Have you ever been asked to perform translation, software localization or to localize your product into Chinese? At over $12 trillion in 2017, China’s GDP is second only to the United States’, and continues to grow at a healthy pace. If you have not been asked yet and you work for a company seeking international sales, get ready – the question will soon be asked.
Chinese Scripts and Dialects
There is often confusion about Chinese scripts and dialects among non-Chinese speaking people. You’ve heard of Mandarin and Cantonese. If you are involved in technical translation services, you’ve also heard of Traditional and Simplified Chinese. This article will demystify these terms in simplified English.
Simplified and Traditional Chinese
While Mandarin and Cantonese are two spoken dialects, Simplified and Traditional Chinese are two written scripts. Unlike phonetic or alphabet-based scripts (such as Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, or English), written Chinese is a symbol-based script requiring the use of thousands of unique symbols. The written form of Chinese in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is referred to as Simplified Chinese. Singapore, and Malaysia also use the simplified script. The Traditional Chinese script is currently used on the islands of Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Mandarin and Cantonese
Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects spoken by Chinese people in the PRC, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Cantonese is the main dialect spoken in Hong Kong and in some southern parts of the PRC. Mandarin, however, is the official dialect of the PRC and Taiwan, and should be used for voice/audio recordings (such as movies or Flash).
The dialects are irrelevant to the written script. People who speak either of the dialects may read Chinese in its simplified or traditional form. This depends on where they live or come from. People from the PRC may read the simplified script, regardless of the dialect they speak. People from Taiwan and Hong Kong may read the traditional script, also regardless of the dialect they speak.
If you are interested in translating for video or audio recordings like for instance for voice-over, or translating a podcast or a multimedia presentation, then the script is not as much an issue as the dialect. Mandarin is usually the dominant dialect, but then it depends on where you want to target your localized content. Choose not only the right dialect, but also the right region for your voice talent.
Simplified Chinese Script
The PRC adopted the simplified script in the 1950’s to promote literacy by simplifying the traditional script. Prior to that, they used the traditional script, which many still can read. If you are targeting the PRC with your product today, Simplified Chinese should be the form of script used to localize your product .
Traditional Chinese Script
Taiwan, on the other hand, bans Simplified Chinese in governmental and civil publications. To be politically correct, you will need to support the traditional script if your product is to be sold on that island. The simplified script was never officially introduced or used in Taiwan, so most Taiwanese people are not familiar with it.
What About Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong, traditional Chinese characters are officially and customarily used. Even 20 years after the PRC’s takeover, textbooks, official statements, and newspapers still do not show signs of full migration to the simplified script. But the increasing influence of the PRC on Hong Kong has increased the use of simplified characters, and you now often see them in Hong Kong’s tourist areas.
If you want to target Hong Kong with your product, you should consider both the traditional and simplified scripts. In the long term, the influence that the PRC brings to the island may make Simplified Chinese the one and only official script.
Chinese in the U.S.A.
Lastly, since there is a large Chinese community in North America, many companies are now localizing their products to target this growing market. Dominance is now emerging from PRC expatriates due to their sheer number, making the simplified Chinese script the script of choice for Chinese readers in the USA and Canada. You can now understand why companies like Charles Schwab who serve only U.S. consumers have localized their websites into Simplified Chinese. This is despite the heavy regulatory requirements applied to financial institutions. If Schwab thinks that Chinese is important in the USA, every other major company should seriously consider the same.
What is a Double-Byte Language?
Chinese is a double-byte language. If you are entering Chinese text on a computer, each Chinese symbol will require two bytes, instead of just one as required by most other languages. This is due to the fact that the Chinese language encompasses thousands of symbols, much more than the 256 unique options that a byte allows. Note that most other languages are under 256 letters. Software applications supporting the Chinese scripts should be double-byte enabled to properly accept and display Chinese symbols. If you app is not double-byte enabled, junk characters will show instead of proper Chinese symbols.
Why Translate into Chinese?
When measuring the market opportunity of your product in Chinese, consider this. The simplified script opens market doors for you not only in mainland China (PRC), but also in Singapore, Malaysia, North America, and Hong Kong! So, the actual GDP for consumers consuming in the simplified script easily exceeds the $12 trillion figure. This makes Simplified Chinese the clear choice after English for product localization investment.
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