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Simplified or Traditional Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese?

Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese? Cantonese or Mandarin?

The market comprised of Chinese-speaking people is obviously massive; over 980 million can be found in mainland China alone, Hong Kong and Taiwan add another 19 million potential customers, and substantial numbers of Chinese-speaking communities can be found in Southeast Asia as well. So if you have a product or service targeting this market, translating and localizing into Chinese is a no-brainer. But that’s where the confusion often starts.

Should you translate into Simplified or Traditional Chinese? And how do Mandarin and Cantonese relate to these two options?

Firstly it is important to understand what these terms refer to. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most common verbal Chinese dialects. But when it comes to writing, you need to distinguish between Simplified and Traditional Chinese instead. The interesting thing is that not everybody who speaks Mandarin writes in Simplified Chinese and not everybody who speaks Cantonese writes in Traditional Chinese. The table below solves the riddle: In mainland China and Singapore, Mandarin is the spoken language and people resort to Simplified Chinese when they write. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the predominant dialect while people write in Traditional Chinese. The exception is Taiwan where people speak Mandarin and write in Traditional Chinese.

Target Market

Written Spoken
China Simplified Mandarin
Hong Kong Traditional Cantonese
Taiwan Traditional Mandarin
Singapore Simplified Mandarin

When it comes to your next translation and localization project, it might be helpful to understand that Simplified Chinese was established in 1949 when communist regime in China took power. The new government started a big push to increase literacy. The complex traditional writing was simplified, using fewer strokes for complex characters. Some characters were replaced altogether in order to motivate more people to learn how to write.

While Simplified Chinese took over mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong stayed with Traditional Chinese, which people have been using for thousands of years. Simplified Chinese itself has evolved over time, too. As recently as 2013, the Chinese government released an official List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters. This list contained 45 newly recognized standard characters (previously considered variant forms) and 226 characters simplified by analogy, most of which already were widely used.

In the beginning, the differences between the two writing methods only had to do with stroke types. But over time, new words and concepts were added to Simplified Chinese, widening the gap to the traditional way of writing. And because the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan added political distance to them being geographically apart, variations in style and vocabulary have formed as well, similar to those between British and US English.

That explains why in most cases, translating from Simplified Chinese into Traditional Chinese or vice versa is not as easy a task as it might seem. A simple machine translation won’t cut it because it needs a well-versed translator to pick up on certain unique terms and ways of saying things and correct all the potential mistakes a character-for-character translation will cause. Even if you have a document with Traditional characters perfectly converted from Simplified ones, a native speaker from Taiwan or Hong Kong will likely be able to tell the document was just converted and not properly localized.

So, in the end, it comes down to the geographic location of your target audience. If you find it in mainland China, Simplified Chinese is the way to go. If your potential customers are mainly based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Traditional Chinese is what you want to translate your documents and services to. An interesting quirk in this equation is that most Chinese living in the Hong Kong and Taiwan can read Simplified Chinese, but the majority of residents from the People’s Republic have trouble deciphering Traditional characters.

We hope you now have a better understanding of what to look for when starting your next translation and localization project that involves a Chinese audience. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions and receive a quote for your next project.

If you liked this post you may also enjoy China: Where All the Rules of Marketing Matter and To Bow or Not to Bow: Traveling to China on Business.

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