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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese and How They Relate to Mandarin and Cantonese

So you want to translate your text into Chinese. Hiring a Chinese translation service seems to be the next step. Easy, right? That is, until you get this response from the provider you reached out to: which kind?

There seem to be so many varieties of Chinese out there, and you have no idea how they're different and which one to choose. Fret not. This article will clarify the differences and connections amongst Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese (Hong Kong and Taiwan), Mandarin, and Cantonese so that you can make the right decision to deliver your message to the right audience.

What's the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese?

Simply put, Simplified and Traditional are different writing systems of Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese, as the name implies, is the traditional way of writing Chinese. Simplified Chinese came about in the 1950s, when the government of the People’s Republic of China, aiming to improve literacy, adopted and promoted a revised system that made Chinese characters easier to learn and write. (Compare "China" in Traditional 中國 and Simplified 中国.)

As a result, Simplified Chinese is now the standard writing system in Mainland China, while Traditional Chinese continues to be used in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Many members of overseas Chinese communities write in Traditional Chinese, while the use of Simplified Chinese is on the rise because of the recent surge of Mainland Chinese immigrants.

Singapore and Malaysia are the two countries outside of Mainland China where Simplified Chinese is the official standard. And the United Nations made Simplified Chinese one of its working languages in 1973.

The problem with Simplified and Traditional Chinese conversion

I have seen cases where the Simplified Chinese translation gets created first and then a program is used to convert it into Traditional Chinese, or vice versa. Or at times, a Simplified Chinese translator might use the Traditional Chinese input system to produce a supposedly Traditional Chinese translation.

This approach can be problematic because it ignores the nuances that distinguish Simplified and Traditional Chinese. Two issues may arise when the conversion solely relies on technology with no thoughtful oversight from translators who have actually studied the alternative writing system:

First, in many cases, the same Simplified Chinese character corresponds to different Traditional Chinese characters in different words. For example, in the words "interfere" (干涉/干涉), "officer" (干部/幹部), and "dry" (干燥/乾燥), the Simplified Chinese character 干 remains the same, but its Traditional counterparts are actually 干, 幹, and 乾 respectively. While the technology is getting smarter, I would strongly advise against presenting a raw converted copy for publication or tasking someone only educated in Simplified Chinese to produce Traditional Chinese translations.

Second, even if the conversion/input accuracy could be guaranteed, another aspect of the problem can't be fixed by machines: style. Treating Simplified and Traditional Chinese as only differing in their strokes is like thinking British and American English only differ in their spellings. But there's more to it than that. A language grows in the particular soil it's planted in, absorbing and reflecting the local history, culture, dialects, social trends, and even political climate. Even people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who both use Traditional Chinese, have different expressions and vocabulary. We'll explore this further in the next section.

As a content consumer myself, I cringe when I see a supposedly Simplified Chinese translation with random Traditional Chinese characters or expressions sprinkled throughout. I'm sure Traditional Chinese readers share the same frustration when the scenario is flipped. And such a negative reaction is definitely something you don't want from your audience!

But don't get me wrong. I'm all for using technology when it makes our lives easier. In this case, it's admittedly cost-effective to convert a translation. But if this is the route you're going with, please make sure to bring in someone who's actually educated or conversant in the alternate writing system to do a round of edits. For example, if your text has already been translated into Simplified Chinese, you may convert it and have someone who actually knows Traditional Chinese to correct the wrongly converted characters and rephrase some of the content to better suit the target audience.

Of course, it's highly advisable to commission separate translations if you're reaching a broad spectrum of Chinese readers. And I'm a strong advocate for Simplified and Traditional Chinese translators to stay in their own lane unless they're partnered up for quality assurance.

How are Mandarin and Cantonese related to Simplified and Traditional Chinese?

A common misconception is equating Mandarin with Simplified Chinese and Cantonese with Traditional Chinese.

An easy trick for you to differentiate these as a client is to remember this: Simplified and Traditional are about how characters are written, and Mandarin and Cantonese are two mutually unintelligible Chinese languages when spoken. That's why for translation (of written words), the request will be Simplified and/or Traditional Chinese, and for interpretation (of spoken words), the options are Mandarin and Cantonese.

Mandarin is the official language in Mainland China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages of Singapore. Cantonese is a language spoken mainly in Guangdong (or Canton, hence the name!) and southern Guangxi provinces in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, and many Chinese communities overseas.

Now here's where things get interesting. Cantonese, like other variants under the Chinese language umbrella, can be written in both formal and vernacular styles. The former is very similar to Mandarin, or standard Chinese if you will, but the vernacular style of Cantonese has its own unique characters, grammar, and vocabulary. In other words, Mandarin speakers can understand formal publications and official documents in Cantonese-speaking regions, but will be very confused in an online chat room.

In short, unless you're specifically targeting Cantonese speakers such as those in Hong Kong and Macao, Cantonese is not a conventional target language in Chinese document translation. Instead, translation projects are divided into Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese depending on the target audience.

What about Traditional Chinese (Hong Kong) vs. Traditional Chinese (Taiwan)?

While people of Hong Kong and Taiwan both write in traditional Chinese, they're thinking in different languages--Cantonese and Mandarin respectively--when they do so. And these two languages also evolve in their own ways and have different vocabulary, style, and slang terms.

That's why the localization teams set up by big companies like Apple or major movie studios offer three types of Chinese translations: Simplified Chinese (Mainland China), Traditional Chinese (Hong Kong), and Traditional Chinese (Taiwan). If you're producing highly targeted marketing materials tailored to a particular region, then it'd definitely be wise to do the same.

But for regular document translation needs, Traditional Chinese is treated as one unit because Mandarin-speaking and Cantonese-speaking readers are able to understand each other's written texts. They can tell a certain phrase or term is not exactly local to their environment, but the informational purpose of the translation can be effectively fulfilled.

So how should I go about having my text translated into Chinese?

The most important thing you need to decide is who you'd like to reach by having your text translated into Chinese. If those people are in a specific region, then render your document into what the local population uses: Simplified Chinese for Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia; Traditional Chinese for Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao; and both for overseas Chinese communities.

Additionally, if you're a brand that wants to target each of the regions specifically, then you'll want to hire translators from corresponding locales to produce copies that truly resonate with each consumer group. Or at the very least, you may consider localization into Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese (Hong Kong), and Traditional Chinese (Taiwan).

For regular document translation, the easiest way to go about this is to commission both Simplified and Traditional Chinese, so you cover all your bases in Chinese readership.

Ready to get your translation started?

Hi, I'm Sijin, and I'm a Simplified Chinese translator certified by the American Translators Association with seven years of professional experience. Born and raised in Mainland China, I would love to help you with your Simplified Chinese needs. I can also partner up with or refer you to my colleagues from various backgrounds to fulfill your other Chinese translation needs. Get in touch today, and I look forward to amplifying your message.


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