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Beyond the Language Barrier

Doing business in the China region requires on-the-ground fluency of languages and culture, says Jenny Shan, Brunswick’s Manager of Translation in Hong Kong.

So you’re ready to do business in China. How much do you plan to use WeChat? How do you plan to respond to “996”? Or the “lie-flat (躺平)” culture? Have you been successfully “Amwayed into this hole (安利入坑)” by a Chinese friend?

If you don’t know what any of that means—let me share some granularity.

Communication is a cornerstone of any business. But in China, communication has to pass a series of challenges around language itself, including a constantly evolving vocabulary. China is a culture rich in nuance in social exchanges. A lack of familiarity with these language challenges and customs can make a bad impression or, worse, damage trust.

As AI tools explode into the workplace, the role of nuance in communication in the region becomes an increasingly important point to keep in mind: Human editors with experience in the culture are critical. A clear message requires a real human.

Hundreds of languages are spoken in the China region. In just the international centers of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai there are three different local languages. All three draw on a common set of characters for writing (although even there, there are differences), but as spoken languages they are about as foreign to one another as Spanish is to Portuguese. Each of them, even Standard Mandarin, the official language of China, can be colored by words from any of the other languages currently or historically spoken in the region.

Hong Kong’s street names, mostly unchanged since the colonial era, are a particularly famous example, a hodgepodge of Mandarin, Cantonese, English and other languages, including transliterations and mistranslations. One is still called “Rednaxela Terrace,” for instance, as a result of a clerk’s misrepresentation of “Alexander”— at the time, Chinese was read from right to left, so he copied the name backwards. That complexity of intentions and meanings colors the daily use of these languages.

As Manager of Translation for Brunswick in Hong Kong, my job is to filter all of this, to grasp nuances in English and make them understood for their target audience in China, or to make sure that the details of a message in Chinese are communicated to English speakers. When a translation says “examine the results” of a survey, is “examine” really the right word? Or do they mean “test” or “assess”? Those subtle differences can play an outsized role with regard to clarity. The English phrase “loan request” requires contextual understanding in Mandarin. For artwork, the translation would be “借展申请” or “jiè zhǎn shēnqǐng,” which carries the implication of use in an exhibition, while in a financial situation it would have to be “贷款申请” or “dàikuǎn shēnqǐng.” Both are correct translations but they mean totally different things. If you don’t know to look for these differences, a computer translation could lead you astray.

There’s more to the problem of translation of course. But effective business communication starts with language.

Social Contexts

Most business documents are written now in Simplified Mandarin, a form the government recommends, which strips down the thousands of dense characters in Mandarin to their essentials to allow them to be more easily written and learned. The subtlety and depth of meaning in each character are sacrificed in the simplified form in favor of a shallower learning curve. Transcribing into the simplified form often means having to consider and possibly reinsert some of that lost nuance.

While Mandarin is spoken in Shanghai, much of the population speaks Shanghainese—from a separate language family that incorporates transliterations of English, French and Mandarin words. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is more common than Mandarin. Words and expressions from both can be woven into Mandarin communication and vice versa.

That knowledge comes into play significantly on the WeChat platform. In China, WeChat is the go-to messaging and social media platform, a combination of WhatsApp, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram and Facebook. In addition to networks of professional connections and discussions, it is also used to share family and personal information. The tone is informal and you’re likely to encounter slang and usages that are otherwise restricted to in-person office banter. Like slang in any language, some of it is obvious (the US/UK usage “granularity,” for instance, as a substitute for “details” has been recently exported to China) and some of it is obscure. And all of it is constantly changing.

Effective business communication starts with language.

“Amway” (安利, “Anli”), for instance, comes from the international franchise brand, where individuals market products to their friends. But it’s now been extended to indicate passionately sharing or recommending anything—a book or TV series, news, food, stores.  The meaning is close to “evangelizing”; you’re trying to persuade others to be as passionate as you are. “Fell into a hole” means they were hooked.

Recently, “996” has become a shorthand for the common 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week work ethic. Since COVID, many among the younger generation have decided to dial that back, taking lower paying, lower responsibility jobs and trying to spend more time enjoying what they have—a choice to “lie flat” (躺平, “tǎng píng) or favor rest over work. Older executives, who might not have dared to take a lunch break when they were young workers, are having a hard time accepting this shift.

Such tensions in the culture are necessary intelligence for anyone doing business in the region. Language often provides the first clue.

Getting It Wrong

In any international city around the world, you can find people who speak Mandarin or Cantonese. But many non-resident speakers will use constructions that reflect their time in communities abroad and are heard as simply wrong in China. Time away erodes fluency and the constant evolution of the language and its inherent complexity don’t help.

In the background of any conversation is the question of native bias. In Shanghai, as in Zurich or Tokyo or Paris, those native to the city can recognize recent arrivals the minute they open their mouths. Try speaking to a Paris waiter in poor French; he likely won’t be sympathetic. You can assume that threshold exists in Shanghai or Hong Kong as well.

Minute gestures of respect are communicated in business exchanges in China, details that can’t help but seem trivial to non-natives. An obvious example is the role of modesty, a trait highly valued. A Western CEO might barely notice his own display of immodesty—or worse, might overlook or misunderstand the modesty of a Chinese businessperson. His message will go down like nails on a chalkboard as a result.

Getting It Right

Any of these important fine points can get lost if you rely too much on translation software. A good AI can convert complex characters to simplified ones for you. But it only changes the characters. To correct the message requires real human understanding.

A non-native speaker demonstrating a lack of understanding of the culture will find it hard to win the trust of Chinese business partners. The Parisian waiter won’t hesitate to tell you, in no uncertain terms, what you’re doing wrong. Rest assured, the Chinese business partner won’t be so transparent about his disappointment. You’ll see it only later, in his reluctance to do business with you.

On the other hand, there is no greater satisfaction for me then when there is no comment about the language being used from anyone involved in a bilingual conversation, when they are only talking about the message itself, engaged with one another. My role disappears. Then I know I’ve done my job.

The Authors

Jenny Shan

Manager - Translation, Hong Kong

Jenny is a professional interpreter, linguist and localization specialist, providing language services across sectors, notably TMT, Financial Institution, Consumer Industries, Industrial & Infrastructure, Healthcare and Life Sciences. Prior to joining Brunswick, she was the chief interpreter and translator and Business Manager for the Board of Directors at HNA International. Jenny is fluent in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese and has a business level knowledge of Japanese (passed JLPT N1).