Translating From European To Asian Languages And Vice Versa – Overcoming Unique Challenges For Unique Chances

Translating From European To Asian Languages And Vice Versa

Overcoming Unique Challenges For Unique Chances

Translation is not easy. Even when source and target languages are related to each other, linguists need many years of training and experience to achieve professional standards (for example to translate from Portuguese to Spanish). As you can imagine, translations between languages that have only little in common, pose even more challenges. This article will explain some aspects that make translations between European and Asian languages, which are totally different from each other, extremely complicated, and demonstrate why only true experts can provide reliable translations for these language combinations.

Translating From European To Asian Languages And Vice Versa

Lack of equivalents

Languages describe and depict the environment from which they originate. When linguists translate between Asian and European languages, they are sometimes confronted with words or expressions, for which there is simply no suitable equivalent in the target language.

For example, “tofu” is now well known in most countries of the world. But imagine you were a translator a few decades ago and had to translate the term from Chinese to English. No English reader would have understood “tofu”.

Over the past few years, more and more speakers of European languages have become familiar with names of other Asian dishes, such as “phở” or “ผัดไทย (phat thai)”. However, most cuisine-related vocabulary can at best be described rather than translated, because no European language has any equivalents for it.

As food terminology can already be challenging, imagine how hard it is to translate words for something like complex cultural or legal concepts, which are unique to one specific language and that do not have any clear equivalents in others. Linguists cannot simply go for the next best word, but need to work outsolutions that serve best in the given context, such as adding explanatory notes, etc.

Lack of equivalents

Mood particles in tonal languages

Tonal languages are languages in which the meaning of a word depends on the tone with which it is pronounced. This is virtually unknown in European languages. In Asia, in contrast, many tonal languages exist, such as Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Thai, Burmese, Lao and Vietnamese.

When we speak non-tonal languages, we can convey a lot of connotations and emotions through intonation. In tonal languages, however, intonation might affect the meaning of the words we say.

Several tonal languages therefore have alternative ways to convey emotions, such as frequent use of so-called “mood particles”. Though these particles do not have any concrete meanings as such, they do add something very important to the text. For example, they can make it sound friendlier, more intimate, less blunt, etc. That is why professional translators need to find ways to convey their sense, even in translations into languages without corresponding mood particles.

Chinese is a tonal language

Levels of politeness

Both European and Asian languages have ways to express things more or less politely. For example, as every child is taught, adding the word “please” makes requests in English more polite.

However, in many Asian cultures, there are much more complex concepts of politeness, which are also reflected in Asian languages.

For example, Thai has different words for “please” (such as “ขอ”,“กรุณา”,“โปรด”) and Thai translators must always consider the given context to choose a right one.

Thai also has so-called “polite particles”, the most common ones being “ค่ะ (kha)” and “ครับ (khrap)”. In many contexts, these particles do not really have any meaning as such, but they play an indispensable role in good Thai etiquette.

As there are no clear equivalents for polite particles in languages such as English, linguists often need to find alternative ways to convey a sense politeness when they translate from Thai.

Several levels of politeness form a pattern that is not only found in Thai, but also in many other Asian languages, such as Japanese, Javanese and many more.

The Khmer phrase “អរគុណលោកតា” (“Thanks grandfather”), for example, will become more formal when you make it “សូមអរគុណលោកតា”.

Another example is Vietnamese, in which particles are used in the beginning of a sentence (“dạ”) or in the end of a sentence (“ạ”) to make it sound more courteous. Vietnamese also reserves a couple of other words that are only used when talking to people with senior status, such as “vâng”. That is why there are cases in which a good Vietnamese translation needs to contain polite particles, even if the original text that is written in a European language does not.

Levels of politeness

Pronouns, kinship terminology and ways to address people

As discussed above, questions of courtesy play an extremely important role in Asian languages. In fact, social etiquette is so meaningful in many Asian cultures that even the way you say “you”, “I”, etc. depends on status.

While “you” can be used to address everybody in English, or there are only two forms to address people in some other European languages (such as informal “tu” and formal “vouz” in French, or informal “du” and formal “Sie” in German), many Asian languages have a lot more words, and it is not always easy to pick the right one.

In Japanese, for example, there are many ways to address people, and choosing the wrong form can be very embarrassing.

Also Chinese offers a range of options. For example, “you” can be translated as 你 (gender non-specific), 妳 (only for females) or 您 (more polite).

Linguists who work on an English to Thai translation, might translate the English “you” as“คุณ“, “พี่“, “แก”, “เธอ”, “ลูก”, “อาจารย์”– or in countless other ways. However, not only “you”, but also “I” can be translated into Thai with many different terms, for example, “ดิฉัน”, “ผม”, “ฉัน”, “เรา”, “หนู”, “ข้าพเจ้า”, “อาตมา”, etc.

This does not mean that you can simply pick words as you like. “อาจารย์”, for example, is reserved for addressing teachers or professors, “ลูก” only works for addressing someone who either is your own child or has the same age as your children, and “อาตมา” can only be used by monks.


Anyway, Thai is just one of the many Asian languages, in which the translation of the English word “I” is much more complicated than you might think.

Indonesian, for example uses “saya” in contexts that require a higher degree of politeness, and replaces it with “aku” in less formal situations.

Also in Vietnamese, “I” can be translated in many different ways (“tôi”, “mình”, “tớ”, “anh”, “chị”, “chú, “em”, “tao”, “cô”, “cháu”,etc.), while “you” can be “bạn”, “cậu”, “chị”, “cô”, “mày”, “con”, etc. Again, the wide selection of options does not mean that you can choose as you wish. For example, you may only call someone “chị” (which is a kinship term and literally means “elder sister”) if that person is female and slightly older than you (but not too much). Once you call that person “chị”, you will have to refer to yourself as “em” (literally: “younger sibling” – but in this context it simply takes up the function of the personal pronoun “I” and makes you sound polite). Interestingly, in this situation, from your perspective “em” means “I” and “chị“ means“you“, but from the perspective of the other person, “chị” means “I” and “em” means “you”.

Usage of kinship terms instead of personal pronouns is typical for many Asian languages. Correct usage of these terms depends on various factors (age, gender, etc.) and choosing the right one requires cultural and linguistic expertise, which amateurish translators simply do not have.

For example, when a movie is translated from English into Vietnamese, good linguists will have to consider the age of all characters and their relationships to each other, to determine the right way to translate the personal pronouns.

You can also certainly imagine that if you have business proposals translated into Asian languages and linguists do not address your prospective business partners appropriately, your chances of success will diminish.

Written and spoken forms of Asian languages

In both European and Asian languages, there are differences between writing and speaking. Written forms tend to be more formal, more correct, etc. However, in certain Asian languages (such as Sinhalese or Burmese), the differences are much more distinct than in European languages. Linguists refer to such cases as “diglossia”.

That is why for some languages, translators might even need to create two versions of one source text (one in written and one in spoken style) or – at least – need to know which style the client needs.

Written and spoken forms of Asian languages

Stylistic preferences

Aesthetic preferences vary significantly from culture to culture. We can see this, for example, when we listen to music from different countries, or look at architectural trends around the world. As Asian and European cultures are very different, it is not surprising that what would be called “good writing style” in one language will not necessarily be appreciated in another language.

That is why linguists who translate between Asian and European languages often need to rephrase individual passages so that their translations are stylistically appealing.

In many European languages, for example, short sentences are preferred to long ones. In languages like Thai, however, long sentences are often interwoven into each other and connected with linking words, as that is an ideal of refined written Thai. Linguists who translate from Thai to other languages therefore need to cut paragraphs into individual sentences without altering the meaning so that the translation will sound good.

Transcreation vs. translation

Some texts, such as advertising slogans, convey feelings or images rather than concrete statements. As Asia and Europe are different in so many ways, a lot of such slogans do not “work” when they are translated. This is where you need transcreation rather than translation, as it will evoke the emotions in the target audience that your marketing campaign really aims for.

Transcreation vs. translation

Linguistic expertise – a prerequisite for international success

As you can see from the examples above, translating from European to Asian languages and vice versa poses a lot of challenges. That is why only professional translation service providers are really capable of translating accurately between languages with such big differences.

A reliable localization partner will help you overcome linguistic barriers that divide speakers of European and Asian languages. This is essential for successful global expansion activities in high-potential markets, which are home to billions of people. On the other hand, without a professional language service provider, endeavours like penetrating Asian markets, starting business in the ASEAN region, or expanding existing operations from Asia to Europe or the US, are unlikely to succeed.

Linguistic expertise, a prerequisite for international success

elionetwork excels in European and Asian languages. As a one-stop solution service provider with two decades of experience in the translation business and our expertise in languages and cultures, we have become the preferred localisation service provider for countless clients. No matter if you need help with commonly translated languages such as Spanish or English, or rare ones, such as Khmer translation services, elionetwork covers all European and Asian languages. Contact our teams in Singapore, Bangkok or Phnom Penh now to discuss your translation needs!