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What comes to mind when you’re in need of a translation?  These days it’s probably an app like Google Translate. In daily life or when on holiday, it’s fine to use translation apps to help order a drink or learn a few local greetings.  However, we really can’t rely on apps to do our translation work for us in a business environment. In fact, it’s common in Hong Kong for us to joke to each other, “oh…it’s Google translate” – meaning a text isn’t satisfying or the quality is far below standard.

Translation is not just about converting something from one language to another.  To my mind, before you even start on the words, you need first to identify your target audience and know which market they’re in.  This will guarantee your translation is already 50% on the right track as you’ll already be thinking about the localisation of language.  Getting the other 50% right then depends on the industry knowledge of the translator you use. It’s critical that they understand the jargon particular to your sector.

In my previous role as an assignment editor for a popular Hong Kong financial magazine, I regularly handled bylined articles.  More often than not, they’d have been badly translated from English into Chinese. There were two main reasons for this: either the work wasn’t done by translators with the ability to localise specific terms, or they lacked the relevant banking and finance industry knowledge.

As a result, they all looked like they’d been translated by Google. And so what happened to all these contributors who couldn’t meet our editorial requirements?  Of course, they lost the byline placement – which then probably ended up going to one of their competitors. At that time, I always gave a gentle reminder to my PR friends to take translation seriously if they wanted their clients to secure any future opportunities. 

Greater China is a useful case study for understanding the complexities that are involved in translation.  It’s never as straightforward as just moving from English to Chinese. In mainland China Mandarin is spoken, and written using Simplified Chinese characters.  But the same doesn’t apply in Hong Kong or Taiwan. In Hong Kong, we write in Traditional Chinese and speak Cantonese, one of our two official languages (along with English).  In Taiwan, on the other hand, while they write in Traditional Chinese, they speak Taiwanese Mandarin.

In Cognito’s Hong Kong office, I work with a number of clients in the cryptocurrency industry with exposure to Greater China.  It’s always interesting to see how “cryptocurrency” gets translated differently depending on which market you’re dealing with. In Hong Kong, we translate it as “虛擬貨幣”(xū nǐ huò bì, meaning “virtual currency”), but in mainland China and in Taiwan they tend to use “加密货币/加密貨幣” (jiā mì huò bì – “cryptocurrency”).

However, even here there are no strict rules and it really depends on the publication’s editorial guidelines.  In Hong Kong I’ve seen a few local newspapers use both (though the former is much more common).

Alongside skills in localisation, a good translator needs proper industry knowledge. In the financial world, “fat finger” trading errors happen from time to time and can become big news stories. But how should you translate “fat finger”?  If your translator comes from outside the industry, they may directly translate it into “胖手指”(pàng shǒu zhǐ – literally “fat finger”).  The phrase we actually use for this in Cantonese, however, is “操作失误”(cou1 zok3 sat1 ng6 – “operational error”) – or even “摆乌龙”(baai2 wu1 lung2) – “a right old mess” in local slang).

Greater China remains one of the world’s fastest growing markets despite current geopolitical uncertainties, and in this part of the world we’re still positive about the economic outlook.  As a result, Cognito’s Hong Kong office is receiving more and more requests to help firms localise and translate their global content so that they can engage effectively with this increasingly important audience.

Michelle Kwok is a senior account manger in Hong Kong