The Chinese (Non-)Conundrum

Almost daily, Tembua receives requests for translation into Chinese. There are two questions we always ask:

  1. Do you need Simplified or Traditional Chinese?

Written Chinese originated during the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. Each written character represents a word or a unit of meaning called a morpheme. This is an important piece of information for Westerners, whose languages use alphabets from which words can be spelled phonetically. This is not the case with Chinese. An educated Chinese reader knows between 4,000 and 6,000 characters. Even a simple newspaper requires knowledge of roughly 3,000 characters.

Traditional Chinese

The Traditional writing system comes from forms used during the Han dynasty, 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., and is used in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and in other Chinese-speaking groups outside China. Before increased immigration from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Traditional Chinese was the language produced for immigrant communities in the U.S. Today, we need to define our audience more clearly to identify the Chinese system they need. Traditional Chinese can be very complex, each character having many strokes.

Simplified Chinese

After the revolution in 1949, the new Chinese government determined that the writing system should be revised to improve education and commerce. They simplified many of the Traditional characters. Today, this writing system is referred to as Simplified Chinese and is used not only in the PRC but also in Singapore and Malaysia.

At the beginning of a project, Tembua asks where the translation will be used. What group will be reading it? Knowing that, we can assign the appropriate translation team.

The use of Simplified versus Traditional Chinese also comes with overtones for government officials traveling. It is important to ask the right questions.

  1. Do you need the translation localized for Mandarin or Cantonese?

Oral Chinese is a very old language, reaching back at least 3,000 years. Through the centuries, regions developed often mutually unintelligible oral versions. Today, no one knows exactly how many versions exist. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most common, Mandarin accounting for over 70 percent of speakers in the PRC.

The speakers of these variants may not be able to understand each other, but they can communicate in writing. The reason is that Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers assign the same meaning to a character, but different pronunciations. The two groups also have some differences in vocabulary usage.

As a project begins, Tembua asks if the Simplified or Traditional Chinese needs to be localized—specially revised—for either Mandarin or Cantonese speakers.


We also need this information when assigning interpreters. Will the linguist be working with Mandarin or Cantonese speakers? Where are they from? If both versions are involved, we may assign two interpreters.

We hope you’ll contact Tembua with questions about Chinese! Even if translation is not needed right now, we’d love to talk to you about languages!


About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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