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While there are not as many writing systems in the world as there are languages, there still remain many forms of writing and various uses for each one. While, for example, most European languages use a derivative of the Latin alphabet that English also uses, even in Europe one can encounter other, unique writing systems such as the Cyrillic that Russian, Belarusian, and other Baltic nations use, as well as some smaller, often unheard of systems such as Georgian.
In history, when people think of ancient civilizations, one of the things they picture are the ancient Babylonian cuneiform alphabets and the Egyptian hieratic writings that later evolved into Arabic script and Hebrew letters.
However, to find a truly alien in the eyes of an English speaker set of languages and written forms, one needs to travel to Asia. Asian languages as a whole have a different syntactical basis than European, African, or Middle Eastern languages. Add to this the fact that within Asia, they vary greatly within the archetype from one nation and culture to another.
One of the more daunting and commonly addressed writing systems are Chinese symbols. The Chinese call their writing system “Zhongwen xiezuo” (pronounced jong-when she-zoh). This translates loosely as “the words of China”. For the sake of simplicity, though, it is easier to continue referring to them simply as Chinese symbols, the respectful acknowledgement of their proper name having been made.
Overall, there are actually two sets of the Chinese symbols, though they’re very closely related. One is Chinese Traditional, the other is Chinese Simplified. Their names explain basically what they are pretty well. Traditional Chinese symbols are much more intricate and can take a little more time to read, as in a few cases the difference between one character to the next can be relatively miniscule.
With simplified Chinese symbols (used in business, computing, and most municipal writings in modern times) is faster to read, minor changes having been made to the whole of the alphabet so that it is easier to tell some of the more similar symbols apart without having to enlarge the text or spend too much time in analysis.
Until relatively recently, Chinese symbols caused much difficulty in international computing because they were not native font sets on computers shipped outside of China and Japan. This caused many Chinese and Japanese sites to appear as a page full of arcane alien writing to anyone in a non-Chinese or Japanese culture.
To understand how Chinese symbols work, it is important to look at how the Chinese language works, at a glance. There are actually two widely spoken Chinese languages, Cantonese and Mandarin, though like in any large nation, within the realm of either language, the dialect does change as one travels.
Mandarin is more commonly used internationally as it is the language spoken in the ports of trade and many of the tourist attraction spots that foreign visitors deign to make pilgrimages to. In Mandarin and Cantonese both, the same alphabet of three hundred Chinese symbols are used, so often communication between the two languages can be solved easily via writing.
Both Chinese languages, and by proxy Chinese symbols, are based on syllabic combinations, versus most European languages where it’s a string of unique sounds (as in English). Most Asian languages, in fact, use this root concept for the construction of their languages.
Chinese symbols often represent entire words, but in all cases, each has a unique syllable they represent. In Chinese, inflection also is used to alter the meaning of a syllable or entire word. Inflection is the raising and lowering of tones, used in many other languages as simply tense or demeanor of the speaker.
Despite Chinese symbols being more challenging to read and write, English is actually, in most cases, far more verbose in how it expresses things. This can easily be seen when comparing a couple simple phrases in both English and Mandarin. Where in English, inquiring about a price politely would be “Excuse me, how much is this going to cost?”, in Mandarin, it would simply by “Duo shao qian?”.
The count of Chinese symbols for the above statement would require only three, where the proper English preceding it requires well over twelve.
One of the issues many have with Chinese symbols is actually in certified translation scenarios. While using digital techniques for translation itself is often unwise, it has proven useful as a method of transliteration, which is the conversion of one writing system into phonetic spelling in another. English is very good for phonetic spellings, so the use of simple transliteration software is a good way to overcome the problem of Chinese symbols in the scenario of translation or learning.