Chinese character sets and dialects
Many translation houses will simply refer to the task at hand as “Cantonese dialect” or “Mandarin dialect”. This is a vast oversimplification, which can lead to selection of the wrong format or style.
Chinese, in its written form, is a pictographic language – each character represents a word rather than a sound. With only a modest amount of exceptions, the characters have the same meaning for all readers, despite having a different pronunciation in each dialect. Until the founding of the People’s Republic, there was only one syllabary or character set for the written form of the language. In the late 1950s, the Chinese government undertook a reform of the written language, creating a simplified character set and making its use mandatory across the country. Singapore followed suit in 1976. As a result, there now exist two characters sets:
Simplified, used in mainland China, Singapore, to a growing extent in Malaysia, and, increasingly, across the Chinese diaspora.
Traditional, used in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as to still a significant but decreasing extent in other Southeast Asian countries with sizeable Chinese populations and by overseas Chinese communities in the rest of the world. Despite being a misnomer, many translation agencies refer to Simplified as “Mandarin” and Traditional as “Cantonese”. Simplified is also called GB, the technical name for the encoding of the typeset, while the name for Traditional in such cases is BIG5.
When to use Simplified and when to use Traditional:
- China (mainland)
- Communications between governments, especially those at an international level (except when an agency in Taiwan is the sender or the recipient of the communication)
- UN and UN agency documents
- Hong Kong
- Southeast Asian countries (other than Singapore)
- Overseas Chinese communities2
1 – No standard has been formally set in Malaysia. Among the country’s four leading Chinese newspapers, three are printed using Traditional. Yet, due to the proximity of Singapore, the use of both typesets is acceptable in this market. Check closely as to whom will be the readers of your translated content when selecting the character set for this market.
2 – Despite traditional Chinese characters having been the form adopted in most overseas Chinese communities, the pronounced immigration from mainland China into these communities over the last twenty years is having an ever growing effect. Several provincial and state governments have begun issuing their announcements and other content in both Simplified and Traditional or even switching over to only Simplified. If your text is directed at a Chinese audience outside of Greater China, determine which character set is more commonly used by the demographic you have targeted.