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Translate into Mandarin or Simplified Chinese?

by Huiping ILER

Yesterday we received a translation request from a client: “I need these product information sheets translated into Mandarin; I may need them into Cantonese soon too.”

Great. But we cannot translate into Mandarin or Cantonese! They are both names for VERBAL dialects of Chinese. Since the translation deals with documents, the client was actually asking us to do it into Simplified and Traditional Chinese, which are the two written forms of Chinese.

Below is a chart detailing both the spoken and written variations of Chinese used in the major Chinese speaking markets:

Simplified Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Hong Kong
Traditional Chinese

It is a little bit confusing because most people think Chinese as being just one language. They are not aware that there are so many variances. Moreover, while all Cantonese speakers write in Traditional Chinese characters, not all Mandarin speakers use Simplified Chinese. Taiwan people who are Mandarin spoken write in Traditional characters.

Customers who need their documents translated sometimes feel confused and do not know which character sets they should go with. They often ask us these questions:

How come Chinese writing has two different systems: Simplified and Traditional?

The Simplified Chinese characters did not come to existence until China’s communist party took power after 1949 and launched a massive campaign to increase literacy. The traditional writing was simplified in order to encourage more people to learn how to write. Complex characters were written using fewer strokes and some were replaced altogether.

While Simplified Chinese became the official writing system in mainland China, people in Hong Kong and Taiwan continue to use the Traditional characters.

Can you convert Simplified Chinese into Traditional Chinese or vice versa?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is it is often times not worth the trouble. There are numerous tools out there that can convert the two forms of Chinese into one another, but not all the characters convert properly. You need to use a human editor to review the whole document. It may take you a great many hours to go through the document and correct all the mistakes.

Another factor to consider is there are many differences not just in how the characters look, but also in the words and expressions. It is quite similar to the difference between British English and American English. Even if you have a document with Traditional characters perfectly converted from Simplified ones, a native speaker from Taiwan or Hong Kong will be able to tell the document was converted, rather than created for their market specifically.

If my budget only allows me to translate into one Chinese, which one should I choose?

It depends on where the majority of the readers are going to be located. If 90% of the readers are going to be from Mainland China, you should go with Simplified Chinese. Likewise, if most of them are going to be in Hong Kong or Taiwan, you should use Traditional Chinese.

One other factor to consider is that most Chinese from Mainland can READ Traditional Chinese, whereas the majority of residents from Hong Kong and Taiwan have trouble reading Simplified characters.

To summarize, if you need a Chinese interpreter for a business meeting or appointment, your choices are between Mandarin and Cantonese. If you have a document to translate, however, the choices are between Simplified and Traditional Chinese.


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Felicia Bratu

Felicia Bratu is the operations manager of wintranslation, in charge of quality delivery and client satisfaction. As a veteran who has worked in many roles at the company since 2003, Felicia oversees almost every aspect of the company operations from recruitment to project management to localization engineering. She recently received certification as a Localization Project Manager as well as Post-Editing Certification for Machine Translation. Felicia holds a BSc. in Industrial Robotics from the University of Craiova, Romania.

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