like “modern history” in Japanese, which refers to everything after 1603 (for ‘kindaishi’ in Japanese) or everything after 1868 (for ‘gendaishi’)? The phrase “modern history” in English tends to refer to everything after WWII. And so it goes.

While this may all seem too abstruse to be relevant, let me give one down-to-earth example. I translated part of a book on brain death in 1994. The author was against considering brain dead people as clinically dead, and therefore against using their organs for transplants. Unfortunately, while his arguments made perfect sense in Japanese, they lost their force and persuasiveness in English because of their structure. Moreover, part of his argument was based on the notion of family responsibility and filial piety, concepts that are quite different in Japan. Although I did my best to integrate brief explanations of the concept of filial piety into the translation and restructure the arguments within the limits of what a translator should do, the resulting English text (which the client was very happy with) certainly represented a case in which a lot was lost in the translation.

Then there are the logistical issues. These represent the nuts-and-bolts of translation and include typing your documents, printing or transmitting your work, looking up words and terms, maintaining glossaries, and managing neologisms.

Most Asian languages (Vietnamese being the notable exception) are written in scripts which differ completely from the Roman or Cyrillic script. Chinese is written exclusively in characters. Japanese is written in a mixture of two phonetic scripts, characters, and occasionally the Roman alphabet. In fact, it would be difficult to create a more confused, chaotic, and inefficient writing system than the one Japanese is stuck with. My professor of Japanese history once said that the worse thing to happen to the Japanese language was the adoption of Chinese characters.

What does this mean?

For one, typing in an Asian language is quite difficult. You simply can’t have a keyboard which covers the two or three thousand characters used in Japanese and Chinese. You can’t use the Roman keyboard as is to input the complex Hangul script. So, you have to use what’s loosely called a ‘bridge’, a simple chuck of computer code which reads your QWERTY keyboard input phonetically and then presents you with the characters or phonetic symbols which match. For characters this can be agonizingly slow, since one sound in Japanese or Chinese can have as many as one hundred characters associated with it. Even if you have a context-sensitive bridge or one which accepts character compounds, you still have to select from a group of choices presented in a little pop-up window. The net result is that a high- speed professional typist in Japanese does about 30 to 40 words per minute. In comparison, most executive secretaries and professional typists do well over 100 wpm in English.

If you’re translating into an Asian language, you have to deal with a major technical issue. Unlike the European languages which have agreed to use ASCII as the standard way of expressing the Roman alphabet (and recall that Spanish made an official modification a few years ago to accommodate this, and Germany did the same more recently), there is as yet no general agreement about how to deal with the so-called two-byte languages (which include most of the Asian languages, plus some others). If your operating system and software don’t support the same two-byte system that your client’s does, you will have some problems, to say the least. And although there are file translation programs to help mitigate this difficulty, you sacrifice time, efficiency, and formatting when using them (not to mention content in a few cases).

You have probably been wondering how you look up a Chinese character in a dictionary. It depends. If you know the pronunciation, you might peruse that section of the dictionary and scan for it. This can take considerable time, but it is often faster than looking up the character in a character dictionary. Doing so requires first identifying the radical of the character (the part used to identify it for dictionary purposes), then looking up that radical, next going to the section for that radical which covers characters which have the same number of strokes as the one you are looking for does, and finally, finding your character among the others in that section. As a person who has looked up thousands of words in over eight languages, I can tell you that I’d rather look up something in Spanish or German than in Japanese.

This leads to another problem. While there are reasonably good if not excellent specialized dictionaries for the European languages, there are few if any for the Asian languages. So when Asian language translators take more time to deal with terminological issues, this is part of the reason. And recall that while you can readily type out a word in French or German and post it on CompuServe, you can’t do that in an Asian language (Vietnamese excepted) without having the language modules installed and a browser or other client software that supports the language in question. I regularly see (and chuckle) at the valiant efforts of people to use romanization and explanation as a substitute for Japanese writing. It’s a small problem, but worthy of consideration.

Finally, neologisms. This can be a nightmare or a blessing. Japanese regularly uses phoneticized English to create new words, and though a native English speaker can derive great amusement from some of the choices, they are relatively easy to identify. Conversely, Chinese invents a word of its own for practically everything introduced into the language. And for lack of good, current reference materials, many Chinese translators have to struggle with this issue and use what they know to be outdated or overly generic terminology simply because they can do no better. This is neither an apology nor a defense, just a statement of fact. Translators of Asian languages live in a world of logistical nightmares compared to their European counterparts. And, the nightmare only gets worse when we consider the technology.

Technically Speaking

If you want to use Japanese or Chinese on your computer, you can’t simply get and install the fonts. Fortunately it is no longer particularly difficult or expensive to use these language, or other non-Roman-alphabet languages, on a computer. As of Mac OS 9 and Windows 2000, the necessary operating system modules and language resource for most major languages, including Japanese and Chinese, are contained on the system discs and can be installed at your leisure.

Current versions of Microsoft Office and some other applications already support double-byte languages and so you will not even need to buy localized versions of the software. In other cases, however, you will need to find and purchase the language-specific application, such as for PageMaker and other DTP software. And depending on your needs, you may still need to buy some fonts since the fonts that come included with Mac OS 9 and Windows 2000 are not particularly high quality nor are they commonly used for printing in the world of DTP and professional publications. Since these font packages are extremely expensive (roughly $800 for one Japanese font, for instance), you should confirm with many clients that having them will increase your work flow.

So now you can type in Chinese or Japanese on your computer. But wait. The first thing you’ll notice is that a lot of the word processing amenities which we so enjoy in English and European languages don’t exist. There is no such thing as a spell checker in Japanese and Chinese (nor is there an equivalent for handling characters). Grammar and style checkers are years in the future (though arguably so for English, too). Sorting a list in a Japanese word processor produces quite interesting but often less than useful results. And simple little matters such as file size suddenly become important (two-byte character languages naturally make for larger word processing files).

Now you want to print your work on your brand new PostScript printer. But you can’t. You didn’t realize that two-byte languages use their own special derivative of PostScript which has to be installed separately into your printer. If you have scalable fonts (also called TrueType or vector fonts), you will be able to print. But since no one uses those fonts for final output, they are only useful if you are sending your work to an agency. If you are running an agency or preparing final output for a direct client, you’ll need to upgrade your printer and then buy PostScript fonts for your Asian language, a not inconsiderable expense.

And last, but not least, it is worth mentioning that using a double-byte language and any software with it, including fonts of course, will eat up a lot of hard drive space and make high demands on RAM. So when your Japanese, Chinese, or Korean translators beg for more RAM or larger hard drives, be sympathetic. They are just trying to get their system up to speed so they can work more efficiently.

And Finally

Having dispelled some myths (and yes, vented some frustrations), there are only two issues left to address. One: Why Asian languages cost more to translate? And, two: What should Asian language translators and those who use their services do to minimize the difficulties arising from the above differences?

Without delving into the market aspects of translation rates, I can only give two reasons for why the Asian languages tend to be more expensive. Firstly, the software and hardware to support Asian languages cost more, the dictionaries and reference materials are far more expensive (a single medical dictionary for Japanese and English can cost over $500), and the time and effort to master an Asian language (this applies to native English speakers of course) is considerably greater than that required to master a European language. Secondly, the amount of time and effort to produce a given volume of Asian language translation is greater than that for the European languages. Is this fair? Yes, because the costs of working with Asian languages are inherently higher and the pay should reflect the time and effort involved in the work. When the technology and resources become less expensive, the costs will drop.

Asian language translators should be prepared to ask more questions when receiving an assignment than European language translators might. They may need more instructions concerning how much rewriting and fine-tuning of the translation they should do as well as how to deal with terminology and neologisms. People who work with Asian language translators should be prepared to answer such questions and should expect the translator to take a little more time to finish the job than a European language translator might require for something the same size. These people should also be more sensitive to the finished product and realize that some of the awkwardness in the target language might be a result of the content of the original, and not the fault of the translator. Without specific instructions, translators should never do too much rewriting of the original, and thus, some peculiar turns of phrase might appear. The client, or at least an editor or proofreader is in the proper position to attend to such matters (this applies to all languages of course, but the problem occurs more readily with the Asian languages).

So successful translations involving Asian languages can be produced through understanding the linguistic, socio-cultural, and logistical differences, preparing to address and then solve the problems, and realizing what expectations are reasonable. For translators, this means asking a few more questions. For people working with translators, this means being prepared to answer a few more questions and adjust expectations.

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