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Why are the same languages not always the same

When it comes to translating, English is not always English and Spanish can be confusing even to Spanish speakers.

Nearly all languages in the world have dialects. Dialects may differ not only by accent, but also in written grammar and vocabulary, which should be well chosen in translation.

For example, British, American, Australian and Indian English have numerous differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, idioms and expressions.

Such differences are determined by geographical, ethnic, historical, and political factors. The more communities of the same language are isolated from each other by water, mountain chains or political differences, the more diverse are their dialects.

And the gulf broadens when one dialect is evolving faster than another.

“When people are cut off from each other-either by geography, ethnic separatism, or by political separation-which group tends to change the least and retain the older forms of a language? It turns out that the language spoken by the group that is most isolated from the mainstream tends to change the least.” 1

Mandarin Chinese vs. Cantonese Chinese

These Chinese dialects differ by region: Mandarin dialect is mainly spoken in Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. Cantonese is mostly used in Hong Kong.

“Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are more different from one another than German is from English. Yet all of them use a single standard written form. This is possible because Chinese characters are based only very loosely on sound. Therefore, many Chinese speakers consider their very divergent spoken forms to be variants of a single standard language, unified by the use of written characters with shared meanings. In terms of spoken form, the so-called “dialects” of Chinese could easily be considered separate languages; in the speakers’ view, they are dialects of the same language–at least as far as the written language is concerned.” 1

Brazilian Portuguese vs. Portugal Portuguese

Brazilian Portuguese is a set of dialects of the Portuguese language, and it is spoken mostly in Brazil. 51% (200 million) of all South Americans speak Brazilian Portuguese. The Brazilian variant differs from Portugal Portuguese in spelling, lexicon, and grammar. 2

“Brazilians treat everyone by “você” and Portuguese use “tu” and “você”, depending on the case. And actually it is rude to treat someone in the North of Portugal “você”. Very simple sentences change from one country to another, and if you say something in a Brazilian way in Portugal or something in a Portuguese way in Brazil, it is wrong, for example “I love you”, the correct way to say it in Brazil is “te amo” and the correct way to say it in Portugal is “amo-te”. It might not seem much, but this is just one example.” 3

These languages may sound the same to a foreigner, but not for native speakers.
Even if people can understand the meaning of a different dialect to their own, it may still sound ‘non-native’ to them. They may find it unnatural to read, and sometime it will sound just plain wrong.

For instance, if your audience is peninsular Spanish, then Mexican Spanish might not be what you need for your presentation or script. In written English, dialectical differences can often look like shoddy editing or bad spelling on the part of the author: color – colour, traveled – travelled, analyze – analyse, etc.

So if you want your translation to sound natural to the target audience, you might want to consider the subtleties of dialect and choose translators that speak the specific dialect of your target region.

1 http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test3materials/dialectology.htm

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Portuguese

3 https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100805113732AAl0EDR

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One response to “Why are the same languages not always the same”

  1. Mar Valenzuela

    I find very interesting the differences between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese. It is amazing how languages can surprise you and hide something that you do not expect. Regards 🙂