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Unlocking Chinese Dialects: Translating for an English Audience

Blackboard with the Chinese text for corresponding English text, along with romanised phonetics for the Chinese characters

In a world brimming with linguistic diversity, the translation of Chinese dialects like Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien into English is a unique linguistic adventure. This delicate dance between cultural expressions finds its stage not only in the captivating realm of documentaries but also in the austere halls of legal proceedings, where the fine threads of dialects intertwine with the pillars of English jurisprudence.

Yet, many Chinese dialects are dying languages. It’s sad but true. And this is not a phenomenon only to be found here in Singapore. It is happening all around the world to many local dialects, a natural consequence of globalisation. This also means that there is also a dwindling number of linguists who are able to bridge the communication gap between speakers of these traditional tongues.

Documentaries: Capturing Voices of Entire Generations

Documentaries, as windows into different cultures, often capture the raw, unfiltered narratives of individuals speaking in their native dialects. It is a linguistic kaleidoscope where each dialect becomes a brushstroke, painting a vivid portrait of personal experiences before they are carried away by the tides of time.

Through subtitles translation, the authenticity of these voices are preserved while rendering them comprehensible to a larger English-speaking audience and also to the next generation, many of whom can no longer call the mother tongue of their grandparents their own.

Legal Proceedings: Navigating Dialects in the Courtroom

The legal realm, a bastion of precision and accuracy, also grapples with the nuances of dialect translation. Taped conversations that act as crucial evidence in legal proceedings are often in Singlish or various Chinese dialects, requiring prudence in the translation process.

Given that such conversations are confidential and sensitive in nature, the translator or transcriber is required to practise discernment in their interpretation of the dialogues and to refrain from adding their own colourful and creative expressions to the transcription, unless absolutely appropriate and necessary.

Formatting and meticulousness are the invisible heroes in this area of translation. Transcripts are structured and timestamped to be easily referenced against the audio and video files. Translators and reviewers must don the hat of detail-oriented architects, ensuring that every nuance aligns with the chronology of the original dialogue.

Dialect Translation: A Test of Project Management Skills

The pool of translators well-versed in Chinese dialects is relatively small, adding an element of scarcity to an already intricate process. A smaller pool also means fewer human and published resources for translators working in this field to research and check on facts and information.

Dialect translation projects are sometimes also multilingual conversations, which further complicate matters, necessitating the involvement of a project manager to coordinate the translation efforts of multiple linguists.

For example, a subtitles translation for a video on Singapore’s multicultural diversity involving dialogues in English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew that requires the creation of English and Chinese subtitles is not just a translation process; it is a project management process in which different parts of the audio files are marked out under different languages and then parcelled out to translators working with each specific language before consolidating the separate work from the team members back into one at the end. At Wei.Trans.Create, we work with linguists specialised in different languages and subject matter, and we can help put together a team for each multilingual translation project.

Bridging the Dialect Translation Gap with Panache

The translation of Chinese dialects into English is a testament to the dynamism and complexity of human expression. It is not merely a linguistic exercise but a bridge between cultures, an attempt to make the thinking and lives of dialect-speaking populations accessible to all.

As we navigate the challenges of linguistic inclusiveness, we recognise the importance of those skilled individuals who bring wit, precision and a touch of panache to the often-overlooked art of dialect translation. Thank you for keeping our linguistic expressions and traditions alive!


If you have any questions on the translation of Chinese dialect conversations into English, drop us a note here.

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