Chinese Translation Guide

Chinese Translation Guide

Simplified character sets, Traditional character sets, Cantonese dialect, Mandarin dialect...

Will someone please explain what this all means and why this is important when selecting the kind of Chinese translation I will need?

Just like English, with its British, US, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and numerous other variants, Chinese, spoken by well more than a billion people worldwide, has its own set of intricacies and variations. All of these must be considered when selecting translation formats and styles.

Chinese dialects and character sets

Most translation companies will simply classify the translation as "Cantonese dialect" or "Mandarin dialect". This is an oversimplification, which can lead to the wrong style and format being chosen.

Written Chinese, as it is a pictographic language - each character or "letter" of the language depicts a word rather than a sound, - is essentially the same for all readers. However, in the 1950s China instituted an overhaul of the language, creating a simplified character set and making the use of the simplified set mandatory throughout the country. Singapore adopted the simplified system in the 1980s. What this means is that there are now two characters sets, Simplified, used in mainland China, Singapore, to some extent in Malaysia, and, increasingly, in the Overseas Chinese communities around the world. Traditional, used in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, all other Southeast Asian countries and, in some part (although a decreasing part), by the Overseas Chinese communities worldwide. Although it is a misnomer, most translation services have taken to calling the Simplified "Mandarin", and Traditional "Cantonese". Simplified is also referred to as GB, the technical name for the typeset encoding, while Traditional is also called BIG5.

Here is a chart of when to use simplified and when to use traditional:

Chinese Simplified
China (PRC)
Government-to-government communications of an international stature
(except when directed to Taiwan)
UN and UN agency documents

Chinese Traditional
Hong Kong
Southeast Asian countries (except Singapore)

Overseas Chinese communities**

* Note - Malaysia is the one country where no standard has been set. Three of the four major Chinese-language newspapers are typeset in Traditional, however, with Singapore next door, the use of both styles is acceptable in this market. Look closely at who are the recipients of your translated piece when choosing the character set for this country.

** Note - Although Traditional has been the standard used in the vast majority of Overseas Chinese communities, the heavy immigration of people from mainland China into these communities over the last decade is having ever increasing influence. Some state and provincial governments are starting to issue documents in both character sets or even opting for the Simplified set. If your document is destined for a Chinese audience outside of Greater China, make sure to learn which character set is being more commonly used in the community or by the demographic you are trying to reach.

Writing styles

The other factor to take into consideration when instructing or discussing the translation job with your translation service, are the writing styles of the different areas where Chinese is used. Just like English, with its British, American, Canadian, Australian and other variants, the style of written Chinese differs widely from area to area. The political separation between Hong Kong, Taiwan and China has only served to widen these differences. The writing styles are further influenced by the dialect of Chinese spoken in each area or region. When choosing a translation service, make sure that they can write in the style of the target area.

The writing styles break down into five major areas: China, Hong Kong (including Macao), Taiwan, Singapore (including Malaysia) and Overseas Chinese. The Overseas Chinese or "International" writing style is the one that is customarily used in the Chinese communities of North America and Europe - this style would be the one to adopt if translating a document issued by a US state or Canadian province government office where the readership are the Chinese-speaking residents of that state or province.

If you are not sure about the style to adopt, please allow us to help you determine the correct style based on the target audience.