When I go traveling to places like Tokyo and Taipei, it never ceases to amaze me how many things are either misconstrued or lost in translation. The same thing can be said about many Chinese restaurants in and around the Vancouver area. You would think that these companies and establishments would take a little effort to hire a native English speaker so that they can be sure their marketing copy, menus, promotional material, and so on sound “right” to an English audience.

When you get into the business of freelance writing, blogging, or really anything to do with cross-cultural communication, you really need to be mindful of how the translations and transliterations can be interpreted in the target language. Being fluent in multiple languages can help, but having a solid understanding of their respective cultural norms can go a long way too.

What’s the Difference Between Translation and Transliteration?

Translation is when you take the meaning from one language and re-express it in another language. For example, the Cantonese term for computer literally means electronic brain. That’s pretty close in terms of providing an actual definition.

Transliteration is when you take a term from one language and you attempt to replicate the sounds made in another language. A good example of transliteration would be Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi, and udon. These were nonsense words in English, but they best replicate how those words sound in Japanese.

Combine the Two for Ultimate Confusion

If you are familiar with the world of fighting games, the you’ve probably heard about the Street Fighter II hoax surrounding the character of Sheng Long. If you’re not familar, you can find out more on Hadouken Online.

The root of this misunderstanding came from Ryu’s victory phrase “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance.” First, the Japanese term “shoryu”, meaning rising dragon (as in shoryuken or dragon punch), was translated into Chinese. The Chinese term for rising dragon was then transliterated into English, resulting in the reference to Sheng Long. People assumed this was some secret character and that’s how the rumours began. Realistically, the victory phrase should have been translated as this: “You must defeat my dragon punch to stand a chance.” Not nearly as rumor-worthy, huh?

English is Not Universal

If you find yourself doing any inter-language work during your freelance writing, blogging, or international career, just be mindful of how things sound in the target language. I’m tired of hearing about Wang Steak and assorted beef guts on Chinese menus.