The Chinese writing system is incredibly efficient, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a pain to learn and we all forget how to write the odd character from time to time, but you can cram so much into such a small space. It’s not just things like the Analects which, in translation, require lines of English to represent the briefest of the sage’s utterances; even making simple arrangements by SMS/text message seems so much more convenient in Chinese.
Then, as Bryan pointed out, there are signs in your local hospital which protrude unreasonably far, simply so that they can helpfully accommodate the English translation.
Watch out. That thing could take your eye out!
I guess this all first came to my attention whilst wondering around museums and other tourist attractions. The sign below is pretty typical.
To my eyes, the sign is dominated by English. Just a handful of Chinese characters do the job.
Occasionally one would see lengthy pieces explaining the history of a monument in some detail, but the accompanying English text would be laughably brief. Obviously, you just couldn’t fit that much on the signs without the foreign language overwhelming the whole show.
But does Chinese really compress more information into a given space?
Perhaps we can do a little experiment, if you’ll indulge me.
If we take an article, on a general topic, for which a translation is readily available, and place the English and in Chinese texts side by side, we might then adjust the font size of the texts until each occupies approximately the same surface area. If we then step back and gradually approach the texts, one would imagine that one of the texts might become legible before the other. This would be a crude test of which language required the greater space to convey a given amount of information.
So, in the interests of linguistic inquiry, I have borrowed an article from the website of the British Embassy in Beijing, in English and Chinese. And, for the sake of harmony, there’s a second article, from the website of the Chinese Embassy in London, in Chinese and English. Apologies to readers less familiar with simplified Chinese characters. I will set up a similar experiment with traditional (non-simplified) characters, should there be demand.
Before you rush to enlarge the following two images, please read on.
Upon clicking each image:
- Immediately move away from your screen to a distance from which you *cannot* read the text at all (maybe 3 metres or 10 feet).
- Move slowly toward the screen until you can *just* begin read a few words or characters.
- Try to read *both* texts without moving your head any closer to the screen and note how far you can read and with which text you read further.
- Advance, a little at a time, trying to read both Chinese and English, until you find a comfortable reading distance.
- Make a mental note of places in the texts that cause you problems.
Click on the first article and retire to a safe distance.
Now the second article:
Please leave a comment with the following information.
- The language, English or Chinese, you consider yourself to be normally better at reading.
- As you first approached the screen, the language you were able to start reading first. (for each article)
- As you moved closer, the language which became comfortable for you to read first. (each article)
- Any other information you think relevant (e.g. words or characters you found most difficult to identify).