[An edited version of this article first appeared in the Oct/Nov 2015 issue of the journal MultiLingual]

Have you heard of the novel Journey to the West? It’s a tale of the pilgrimage of Xuanzang, a monk from the Tang dynasty, who went to India to obtain sacred Buddhist texts. His companions on the epic travel are Sun Wukong, Zhu Wuneng and Sha Wujing, plus a white horse who is actually a dragon prince.

Doesn’t ring any bells?

It’s one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature known by virtually all citizens of the world’s most populous country. It’s also the source of cultural inspiration influencing endless works of art in China and beyond. Journey to the West has strong roots in Chinese folk religion, mythology, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, and the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas are still reflective of Chinese religious attitudes today. Its impact on Chinese culture is comparable with that of Tolkien’s world of elves, dwarves and dragons on the English-speaking world.

We’ll return to this story later. Nowadays, the Middle Kingdom is embarking on a faraway journey of another kind.

To Get Rich is Glorious – 致富光荣

China is one of the world’s oldest cultures with written historical records from as early as 1200 BCE. Groundbreaking inventions attributed to the Chinese include papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and printing. Throughout the ages, succeeding Chinese dynasties ruled parts or all the territory of what is now Peoples’ Democratic Republic of China, and enjoyed a dominant position in the region. The dragon was asleep during most of the 20th century, throughout the Cultural Revolution and political reforms of the Mao Zedong’s era. It was only Deng Xiaoping, the country’s de facto leader during the 1980s who introduced far-reaching market economy reforms and opened it to international cooperation and trade. Although there is debate on whether Deng actually said it, his perceived catchphrase “To get rich is glorious” unleashed a wave of personal entrepreneurship that still drives China’s economy today. The recent decades opened up the country to foreign investment, trade and tourism, and with floodgates ajar, the world’s fourth largest country, inhabited by 20% of the Earth’s population, has been relentlessly rebuilding its position on the world stage.

Although the first priority for Chinese companies is the domestic market, the business environment in China is becoming difficult. Across industries, businesses that once thrived are now under pressure to look at foreign expansion due to intense competition, increased labor costs, and heightened regulatory scrutiny. For Chinese companies, globalization strategy is not a question of “if”, but “when”. Given this fact and the slowing domestic growth in recent years, China is looking for opportunities abroad.

Going Out – 走出去

The government is encouraging the expansion because it wants to shed the country’s image as a cheap, mass manufacturing location and turn it into a center of innovation. Zou chu qu, loosely translated as “go out,” is the message the country’s leaders are sending to the business community. As part of the strategy to encourage Chinese companies to invest overseas, the government mobilized state-owned banks to facilitate out-going flows of capital. These banks increasingly support overseas investments, as well as mergers with and acquisition of foreign companies. Chinese companies now obtain 80-90 percent of their funding from domestic banks.

Between 2004 and 2013, China’s overseas investments increased 13.7 times and reached 102.9 billion U.S. dollars in 2014, smashing through the 100-billion mark for the first time. This is a 14.1% rise compared to the previous year and much better than the 1.7% gain recorded in foreign direct investment in China, which was 119.6 billion dollars. China’s outward foreign direct investment for the first five months of 2015 was up nearly 50 percent from the same period in 2014 and judging from the current speed, the country will soon become a net outbound investor, a historic turning point.

The United States does more investment overseas than any other country, tallying $338 billion in 2013. Japan was second as $135 billion, with China in third. But if China’s numbers continue to register double-digit growth, spurred on by government policies, it will soon pass Japan and eventually catch up with the USA.

While you have probably heard that Alibaba’s debut on the New York Stock Exchange was the biggest IPO in history of the bourse, there are plenty of other Chinese companies asserting themselves in foreign markets such as Xiaomi, Lenovo, Huawei and Baidu.

Water Surges only to Overflow – 水满则溢

The rise of China as a global powerhouse during the last two decades was incredibly fast and localization providers both at home and around the world scrambled to cover the demand for translation into Chinese. Now that the trend of foreign investors flocking into China is being reversed, the direction of translation is due to follow. Localization providers used to rolling their eyes when prospects fail to grasp differences between different types of Chinese can soon start rolling them in the opposite direction – at their Chinese prospects, new to localization, and making their own rookie mistakes:

  • Using Google Translate or a local equivalent.
  • Asking internal staff to translate.
  • Not using translation technology, termbases or style guides.
  • Treating localization as an afterthought, to be dealt with quickly at the very end.

The results are predictable: poor quality, miscommunication, a struggle to build a brand and reputation abroad, frustration and despair.

But there is more bad news. Not only are the early approaches resulting in sub-par results, but they have it even harder than others. Why?

Because they are translating from Chinese.

The Many Problems with Chinese – 中文之伤

Chinese is unlike anything you’ve seen among the major languages in the West. Thanks to Chairman Mao’s decision to fight analphabetism by reducing the complexity of the traditional set of characters, the so-called simplified writing system is the only one in use in Mainland China. Traditional script stays alive in Chinese communities in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and elsewhere. There are also many languages and dialects spoken. The main one is Mandarin, a standard form based on the Beijing dialect. Then there is Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Shanghainese and many other regional varieties.

In Chinese there are no genders, no cases, no tenses, and overall, grammar is very simple compared to what we know from Indo-European languages. While that’s great for Chinese developers creating Chinese-only versions of software, games or websites, it’s a headache when you want to localize. The problems are two-fold. First, translators looking at individual strings in Chinese will have a hard time understanding them without context; and second, because string concatenation that works like a charm in Chinese will not make sense in a language with more complex grammar.

Regardless of the writing system, Chinese as the source presents challenges to the current Western-oriented translation technology solutions. Everybody in the localization industry knows that at the beginning of any project you first need to analyze the source files and get the word count and repetitions. How do you get a word count in Chinese though? It’, because there is no agreement on what constitutes a word. One character may translate to one or several words in English. You can do dictionary checks but that doesn’t work very well, so you count characters instead of words. Chinese does segment correctly however, so repetition counting works fine.

Because Chinese packs more meaning into each character than languages using Latin-based alphabets, issues with text expansion are huge. While text translated from English to German may expand by up to 50%, after translation of Chinese into English, it will take at least twice as much space compared to the original. And that’s English – one of the most compact of the Western languages. It’s common that user interfaces have to be significantly redesigned to make room for longer strings. For example, the two characters 下载 represent “download” and easily fit on a tiny button, but in English what was once two characters becomes an eight-letter word.

Another issue is the vagueness of Chinese. It is easy to create new words and sentences by mixing existing characters, but the result may be difficult to translate. One character’s meaning can vary wildly and it’s up to the translator’s ingenuity to understand what’s meant and find an appropriate rendition in the target language. Use of wordplay, onomatopoeia and homophones is easy and prevalent in Chinese, used for example to infuse company and brand names with additional, implied meaning, which is not easy to replicate in English.

However, by far the biggest challenge is finding good translators. Translation from English into Chinese has been around for decades and there is a large pool of skilled and experienced native-speaking resources. The same cannot be said of Chinese-to-English. Until recently, the demand was low and opportunity to gain experience in real-world localization projects was sparse. Native English speakers with mastery of Chinese are few, Chinese living in China often lack sufficient English skill, and those who’ve moved abroad may have lost touch with the language as used today. Like every country undergoing rapid development, China has had to quickly adapt its language to a torrent of new concepts and technologies that were unknown until recently, and the language used by the youth differs significantly from that used by their parents. Coupled with the inherent difficulty of translation between these two languages which limits the available pool further, you face a recruitment nightmare.

We have found that recruiting and vetting Chinese-to-English translators takes more time and effort than almost any other language pair. In addition to language challenges, common issues include lack of access to a decent workstation with reliable internet and latest software. The fraction of good people who not only pass linguistic evaluation, but check all the remaining boxes is very low.

When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do – 入乡随俗

Chinese to English is also difficult for cultural reasons. While this doesn’t really matter when you’re translating washing machine manuals or automotive specification sheets, it does in the case of more creative content. For the past year and a half we’ve dealt with several Chinese-to-English game localizations at Andovar. While the example below doesn’t come from any one specific project, I’ve collated several to expose all possible challenges with this language pair.

The Chinese gaming industry has been going from strength to strength in recent years thanks in part to protectionist measures employed by regulators who didn’t just open the gates to Western gaming giants indiscriminately. While foreign games are allowed in China and many have found great success there, in most cases the price was having to work and share revenues with a local partner. This provided an opportunity for Chinese game developers and publishers to learn the ropes quickly and increase the quality of their own creations in a few short years. So much so, that with the home market getting more and more crowded, they have started selling their games internationally.

While this is an understandable next step, game localization may be the hardest type of translation. Why? Because it combines all the problems known from software projects, like string expansion and concatenations, with challenges of literary translation multiplied even further by the cultural distance between China and the West. Simply translating a Chinese game into English would result in an experience comparable to watching a kung-fu movie with subtitles; not immersive and immediately recognized as foreign.

What we faced was a huge MMORPG (Massive Multiplier Online Role-Playing Game, for the non-gamers out there) set in the universe of Journey to the West. Yes, the same story I mentioned at the start of this article is frequently used as foundation in Chinese games. The client was the US branch of a Chinese game developer. It was good because there were no communication problems and we dealt with someone who appreciated the cultural differences. But it was also bad, because we were cut off from the actual developer and had to work via middlemen in two countries with different levels of localization understanding. Add to that time zone differences and the fact that all executive decisions were made in China and you get a serious case of Chinese whispers.

The very first struggle was explaining that simply forwarding a set of Excel spreadsheets with endless rows of cryptic Chinese strings was not all that was needed. Especially since the file and folder names became corrupted by the archiving tool, whose developers apparently needed some localization awareness of non-Latin scripts too. Then came the drawn-out explanations about why termbases, style guides and other reference materials are not only helpful but critical in a complex project such as this one. Finally, adjusting the initial optimistic but impossible turnaround time estimates.

The second was working with the client to understand which elements of the game would work in Western markets and which needed to be adapted. It is actually common for Chinese games to be rooted in the culture or at least include some of its elements, such as mythology, acupuncture, herbs, numerology, Chinese zodiac, cuisine or martial arts. While it doesn’t make sense to remove all these references, you can make them easier to understand, adjust some minor aspects, and explain explicitly what players will see on the screen rather than expect that they will just know. While the characters and adventures of the Journey to the West are immediately recognizable to any Chinese player, it is not so elsewhere. Rather than throwing the player into the thick of the story right away, an extensive tutorial and introduction had to be added. Finally, Chinese players are accustomed to aggressive in-game monetization (known as “pay-to-win” in gaming parlance), which had to be toned down for the Western release. Additionally, Chinese-developed games tend to have menus and user interfaces that look cluttered and unorganized to Western gamers, and may need to be redesigned.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, finding the right people to actually do the translation proved difficult. The game included references to ancient events and culture, which was a challenge for some translators.

All Things are Difficult Before They are Easy – 万事开头难

How did the project go? To be honest it went anything but smoothly and both sides made mistakes that taught us a lot. Having a Chinese-speaking project manager helped us address communication issues. Involving the localization partner as early as possible helps to flag possible challenges a game may present and deal with them before the eleventh hour. I have already mentioned some more lessons we’ve learnt, but the most important one is this: Do not underestimate the challenge. Chinese poses hurdles from a linguistic, cultural and technical point of view that are all different from what the localization industry is used to. Be humble and work as closely as possible with the client to help each other succeed.

Despite all the problems and hardships in translating games to an English audience, Chinese companies are still trying. Many are flush with cash, aren’t afraid to spend, and are looking to expand their market from an already loaded scene at home.

In Journey to the West, the brave adventurers return to China with the Buddhist scrolls and are all rewarded handsomely with riches and fame. Let’s all hope for similar success in localization from Chinese.