With around 1.3 billion native speakers, Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. Did you know that one quarter of the world’s population speaks Chinese? That’s why this language is important for any company seeking an international presence.
Chinese is considered a “hard” or complex language and its translation can entail considerable difficulties. When a client requests a translation from or into Chinese, the first question we ask is, “Who is the translation for?” and specifically, “Where is the target audience located?” These questions are the result of the differences between simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese.
Simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese: written language
The Latin alphabet is comprised of 26 letters that enable a complete terminological vocabulary to be formed. Conversely, Chinese is made up of tens of thousands of characters (or logograms) which are used to write words composed of a single or several characters.
There are currently two different writing systems for the Chinese language: traditional and simplified. Traditional Chinese continues to use the old characters that have been used for thousands of years, whereas simplified Chinese (as implied by its name) is made up of simplified versions of those traditional characters.
When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the government set out to increase the population’s literacy rate which, at that time, was around 20%. The decision was therefore made to simplify the writing system, and it was at that point when the writing system known today as simplified Chinese emerged.
Approximately 2,000 characters were modified, primarily reducing the number of strokes and combining several characters in one. During the 50s and 60s, simplified Chinese was adopted in China, Malaysia and Singapore, while the traditional writing system continued to be used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.
Main differences between simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese
Structure of the characters
Simplified Chinese characters have less strokes than their traditional counterparts and therefore their structure is simpler and less detailed.
Number of characters
With the creation of simplified Chinese, some traditional characters were combined into one, and consequently it has fewer characters. Traditional Chinese uses the same character
to express one word or part of a word; simplified Chinese, on the other hand, can use the same character to represent multiple words or concepts.
Simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese differ in terms of punctuation. Simplified Chinese uses the quotation marks “…” and ‘…’. Traditional Chinese, however, uses the symbols 「…」 and 『…』 as single and double quotation marks.
Most texts in simplified Chinese are read horizontally and readers in China are used to this orientation. However, traditional Chinese can be written and read either horizontally or vertically and can even appear in both directions in a single text.
Traditional Chinese of simplified Chinese: which language should I translate into?
When deciding which language to translate texts into, the first thing we must consider is where the readers are located:
If the texts are aimed at speakers from mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia or international organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank, the translation must be into simplified Chinese.
If, on the other hand, the translations are directed at readers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and traditional immigrant communities, we must use traditional Chinese.
We must also remember that traditional Chinese has evolved in countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, acquiring specific characteristics in each country. Although the written form is intelligible to both countries, it takes more effort for someone from Taiwan to read a text written by someone from Hong Kong, and vice versa.
Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese: spoken language
Up until now we’ve seen that when we talk about simplified and traditional Chinese, we are referring to the written language; however, there are also differences in the spoken language.
Due to the sheer size and geographical and cultural diversity of the country, China is home to many dialects and spoken languages. The most common are Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, which are the two variants spoken all around the world.
Cantonese is believed to have emerged after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D., while Mandarin appeared in the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century. In 1912, China named Mandarin Chinese its official language and it still is today. In fact, Mandarin Chinese is the only common dialect among the global Chinese population.
So, if you need to translate a document from or into Chinese, you need to consider where your texts and documents are going to be used in order to determine whether the translation should be into simplified Chinese or traditional Chinese, which differ in the complexity of the written characters.