Chinese Romanization is an integral part of the localization process for companies who are already active in the Middle Kingdom and for those businesses who are entering the Chinese market.
This China Gravy article presents the process of correctly localizing Chinese data, which requires Chinese romanization, as well as the related challenges and solutions for your business.
Differences of Transliteration, Transcription, and Romanization
Can you guess how many languages there are in the world? It’s an astonishing 7,000 languages around the globe. And which one do you think is the most widely spoken language? It may be no surprise that it’s Standard Chinese (Mandarin Chinese) with more than 1.3 billion native speakers, followed by Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic.
Now, in order to display words and texts when converting them into languages with different alphabets, transliteration, transcription, and romanization come into play. But what does each of these terms mean?
To begin with, transliteration is displaying characters as they are written in a source language in a target language by using similar-sounding corresponding characters. For example, from Chinese characters to the Latin alphabet or vice versa.
In the Chinese language, there is an official transliteration system, which is called Pinyin. Therefore, Pinyin can also be described as the conversion of Chinese characters into sounds in the Latin alphabet. This is helpful because if there is no official transliteration system, the characters that are used can vary depending on the person who transliterates a text. This is the case, for example, in Thai.
The advantage of transliteration systems like Pinyin is that even if you don’t know the language, you can read (and pronounce) a word or phrase with transliteration. Besides, transliteration allows words to be used in the digital world and simplifies the globalization process.
Who uses Pinyin?
- Chinese writing Simplified Chinese in Latin characters
- China’s most popular spoken language input system Sogou Pinyin to digitally transfer spoken Chinese into writing
- Companies who do business internationally and deal with customers and partners whose master data they need to store and manage correctly.
Keep in mind that in romanization, the Pinyin system is typically used without tone marks.
For Traditional Chinese in Taiwan, the Bopomofo/Zhuyin system is used for transliteration.
Next, transcription is the conversion of a word or phrase based on the pronunciation, using a defined phonetic spelling set. Even without knowing a specific language, transcription helps you pronounce a word or text written in your own language. This process also works the other way around, transcription from Latin words into Chinese characters.
Compared to transliteration, transcription is only focused on pronunciation and largely depends on the target language.
Other languages may have no official transcription like Thai or several variations like Russian. The Russian language has varying transcription tables for passport names, street names, scientific transcriptions according to ISO standards, and so on. No official transcription tables can provide challenges, for example, when issuing official documents.
Let’s take a look at the Greek word for “gospel” as an example. Keep in mind that the terms transcription and transliteration are often used interchangeably, even if the output is different.
Finally, romanization is a transliteration of a foreign language into Latin letters. The Latin script (romanized alphabet) is used as it is the basis of the majority of languages, including English.
The terms transliteration, transcription, and romanization are often used interchangeably. Therefore, when the source language is Chinese and the target language is Latin, we will only refer to them as romanization from now on. On the other hand, the process from Latin as a source language to Chinese as a target language is called transcription or transliteration, but not a romanization.
Before we continue with Chinese Romanization, let us take a look at another distinction you will come across frequently when talking about the Chinese language.
Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese for Chinese Romanization
In short, Traditional Chinese characters are the original version (more elaborate, more strokes) which was simplified over time. Simplified Chinese is used across the Republic of China and Singapore. On the other hand, Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
Typically, all Chinese speakers can read Simplified Chinese, but only those who learned Traditional Chinese can decipher it. Today’s generation in mainland China usually can only read Simplified Chinese, and only the older generation or university students learn Traditional Chinese.
Chinese Romanization (Pinyin and Wade-Giles)
Until the mid 20th century, the Wade-Giles system was the leading romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. By around 1960 it was largely replaced by the Pinyin romanization systems in mainland China. To date, the Wade-Giles system is used in Taiwan as well as for traditional and common names of locations and persons.
Pinyin is short for Hanyu Pinyin. It is today the official Chinese phonetic alphabet and romanization writing system for Standard Mandarin Chinese in mainland China as well as Singapore. It is typically used to teach Chinese to foreigners and Chinese nationals as well as among Chinese people to determine the writing and pronunciation of the Chinese language in a specific context.
In general, Chinese romanization facilitates entering characters on standard computer keyboards. If there was a keyboard for Chinese characters it would need around 100,000 keys.
Let’s look at an example using the term “telephone”.
|Simplified Chinese||Traditional Chinese||Literally||Pinyin Transliteration||Pinyin Romanization without tone marks||Translation|
So, what does all of this have to do with your business activities in the Middle Kingdom or working with Chinese partners?
Localization in China
To begin with, localization refers to adapting a product or service to a target market. This can include the formatting/order of names, phone numbers, dates, times, the direction of writing (e.g. right to left in Arabic), the units of measure (e.g. metric system vs. American system), voltage, punctuation, legal requirements, and more.
Remember to respect local culture and linguistic peculiarities, assign time and resources to implement the localization for your business, and consider localization from the beginning of your project or business venture.
Likewise, when doing business in the Middle Kingdom, either selling to Chinese consumers or working with Chinese partners for sourcing or distribution, you will likely need Chinese romanization services in order to ensure smooth processes and legality.
Localization always requires romanization (including transliteration, transcription) in order to
- assess financial scores for businesses
- check global sanction lists and avoid high fines
- issue of official documents like invoices
- manage business partner master data, e.g. in SAP
- administer databases, e.g. for marketing purposes
The following information is typically localized through romanization
- names of individuals and companies
- titels, positions, company departments
- legal entities
Oftentimes, a combination of transliteration, transcription, and translation is applied.
Here’s an interesting example of Volkswagen, the popular German car brand. Volkswagen means people’s car. In Chinese, it was opted to be localized into 大众汽车 (dàzhòng qìchē). This is not only an accurate description of the original German name but also the second Chinese character looks similar to the Volkswagen logo with the “V” and “W” in it.
Likewise, from Chinese to Latin scripts we have a fascinating example: 阿里巴巴集团. These characters can have a variety of different meanings. One translation could be “snakes” (巴巴) and “afghan village” (阿里). However, with transliteration, 阿里巴巴集团 becomes Alibaba, the Chinese online trading giant.
Important to Know for the Chinese Romanization Process
In the Chinese romanization process, there are a few things to keep in mind. Here are the most important ones:
- When writing addresses in Chinese, start with the largest entity (country) and end with the smallest entity (house number). Example: 中国 (China) 北京市 (Beijing) 东城区 (Greater Dongcheng Area) 交道口南大街 (Jiaodaokou South Street) 78号 (Nr. 78)
- Names of individuals and companies as well as addresses require transliteration, not simple translation. For example, 林太太 could be translated to Mrs. Forest. However, this would likely be the end of your blossoming business partnership. Transliteration makes it clear: 太太 (translation Mrs.) 林 (transliteration Lin) refers to Mrs. Lin.
- When doing business in China a Chinese website is an important component. Keep in mind to apply transliteration for the URL slugs in China. Chinese characters are displayed as encoded characters, which has SEO disadvantages on Chinese search engines like Baidu and results in display errors. That’s why it’s important to transliterate slugs with Chinese characters to Pinyin slugs and encode them. For example, this is the Chinese Wikipedia site for the Global Fortune 500 companies: https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/财富世界500强. However, when trying to copy this URL, for example, to share on social media, the Chinese characters are encoded: https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/%25E8%25B4%25A2%25E5%25AF%258C%25E4%25B8%2596%25E7%2595%258C500%25E5%25BC%25BA
This all may sound a bit complex and you may wonder if there is a software or machine-assisted technology to help with this process?
You may have had a hunch. Yes, there is specially designed software to help with the process of transliteration. A China expert like China Gravy can connect you with state-of-the-art technical solutions for software-assisted transliteration.
Limitations of Chinese Romanization & Solutions
The main challenges for Chinese localization are
- knowing when to apply romanization or translation, respectively a combination of these
- reliable and central databases to refer to
- the limitation of the Latin script with up to 26 characters while Chinese has no alphabet, but more than 100,000 characters representing individual syllables. Typically, a knowledge of 3,000 – 5,000 characters is required for the daily use
- sounds in Chinese which the Latin alphabet cannot fully replicate
Finally, there are basically no free transliteration, transcription, and romanization online tools you can use free of charge. There are some romanization plugins/libraries available based on Unicode’s ICU project. These are a good starting point for romanization but require significant manual adjustment.
A China marketing agency like China Gravy provides highly customizable integrated online solutions for the transliteration of master data through our partners in the form of an Application Programming Interface (API) that can be integrated into any environment. Contact us to find out more.
Chinese Romanization – The Takeaway
Chinese Romanization is a vital part of the localization process for businesses that are new to the Chinese market as well as long-established companies in the Middle Kingdom.
Together with correct translation, Chinese romanization serves as the fundamental part of every localization process in the Middle Kingdom.
Do you want to make sure your business is China-ready? Get started with Chinese Romanization! The experts at China Gravy offer a FREE consultation as your first step!