Methods – Our approach to translation

by Ely Finch

Chinese Languages in Australia’s History

Understanding Chinese languages is crucial to our approach. Chinese migrants to 19th century Australia spoke a number of southern Chinese languages, and in their writings often used a written language called Literary Chinese, with words from southern Chinese languages introduced into it. This is not the same as written Mandarin or written Cantonese. Translation and analysis of these texts requires the skills of an historical linguist and often substantial research to decipher. 

This understanding has enabled us to connect up Chinese characters for people’s names with how their names were romanised historically. We can then connect their biographies and stories in Chinese-language sources, such as the Chinese-language Australian newspapers of the time, temple inscriptions, or gravestones, with their stories in English-language documents and newspapers, trace their genealogical records, and also find out who their descendants are now.

The Language of the Inscriptions and Related Texts

Apart from the odd expression borrowed from spoken language, all the inscriptions and related texts with which this project is concerned are written in something called Literary Chinese.

Literary Chinese is a written language that is based on the Classical Chinese of antiquity, but has no innate pronunciation, nor any natural equivalent in the English-speaking world, though a parallel might be drawn to Latin, because, like Latin in Europe, it once filled the role through much of Asia of a universal written language that was used between speakers of different spoken languages; in other words, Literary Chinese was what renowned Swedish sinologist Bernhard Karlgren called “a written Esperanto”. However, the analogy to Latin—and indeed Esperanto—can only go so far, because Latin can only be read aloud in Latin. Literary Chinese can be read aloud in all Chinese languages, and even in unrelated languages like Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, because it is written in Chinese characters (see The Romanisations below for more on the nature of Chinese characters).

It bears mentioning too that Literary Chinese (with a capital L) does not mean literary Chinese, i.e. Chinese that is literary. While Literary Chinese is so named because it was the dominant language of Chinese literature, literature was also written in vernacular Chinese, and Literary Chinese was often used for decidedly unliterary purposes. Literary Chinese is simply the name of a unique type of written language.

At the time concerned, Literary Chinese was the standard written language of the Chinese-speaking world, as had been the case for thousands of years, so it is only natural that it was used to write the texts with which this project is concerned. The written form of spoken languages was also regarded at the time as vulgar, and Literary Chinese was thus preferred for use in formal contexts.

Incidentally, today, written Mandarin is the standard written language of the Chinese-speaking world, and literate Chinese speakers generally have a poorer knowledge of Literary Chinese. Literary Chinese, however, continues to be employed in limited contexts.

The Romanisations

The inscriptions and related texts with which this project is concerned are written in Chinese characters. Chinese characters are employed in the writing systems of many spoken languages, and their pronunciations differ greatly between these languages. This circumstance might be analogised to that which applies to Arabic numerals, which have no inherent pronunciation. The Arabic numeral “2”, for example, is pronounced “two” in English, “yih” in Cantonese, and “do” in Hindi. Likewise, the Chinese character “萬” (meaning “ten-thousand”) is pronounced “wàn” in Mandarin, “man” in Korean, and “bhuang7” in Teochew.

Historically, several Chinese languages, and numerous dialects thereof, were spoken in the New England North West region of New South Wales. These include Cantonese, Hakka, the See Yip language (四邑話), and various Hokkien vernaculars, such as those spoken in the Pearl River Delta district of Heung Shan.

Except where otherwise indicated, the romanisations of Chinese characters that are used in connection with this project reflect standard-Cantonese pronunciation. Standard Cantonese (Canton Cantonese) was chosen primarily for its convenience, but in preference to Mandarin, because as a southern Chinese language it was thought more likely to approximate the pronunciation of the vernaculars used by the persons concerned, which historical romanisations might have reflected. The historical evidence appears to suggest that Cantonese held unofficial status as a lingua franca in New South Wales, which also makes it a natural candidate.

The decision was made not to employ any of the former or current formal transliteration schemes for Cantonese, despite their greater phonetic clarity, because their spellings differ too greatly from those that were actually employed by ordinary speakers. Rather, the romanisations are fashioned according to the informal and hetrogenous system in common use in Hong Kong (known as the Hong Kong Government System), which better approximates the Cantonese spellings that were used in Australia historically. In line with the aim of approximating these historical spellings, a preference has been shown for romanisations that reflect older pronunciations, e.g. “美” is spelt “mee”, as opposed to “mei”; “記” and “基” are spelt “kee”, as opposed to “kei”; and “生” is spelt “shang”, as opposed to “sang”.

For confirmation of historical pronunciations, see such sources as Morrison, Robert, Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect (廣東省土話字彙), Macao: G. J. Steyn and Brother, 1828, and Williams, S. Wells, A Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect (英華分韻撮要), Canton: 1856.

This is a continually evolving website, and new content will be added as further research is conducted.