The Differences Between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese: Which Should You Use?

11 Jul

A frequently asked question I get: Do we use Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese and what’s the difference? How do I know which to choose for my Chinese project?

See answer in this excellent article below by Janet Yang!

The Differences Between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese: Which Should You Use?

Your business knows it needs to translate and localize content into Chinese, but at this point you have a lot of questions. Should it be Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese? What’s the difference? How do these character differences relate to regional Chinese forms? Does the content type (text, video, etc) matter when choosing which to use? Here we’ll give a brief overview of what the differences are between these two character sets and what to consider when translating your own content.

Simplified Chinese (SC)
Today this set of Chinese characters is used in mainland China and by people of Chinese origin in Singapore. A relatively modern form of text, Simplified Chinese (SC) was created as a way to encourage literacy and was made official with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The characters have fewer strokes than Traditional Chinese (TC).

Although SC is simple, it continues to evolve. Even as recently as 2013, the Chinese government released an official List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters. This list contained 45 newly recognized standard characters (previously considered variant forms) and 226 characters simplified by analogy (most of which already were widely used).

Traditional Chinese (TC)
This character set is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. As its name implies, this is a more traditional version of Chinese that has been written by people for thousands of years. The characters often have more strokes than in Simplified Chinese.

The Differences

At the beginning, the differences between these two writing methods only had to do with stroke types. However, new words and concepts that have developed since the 1950s (including words like internet and software) have different forms in SC and TC. Distance (both political and physical) between the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan has also caused variations in style and vocabulary, similar to those between British and US English.

For example:

The translation of lunch box in Simplified Chinese uses two characters, 盒饭, which literally mean “boxed food”. The Traditional Chinese, on the other hand, is influenced by Japanese and uses transliteration to create this word as 便當, which sounds the same as the Japanese word, “Bento”.

Which Chinese For Your Translation?

You first need to know your audience: are they from Mainland China (SC) or Taiwan and Hong Kong (TC)? Trying to simply switch a translation from one into the other won’t work because of changes in terms and even grammar.

When people request Chinese translations, it’s very common to confuse the terms “Mandarin” and “Cantonese”. Mistakenly, Mandarin is used as a way to refer to SC and Cantonese for TC. But Mandarin and Cantonese refer to different spoken dialects within Chinese, not the kinds of characters used. Taiwanese and Mainlanders are both native speakers of Mandarin while Cantonese native speakers can often read both Simplified and Traditional Chinese without any problems, depending on where they are from.

One important exception is when someone is actually requesting “Cantonese” or “Hong Kong nese” instead of Traditional Chinese from Taiwan. This is possible because Hong Kong does have its own written style, widely used on TV, movie captions and even in some newspapers. In this written style, some special characters are created for Cantonese only. It is not a formal written style which would be used in important documents or serious magazines or newspapers. But if you request a subtitling service for a less formal video, carefully consider if your target audience is Hong Kong and if it will be worth it to make the subtitles “Cantonese” specific.

Want to start your own journey to “translate your business” to the booming Chinese marketplace? Contact us today.

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