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The Challenges of Formatting English to Chinese Translations

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The Challenges of Formatting English to Chinese Translations

For projects requiring Chinese translations, whether document, website or software, formatting can be a challenging issue for non-native speaking teams. Formatting mistakes can be easily spotted by native Chinese speakers, but they aren’t always obvious to non-native Chinese speakers. Below are some common issues that I come across during project management for Chinese translations.

Text Alignment

Modern Chinese characters are read left to right, just like English. However, unlike English words that have different length depending on character count, Chinese characters take up equal space. Chinese punctuation typically take up one-character space, which is larger than English punctuation. Also, unlike English, there’s no space after Chinese punctuation.

Therefore, for English to Chinese translations, the text will contract instead of expanding, but the punctuation will expand. This might be the cause of mistakes for non-native Chinese speakers when they are doing the layout of text. Chinese texts never start at the beginning of the line with the punctuation, such as full stop or comma (in typesetting, such scenarios are called ‘widows’ or ‘orphans’). During the copying/pasting of text, the formatting software might not be able to detect the punctuation at the beginning of the line.

Text Flows: Vertical or Horizontal?

In some cases, Chinese scripts can be written horizontally or vertically. Horizontally, the texts can be seen displayed left to right or right to left. For example, on the beams of gates at ancient buildings, such as the Forbidden City, the signs are written right to left. Many restaurants and shops can also use right to left scripts for the sake of style.

Vertically, Chinese scripts are displayed from top to bottom. However, for non-native speaking desktop publishers, if they are told to do the vertical layout of the Chinese texts, the text display can end up reading from bottom to top, which is an obvious mistake.


For common office applications, like MS Word or Excel, if you choose the default fonts that are already installed in the system, the font display will not be affected if viewed from different machines. However, if you use more complicated applications like Adobe InDesign, the choice of fonts is limited and the display of fonts may differ depending on whether the machine has installed the fonts. Sometimes, even within the same texts, the fonts may display differently. The differences may cause corrupted text.


In summary, accordingly to best practice of the localization industry, for Chinese translations (and all other translations) it is always recommended to have your language partners do the formatting and layout as copying and pasting by a non-native speaker can introduce a lot of issues for the final files like corrupted text, broken lines and even linguistic issues.

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