Asian Languages Translation
A quality guidebook for novices

reviewED BY william dan

Asian Languages Translation (ALT) provides a straightforward introduction to Asian languages for readers who are localization project managers or language service buyers. After a brief introduction in Part I, Part II discusses the 14 Asian languages 1-StopAsia works with, Part III provides practical advice for buying and quoting Asian language translations, while Part IV gives desktop publishing tips. Overall, ALT is a well-intentioned handbook that facilitates understanding between localization buyers and providers. That said, there is a slight trade-off between its friendly approach and its accuracy.

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In Chapter II, the authors suggested that Asian languages might be “a whole new universe.” Despite the question mark in the chapter title, this description of Asia as a “new universe” shows how the target audience might not know much about Asian languages. For those who have spent most of their lives living in Asia, describing the languages they use as “a whole new universe” implies that Asian languages are new to you. Up to page 132 — which is more than 70% of the book — on the header of every two pages, the reader is reminded that Asian languages constitute a “new” universe, providing enough time and space for someone to ask the improbable question of whether the book is peddling Orientalism.

While the simplistic approach of ALT has limited use for people already working as linguists across Asian languages, ALT has merit for those who know nothing about Asian languages. Think managers who must manage people who work with Asian languages, or clients who are looking to purchase services in Asian languages for the first time.

Although ALT states that the authors wrote in the simplest language to make the material accessible to every reader (p.7), such simplicity at times can undermine the accuracy of the book’s claims. For example, the book stated that “there are only two forms of writing supported by the Chinese language” (p.13). This simplification omits the fact that there are existing Chinese writing systems other than traditional and simplified characters, such as the small seal script and the cursive system — which admittedly are not in much use, but nevertheless not ignorable. The book only needed to say “there are mainly two forms of contemporary writing systems in Chinese” to avoid this problem.

Another interesting detail of the book is that many of the tips and advice are addressed to specific translation issues in cat tools, yet this advice may not be particularly helpful outside of the cat-tool context. For example, the book mentioned that “reduplication is a common occurrence in Chinese” (p.14), which may occur to Chinese speakers as a rather odd thing to say of the Chinese language. It must be noted that reduplication in Chinese is only a problem when language service providers are lazy enough to impose in cat tools the quality-control measures designed for European languages on the Chinese language. In this case, the automated QC process will flag reduplication in the Chinese text even when it is otherwise normal.

One potential problem with ALT is its intertwining of substantial material and marketing material. The “Meet Our Team” sections at the end of each chapter, in which 1-StopAsia proudly introduces its team, is something that does not belong in a proper book; such material is best accessed through a link to a website. There’s also the reality that people will come and go at the company — who knows where these people will be in a few years? While the “Tips from 1-StopAsia’s Language Leaders” provide helpful information, marketing their own company potentially compromises the overall seriousness of the content.

ALT does not delve into each language too deeply, but unless the reader knows by heart all 14 languages discussed in this book, the straightforward introductions to each language can still be valuable. The complexity adds up as readers go through all 14 languages. In this way, ALT provides readers a good idea of how challenging it can be to translate Asian languages. Not only do many Asian languages not have tenses, these languages also have different systems of honorifics that reflect the intricate relationship between the interlocutors. Anyone who thought translation is easy and can be fully automated should reconsider after reading this book.

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ALT also reveals a more complex picture when it comes to globalization. Asian-languages translation is nothing new, but in the past, they’ve mostly been done by missionaries or state agents. What’s novel in ALT is that it represents a growing commercial interest in the Asian market on behalf of smaller business entities, interested neither in ruling nor converting Asian peoples but nevertheless having little knowledge of the cultural and linguistic aspects of Asian languages.

In Chapter III, “How to quote Asian languages,” ALT delineates what buyers should know before purchasing Asian-languages services. This chapter offers advice — such as building terminology bases, using translation memory, and making sure who the target audience is — that is applicable to all languages in general. In addition, ALT correctly points out certain difficulties when translating Asian languages.

In terms of translator resources, ALT accurately points out that quality translators between European and Asian languages are rare. What can be added here is that quality translators from Asian languages into European languages can be harder to find because translators usually translate into their mother tongues, and there are more Asians that learn European languages than Europeans that learn Asian languages. Another reason why finding quality translators is so difficult is because those who have mastered multiple languages often have higher-paying jobs to do. It follows that for clients who care about quality, they need to increase their budget for translation.

The fourth chapter, focusing on desktop publishing, follows the same structure of the first chapter, discussing the 14 Asian languages one by one. While the content is sound, perhaps the fourth chapter could have been merged with the first chapter.

In the end, ALT is mainly written to help localization buyers have a better idea of what they need when it comes to buying translation services related to Asian languages. ALT contributes to building trust and mutual understanding between language service providers and buyers. Readers should keep in mind that ALT is only meant to be an introduction, not a set of comprehensive guidelines for translating Asian languages. Language service buyers who read ALT carefully enough will learn the importance of listening to their linguists, given the complexity of translating between European and Asian languages. In addition, if more companies publish documents like ALT, they will contribute to better standardization of language services.

William Dan is a localization specialist at 1UP Localization Studio.

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