In China, the word “Mandarin” is rarely used and may have originally been derived from a word in the Sanskrit language. BY SONG WHITE

Years ago when I was asked if I speak Mandarin, I was puzzled. What’s Mandarin? I later learned that “Mandarin” means the official spoken Chinese language. I am not alone—many of my Chinese friends have the same confusion. That’s because we don’t call it “Mandarin” in China. Instead, it’s “Putonghua,” meaning “common spoken language.” → continue reading

Chinese Word Formation and Terminology Translation Challenge

&tBy Yu Zhang

One of the unique challenges in the translation of Chinese terminology relates to the ways in which Chinese words are created. Discover how words are formed, from the basics of the language to technical terms, and why their translation, and the task of maintaining consistency, is often so difficult.

The written Chinese language has a history of over 5,000 years. Today, it is the only modern language that is entirely based on ideographic characters. The total number of Chinese characters is over 60,000, of which about 6,000 are commonly used. With few exceptions, each Chinese character has one, or more than one, complete and independent meaning, in accordance with the fact that in the early history of the language each word consisted of one character only.

Multi-character words developed over the course of the language’s evolution, and two-character words became the preferred word form by the time of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220), when fu (), a classical Chinese prose genre, flourished. Fu works were written using gorgeously stylish words, of mostly two-characters, that were articulately arranged to create a strong but elegant sense of metrics. Today, two-character words dominate in the written Chinese language, although words with other numbers of characters are not uncommon. Most modern Chinese words are thus compound words, because each single character in a multi-character word still has its own meaning and still is a single-character word.

There are a number of ways to arrive at two-character word formation. One common way is to use two characters of similar or identical meaning to form a word that has a meaning similar to, or the same as, that of these two characters, as illustrated in Table 1. (Since we are addressing only the basic language features common to both Simplified and Traditional Chinese, these two versions of the language are not distinguished in this article, although the examples are all given in Simplified Chinese characters.)

In another type of two-character word, the first character modifies, specifies, or describes the second one, as illustrated in Table 2.

In a third class of two-character compound words, the first character is a verb and the second is a noun; together they form a mini verb-object structure. Table 3 shows several of these words.


 健康 (jian-kang)      strong-well    health  
 和平 (he-ping)     harmony-peace     peace
 会议 (hui-yi)     meet-discuss     meeting
 现实 (xian-shi)     appear-real     reality
 变化 (bian-hua)     change-transform     change
 显示 (xian-shi)     appear-show     display


 生物 (sheng-wu)       living-thing     organism
 铁路 (tie-lu)       iron-road     railroad
 电压 (dia-ya)       electric-pressure     voltage
 化学 (hua-xue)       transform-study     chemistry
 飞机 (fei-ji)       fly-machine     aircraft
 火车 (huo-che)       fire-vehicle     train

Higher level compounds
In yet another class of two-character compound words, the first character is a verb and the second character indicates the result or status of the action specified by the verb, as shown in Table 4.

Three-character compound words can be formed by combining two of these two-character forming methods or using one twice, as shown in Table 5.

Since each character has at least one independent meaning, reversing the character order of a two-character word often forms a different word with a meaning that can be similar to, or very different from, the original word. Table 6 shows the four words formed by reversing the character order of the first four words in Table 1.

Listed above are only a few of the many ways multi-character Chinese words can be formed. Because each character can combine with dozens or even hundreds of other characters to form multi-character words, using the character modules to create multi-character words is like a puzzle game that can be played with almost unlimited possibilities.

This can be illustrated by a series of Chinese characters such as this: 中国家访问题目录取消… The meanings of these ten characters are: center, nation, family, visit, ask, question, item, record, take, and eliminate, respectively. Each two adjacent characters form a two-character word which in turn means China, country, home visit, visit, question, topic, table of contents, admission, and cancel. Randomly picking up almost any Chinese character, one can start a long or endless series of overlapping words such as this one. In ancient times, Chinese poets enjoyed the game of writing reverse-text poems that can be read forward or backward for each line and the entire poem, all making perfect sense. 


 救火 (jiu-huo)       rescue-fire       fire-fighting
 开会 (kai-hui)       open-meeting       run/attend meeting
 唱歌 (chang-ge)       sing-song       singing
 搬家 (ban-jia)       carry-home       moving (relocating)


 完成 (wan-cheng)       finish-completed       complete
 放大 (fang-da)       let-large       enlarge
 关紧 (guan-jin)       close-tight       close tightly
 改进 (gai-jin)       modify-improved       improve

A Multitude of Combinations
Combining characters—each of which has a more general meaning—creates compound words that have more specific meaning. For example, Chinese does not have characters that mean bull, cow, rooster, or hen. Instead, Chinese uses characters that mean male, female, bovid, or fowl to combine into words that mean bull, cow, rooster, or hen. To describe how crowded an open place is, Chinese uses a four-character adjective that literally means “people-mountain-people-sea.”

Two-character and multi-character Chinese word formation can be largely considered a matter of range and combination in the mathematical sense. In an English-speaking country, only a small percentage of people have a vocabulary of 30,000 English words. To form this many two-character Chinese words theoretically would take only 175 Chinese characters. As mentioned earlier, there are about 6,000 Chinese characters that are commonly used. With this many characters, one has the theoretical potential of creating about 36 million two-character words. Although the number of compound words that are in practical use must be considerably smaller than the number of mathematical possibilities, it’s still much more than the common vocabulary of any other language. The Chinese-English Dictionary by Shanghai Jiaotong University Press lists about 10,000 characters—but 400,000 multi-character words. Using this 40/1 ratio, the 6,000 common characters would convert to 240,000 compound words. Non-native Chinese language students are often told that they can be reasonably functional in China with as few as 1,000 characters. This of course does not mean 1,000 single-character words; based on the 40/1 ratio, someone who knows 1,000 characters should be able without trouble to read 40,000 multi-character words.

With these numbers in mind, one can easily see that translating into Chinese involves considerably more complicated mental processes than translating into other languages. And as the number of choices in word combinations increases, the level of difficulty both in translating and in maintaining consistency also increases—not in a linear, but in a geometric, progression.

A Chinese translator has to face these exceptional linguistic challenges if he is chosen for a translation project. The challenge for a translation project manager, on the other hand, is to identify and select only those few professional Chinese translators who have this ability, which is a necessity for ensuring on-time, on-budget and high-quality delivery of technical Chinese translation projects or multilingual projects that include Chinese. Even without considering the factor of source language reading comprehension ability, the challenge of terminology translation alone requires that Chinese translators have the highest level of linguistic capability. Since most professional Chinese writers, journalists, or translators have an educational background in language or literature, they have natural difficulties in using technical terms correctly and precisely. For this reason, an educational background in science or technology is also a must—in addition, of course, to proven professional experiences in technical translation practice.

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      CHINESE TERM     CHARACTER MEANING       ENGLISH TERM  生物学 (sheng-wu-xue)       living-thing-study       biology  无线电 (wu-xian-dian)       no-wire-electricity       radio  计算机 (ji-suan-ji) count-compute-machine       computer  显示器 (xain-shi-qi)   appear-display-device       monitor  电压表 (dian-ya-biao) electricity-pressure-meter       voltmeter  救火车 (jiu-huo-che)       rescue-fire-vehicle       fire engine


      CHINESE TERM     CHARACTER MEANING       ENGLISH MEANING  康健 (kang-jian)       well-strong       health  平和 (ping-he)       peace-harmony       peaceful  议会 (yi-hui)       discuss-meeting       congress  实现 (shi-xian)       real-appear       realize

This article is also available non-abridged, as published in LISA’s Globalisation Insider, at

Untranslatable WordsThree Chinese Puzzles

By Song White


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported on Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s September 2005 speech to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and the frustration felt by many Chinese officials and academics in attendance. “We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder,” said Zoellick.

The problem arose because there is not an official Chinese translation for stakeholder. In this article, I would like to discuss this, and two other words—endorse and leverage—in the political and financial sectors that are difficult to translate from English to Chinese (simplified).

I first encountered the word stakeholder fifteen years ago in a class for business students. One of the word’s English meanings is “one who holds the bets in a game or contest”; the Chinese word for this meaning—which I found in my outdated Chinese-English dictionary—is “赌金保管者” (du jin bao guan zhe).

But stakeholder is often used today with its more contemporary meaning of “one who has a share or an interest, as in an enterprise.” In the context of a company, stakeholders include those who have an interest in the company and can influence it, positively or negatively. Such entities can range from individual stockholders and employees to unions and customers to domestic and foreign governments, and even competitors. At a time when a planned economy was the dominant system in China, a business had only one entity to be concerned about: the State. Other internal and external constituents that make up the concept of “stakeholder” must be able to hold “stakes” before the word can represent a meaningful concept.

In the past 15 years, constituent stakeholders have begun to emerge in China. In 2001, China became a member of the World Trade Organization, making the country itself a constituent in the global trade institution. The Chinese translation for stakeholder seems to be lagging behind the change in China, although many translations had been previously offered. The issue is more of identifying a translation that sticks and is intuitive for use—that is, one which is commonly accepted and understood.

My translation in Chinese includes “相关成员” (xiang guan cheng yuan) (“related member”), “相关团体”(xiang guan tuan ti) (“related group”), or “相关团体成员” (xiang guan tuan ti cheng yuan) (“related group member”). For reference, it should be noted that the U.S. State Department’s translation is “利益相关的参与者” (“participants with related interests”), while Chinese scholars have offered “利害攸关的参与者”(“participants with related benefits and drawbacks”), “共同经营者”(“joint operators”), “参股人”(“shareholder”), and “合伙人”(“partner”).


Now let’s look at our second word, endorse. The more “mechanical” meanings of  endorse—of “writing one’s signature on the back (of a check, for example),” or “of placing (one’s signature), as on a contract, to indicate approval of its contents or terms”—are relatively simply translated into Chinese as “背书” (bei shu) and “认可” (ren ke), respectively.

However, translating the other notion represented by endorse—“to give approval of or support to, especially by public statement”—sounds awkward in Chinese (“为某人背书” [wei mou ren bei shu] [“endorse someone”]). That’s because “背书” (bei shu) also means “to recite a lesson from memory.” A teacher or parent usually gives “背书” (bei shu) as pupils’ homework. The Chinese translation “为某人背书” (wei mou ren bei shu) is likely to be in a twisted meaning that indicates the person is acting like a pupil when reciting a statement from his/her memory to show his/her support. As a result, I have chosen to stay with a conservative translation, “公开支持”(gong kai zhi chi) (“show support publicly”), or “支持”(zhi chi) (“support”) for “endorse” in the sense of supporting.


Finally, our third word, leverage, has similar dynamics. This word’s original meaning is “the action of a lever,” which is rendered “杠杆作用” (gang gan zuo yong) in Chinese. As later applied to the financial sector, its meaning became “the use of credit or borrowed funds to improve one’s speculative capacity and increase the rate of return.” Today, of course, the word is found in many areas of business, as “to use, to utilize, and to improve.” Translating this concept into Chinese, however, is difficult since there is not a simple Chinese word to reflect the meaning. As a result, my own translation typically includes several Chinese words or phrases: “发挥优势” (fa hui you shi) (“employ advantages”), “运(使)用…”(yun (shi) yong …) (“use …”), and “达到最佳效益” (da dao zui jia xiao yi) (“reach maximum result”), to cover the single English word.

And what if the stakeholder uses her leverage to endorse someone? Oy vey! In the end, it is a translator’s excitement and joy—and challenge—to be on the cutting edge of introducing to a culture new words and concepts in a fast-changing world.

Kaimeng Huang Does Global Acrobatics

By Anna Schlegel

Kaimeng Huang is a Senior Program Manager at Adobe Systems Inc. in San Jose, where she manages the enterprise-level internationalization and localization program of Adobe’s Intelligent Document Business Unit – the developer of Adobe’s flagship product, Adobe Acrobat. A native of the People’s Republic of China, Kaimeng speaks Mandarin and English and is a United Nations-certified conference interpreter.

Where did you grow up? How did your background influence you to enter the field of language and translation?
KAIMENG HUANG: I grew up in Beijing, China. In this wonderfully aesthetic and symmetric city which has been the cultural and political center of China for over 500 years, I acquired all my formal education from kindergarten to university. My father is a nuclear physicist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an editor-in-chief with the Standards Press of China; my mother is a physician with a local hospital. Both learned Russian in college.

Because of my father’s passion for foreign languages, I started to learn Japanese and English when I was about five years old. Since China was closed to the rest of the world in the early 1970s, I got my first Japanese and English lessons from listening to the radio. I began to take language more seriously when I entered Beijing University in 1988.

In 1992, I applied for the United Nations-sponsored Training Program for Translators and Interpreters at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and received my Master’s in Translation and Interpretation the following year. As one of the first dozen professional conference interpreters in China, I took on an extensive range of assignments, working as an interpreter for many world leaders visiting China, as well as for international organizations including political, economic, and educational institutions. This eye-opening experience made me believe in the need for communication and understanding among different cultures, countries, and peoples.

How did you get started in the globalization business?
By accident. In 1995, I applied for and was awarded the prestigious Stilwell Scholarship at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). The timing couldn’t have made a bigger difference in my choice of a career and life, as when I received my Master’s from MIIS in May, 1997, Silicon Valley was just booming, and the MIIS campus was swamped with IT companies looking for new graduates to fill an explosion of openings. Within a month, I got four offers because of my business, technical, and language degrees although I knew almost nothing about working for American companies! I even declined an offer from a San Diego company called Qualcomm because I thought it was too “far away.”

I took an offer with Adaptec Inc., of Milpitas, as localization coordinator, and six months later, through the referral of a fellow alumni, I joined Adobe Systems. Little did I know then what a tremendously rich and rewarding experience working for Adobe would mean to me over the next seven years; and that I would be going through so many ups and downs as the IT industry went from boom to bust, and from depression to recovery again.

What type of translation and localization agencies do you look for and like to work with in your projects?
Because of my passion for language, technology, and culture, I like to work with agencies that share this passion and are willing to invest in tools and processes; with knowledgeable people who know how to strike a balance between these influences and deliver a high-quality localized product. Companies that neglect to capitalize on the emerging global potential will be blindsided, while those who find ways around obstacles and prepare for next stages will win out.

Can you describe what is happening in China as far as the translation business goes?
The translation business is going through a transition in China, becoming more integrated with the rest of the world as China strives to maintain its extremely strong, 8% economic growth over the past two decades. In spite of this, most locally based translation companies are either workshops that are outgrowths of the publishing business or small-scale software companies. Despite the enormous talent pool and low labor cost, they lack process maturity, professional human capital, and cross-disciplinary expertise, as well as exposure to international communication. The more promising ones are those that have been injected with foreign capital, with direct links to U.S. software clients, as well as to vertical industry domain knowledge.

Corporations have a CEO, and CFO; would you like to see a CGO (Chief Globalization Officer?)
Sure, why not? The CGO should be the one to define globalization’s full potential for his company. To realize it, organizational change is required. The bottom line is, globalization should be part of any company’s corporate strategy if it is to become a truly global company.