Cantonese: A Practical Overview
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Among the many minority dialects of Chinese, Cantonese is by far the most influential internationally. At the time of this writing, it is also the only minority dialect of Chinese that ProZ.com offers as a default variant. The issue of translating into Cantonese is one that frequently pops up when dealing with Cantonese-speaking target audiences, but clients facing such situations do not always have sufficient information to determine their needs.
This article is a general overview of Cantonese and its practical concerns in translation, written for end clients and companies who feel that they may have a need to reach out to the Cantonese-speaking population, and agencies that receive requests from them. It aims to explain the basic issues with Cantonese in terms of translation, in order to help potential clients and agencies identify their specific needs and find the appropriate personnel for such needs.
This article is intended for readers with little or no background in Chinese, and Cantonese speakers will find many if not all of the points raised herein to be immediately obvious. It makes no claim or attempt at being academically correct in terms of linguistic concepts, definitions, etc. It is shallow and its scope narrow by intention, and its focus is on the practical aspects of translating for a Cantonese-speaking audience. Readers interested in the linguistic and cultural aspects of Cantonese should refer to the plethora of literature produced on the topic.
What is Cantonese and who speaks it
Cantonese is the primary dialect of Guangdong Province (sometimes referred to as Canton), Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese speakers also make up a disproportionally large portion of overseas Chinese in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries.
In practice, the majority of commercial Cantonese output are produced for Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese, in that order. The Cantonese speaking population of Guangdong may in general be ignored when interpreting a client's intended audience. It should also be noted that Cantonese content produced in Hong Kong often spread to other Cantonese speaking communities and regions, and Cantonese content is usually produced to Hong Kong standards.
Cantonese is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin, the standard spoken language of China and Taiwan. Most Chinese characters are pronounced differently in Cantonese, and there are significant differences in grammar and syntax. A Mandarin speaker without prior exposure to Cantonese will not be able to understand a Cantonese speaker, nor will he be able to comprehend a direct transcription from spoken Cantonese. It is important to note that the converse is not necessarily true; the reasons are elaborated below.
Cantonese in writing
Cantonese is primarily a spoken dialect with no formally and universally recognized written form. Unlike Mandarin, which is essentially identical to standard written Chinese, Cantonese grammar and idioms differ significantly from Standard Chinese, even when all the spoken characters are accounted for in writing.
By and large, Cantonese speakers write in Standard Chinese that is identical to that used by Mandarin speakers. The vast majority of print publications in Hong Kong and Macau are written in Standard Chinese, and only Standard Chinese is taught in the official curriculum, with allowances for pronunciation differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.
This does not mean that Cantonese is not or cannot be written. A form of written Cantonese exists primarily in Hong Kong that may be described as a best-effort transcription of the spoken words. Cantonese shares words with Standard Chinese but also contains a large number of words and expressions that do not exist in Standard Chinese. In such cases, a character is borrowed from Standard Chinese or invented that can represent the phonetic characteristics of a particular spoken Cantonese word in writing.
While there are some common conventions for Written Cantonese, there is no formalized system and the choice of characters to represent a word not in the Standard Chinese vocabulary can vary greatly from writer to writer. Written Cantonese is not taught in schools and is discouraged in the curriculum as bad writing practice.
Written Cantonese is frequently used online and in text messages/instant messaging, but it is not generally considered acceptable in print materials, except in advertisements, tabloid articles and other contexts where the colloquial and slangy are not only acceptable but desirable in order to present an impression of "friendliness" and connect with the audience. There is no direct equivalent in many languages, but a comparison may be made with any context that stipulates significant use of slangs.
As is the case with spoken Cantonese vs. Mandarin, non-Cantonese speakers cannot read written Cantonese, although they may be able to partially guess the meaning by picking out characters that are shared with Standard Chinese. It is also important to note that conventions for written Cantonese are to some extent local to Hong Kong; there is no guarantee that a Cantonese speaker from an overseas Chinese community will be able to understand written Cantonese in its most common form, and Chinatowns are not homogenous; they will usually be a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, among other dialects. In addition, many native Hong Kong Cantonese speakers strongly dislike the use of Written Cantonese in any context, this author included. On the other hand, almost all Cantonese speakers read and accept writings in Standard Chinese.
Cantonese in subtitling
If the issue of Written Cantonese use in subtitling is not a contentious issue, then it should be. Currently both Standard Chinese and Written Cantonese coexist in film and television subtitles, and there is no clear standard with regards to which programs use which for its subtitles, especially in film, where the content of the work does not necessarily have any bearing on whether Standard Chinese or Written Cantonese is used for its subtitles. Production companies will make their own decisions based on their preferences and their perception of the market.
Voiceover/dubbing for a Cantonese speaking market, however, is always done in normal speaking Cantonese. It is acceptable for voice actor scripts to be produced in Written Cantonese to assist in producing an easy and natural voiceover, but this author does not claim expertise in this area. In any case, companies contracted for such jobs are often quite aware of what their exact needs are, and may have in-house translators who act more as script rewriters and producers. As such, they are beyond the scope of this article.
Transcriptions from Cantonese can only be performed by a Cantonese speaker. There is no clear agreement on how the transcription itself should be written, however. It is generally acceptable to write transcriptions in Written Cantonese, but some translators (like this author) prefer to write in reading Standard Chinese anyway, and this may or may not be acceptable depending on the client's needs. Some clients will accept Standard Chinese, but stipulate that certain specific terms remain in Written Cantonese form.
Translating from audio into Cantonese is subject to the same issues faced in subtitling. It may well be a legitimate requirement for audio of everyday conversations and slang. A serious speech or discussion, however, should not be translated into Cantonese, for the same reasons as in writing.
While Cantonese content is usually produced for the consumption of Hong Kong or may be treated as though it was, this is not an assumption that can be safely made. As a client, you obviously know what your target audience is and should communicate clearly as such to the agency or translator, while as an agency it is incumbent upon you to seek clarification from the client as to their intention, so that you can find the appropriate translator for the job, and that your translator understands the cultural context required.
Because of the extent of Chinese emigration, it may be difficult to find a translator who is familiar with the target audience for content catered to overseas Chinese. In such cases, a compromise must be struck, and competent agencies will consider the entirety of a translator's skill set in deciding how best to outsource the case. It is this author's belief that a translator who has been exposed to and spent time in a variety of different cultures will be best qualified to handle a translation for an unfamiliar culture.
Should you Cantonese?
For clients: Just because your target audience consists of Cantonese speakers does not mean that you need a Cantonese translation, and indeed a Standard Chinese translation is often preferable to a Written Cantonese one. Understand your needs and the nature of the text that you want translated, then seek out translators or agencies with clear requirements that will help us meet your needs correctly.
Examples of situations where you may want a Written Cantonese translation:
Punch lines, company slogans, casual conversations, advertising language intended to be casual and light-hearted, slang, other highly informal settings
Written Cantonese should not be used in any formal context (e.g. academic and legal writing), business context (e.g. business correspondence, company websites), and documents that require precision (e.g. technical manuals). As a general rule of thumb, any text that is longer than 100 words should probably be translated into Standard Chinese rather than Written Cantonese. Books, short stories and anything that is comparable in length should not be translated into Written Cantonese; apply the same standards to online material as you would with print. This article, for example, should never be translated into Cantonese.
When in doubt, translate into Standard Chinese, not Written Cantonese.
For agencies: inquire as to whether your client is specifically asking for a translation into Written Cantonese, or whether they are using it to mean a translation for a Cantonese-speaking audience in Standard Chinese, as there certainly exist clients who are unaware of the distinction. If the client is requesting a translation into Written Cantonese, they typically know what they want and you can then seek out translators who are Cantonese speakers, mentioning specifically that a Written Cantonese translation is called for. If the client responds that they desire a translation in reading Chinese - which is usually the case if the text is at all serious - it may bear more inquiry into what the true client's true requirements are. Translating a contract into Written Cantonese is a waste of time and can potentially cause significant damage to all parties involved.
For both: Do not confuse Cantonese with Chinese (HK). The latter refers to standard written Chinese idiomatic to Hong Kong that uses terminology and vocabulary that is often different from that used in Mainland China or Taiwan, hence the distinction between Chinese (CN), Chinese (HK) and Chinese (TW). Cantonese speakers overseas will also tend to use Chinese (HK).
While there are legitimate differences between the three (major) variants, they are not insurmountable and Chinese readers can read across all three. Obviously you would prefer that a Hong Kong native translate material intended for a Hong Kong audience, but a writer of Chinese (CN) or Chinese (TW) who has familiarized himself/herself with the differences between the variants can also produce a high-quality translation that will meet your needs - the more technical or specialized the text, the less likely variation in local idiom will matter. On the other hand, someone who does not speak Cantonese will not be able to produce a translation in Written Cantonese.
Also, be aware of the differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese! Hong Kong and Macau use Traditional Chinese, while Guangdong and many (but not all) overseas Chinese communities use Simplified Chinese. Especially with overseas Chinese communities, you should consult with someone from that community as to which form is more widely accepted there.
Who should you look for? - A Cheat Sheet
If you skipped to the end directly without reading the rest of the article, this is a quick and dirty reference list for both clients and agencies to decide what kind of translator they need.
Cantonese speakers typically write in the same way as any other speakers of Chinese. Active Cantonese users are more likely to be Traditional Chinese users than Simplified Chinese users, but exceptions abound.
While most Mandarin speakers do not understand Cantonese, many Cantonese speakers do know Mandarin. Their proficiencies vary, however.
Translation into Written Cantonese [Informal, usually for use in Hong Kong]: Requires Cantonese speaker familiar with Hong Kong culture and conventions.
Translation into Standard Chinese (HK) [Most of the time. When in doubt, choose this]: Requires a translator working in Chinese, preferably but does not need to be a native of Hong Kong (it depends on the content), or someone who is familiar with Hong Kong idioms and conventions (and Hong Kong natives are not necessarily so!). Cantonese skills are not necessary, although translators who meet these criteria are often Cantonese speakers as well.
Translation from spoken Cantonese: Requires Cantonese speaker. Where the Cantonese source came from matters.
Translation from Written Cantonese: Requires Cantonese speaker. Probably needs to be a Hong Kong native.
Translation from Standard Chinese (HK): Requires a translator working in Chinese. While it does not hurt to have one who is also a native of Hong Kong, in general Chinese readers are able to fully understand the idioms of a different written variant, so Chinese (CN) and Chinese (TW) translators can be equally competent; it is their other skills that matter here. Cantonese skills are irrelevant.
Transcription from Cantonese: Requires Cantonese speaker. Requires clarification on whether the transcript should be done in Written Cantonese or Standard Chinese.
For translations serving overseas Chinese communities: These will usually use Standard Chinese, since overseas Chinese communities are rarely exclusively Cantonese speaking; as such, Cantonese skills are not necessary. A translator who is familiar with the target culture will be at an advantage.
One last note: Material written in Chinese (HK) is usually easily localized for China, Taiwan and other Chinese speaking areas with little or no changes. On the other hand, material written in Cantonese must be retranslated for such target audiences. Costs and convenience may matter.