Lost (length) in translation: Chinese ideal for microblogging


Although China’s track record for joining the rest of their world in social networking isn’t the best (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are just three out of many sites that are blocked by the “Great Firewall of China” in the PRC), their language is ideally suited to it. Sites like Twitter, which force you to compress your thoughts into 140 characters or less, often force speakers of English and other languages to compress their language and use acronyms, initialisms and short forms of words. Due to the Chinese writing system, you can fit far more information into far fewer characters, and what’s more Chinese does not use spaces between words like many other languages.

The result, then, is that according to a study by economist.com, 1,000 characters in English is shortened by an average of 69 characters when translated to Chinese – and that’s even giving room for roundabout translations due to idiomatic English phrases and notions that are not familiar in Chinese.

Conversely, Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian tend to be more verbose than English, with Spanish averaging around 40 more characters than English for every 1,000.

Chinese’s relatively high language compression in microblogging is plain to see: Sina Weibo, China’s government-sanctioned version of Twitter, is not simply a site where people share short announcements, pithy wit and shortened links to other media – it is a huge base for in-depth discussion (when the topic is permissible and posts do not suddenly ‘disappear’), since far more information can be crammed into the 140 character limit than most other languages allow.