“Simplified” vs. “Traditional” Chinese Translation

Chinese has undoubtedly become one of the most popular languages for translation and localization over the past two decades owing to the dramatic growth of the Chinese economy, including the now more than 800 million Internet users in China with more disposable income to spend, and an e-commerce market expected to grow to $1.8 trillion by 2022. Not to mention, with the more than 2.8 million Chinese speakers in the United States – which represents the third most spoken language in the country (after English and Spanish) – Chinese translation, interpretation, and localization services have become even more vital.

While nowadays there is certainly no shortage of skilled translators available to complete a Chinese localization or written translation project of even the most complex scope or technical subject matter, one simple question from your language service provider (LSP) can quickly put the brakes on your momentum: “Do you need ‘Simplified’ or ‘Traditional’ Chinese?”

Being a well-traveled and world-wise person, you might be quick to answer, “I need Mandarin Chinese!” Unfortunately, although a valiant effort, that would be an incorrect answer. Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien (Taiwanese), or any other of the hundreds of Chinese dialects (or “topolects,” to be more accurate) refer only to the spoken language, not the written language. For written translation or localization in Chinese, the only two options are “Simplified” or “Traditional.” Now, that being the case, which one should you choose?

The answer begins with the beginning of the written Chinese language itself, traced back to the earliest inscriptions made on oracle bones in the 13th century BCE during the Shang Dynasty. Originally, Chinese characters were pictographs or ideographs, very roughly corresponding to the object or concept that they represented.

Over the millennia, Chinese characters have evolved into a highly complex writing system, and Chinese remains the sole example of this particular type of written language. Chinese characters (hanzi) are neither an alphabet or a syllabary. Rather, a character corresponds to a syllable of spoken Chinese and may be a word on its own or combined with other characters to form multi-syllabic words. While tens of thousands of individual Chinese characters are thought to exist, a typical educated Chinese knows roughly 4,000 characters, and a newspaper can usually be read by knowing approximately 2,000 characters.

“Traditional” Chinese characters refer to the form of the script used for centuries, up until the 1950s and 1960s when the government in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) undertook a massive effort to simplify the often complex characters to promote greater literacy and education among the population. The simplification of the characters involved reducing the number of strokes in each character and simplifying the forms. While the effect on improving literacy is still debatable, the trend caught on, and the new “Simplified” script was also adopted in Singapore and Malaysia, where there are also large communities of Chinese and where Chinese is also an official language in the case of Singapore.

However, in Taiwan (Republic of China), Hong Kong, and Macau, where the local governments and population were staunchly opposed to any influence from Mainland China, the “Traditional” script continued to be used and is largely still used to this day. Therefore, if you know your international target audience, you can safely determine which style of script that you need. Mainland China or Singapore = “Simplified” Chinese, and Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau = “Traditional Chinese.” Simple enough, right?

Not so fast! If you are translating for a Chinese audience in North America, Europe, or Australia, which form of the script should you use? Unfortunately, that answer is a bit more complicated. While the majority of Chinese immigrants until near the end of the 20th century originated from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and “Traditional” Chinese therefore became the de facto standard, rapidly increasing immigration from Mainland China has radically changed the demographics of the overseas Chinese community.

So, to safely determine which is most appropriate for your project, you will need to obtain more specific demographic information about your target audience, or translate into both versions. Just be aware that for the latter option, there are no reliable conversion programs to easily switch between “Traditional” and “Simplified” Chinese, so you will most often require two separate translations.