Two decades of solid experience in translation to Simplified and Traditional Chinese
Our twenty years of experience providing Chinese translation services to some of North America’s and Europe’s most demanding clients is testament to our commitment to high quality. Each translation is handled through our three-step translation – editing – proofreading (T-E-P) process to assure the highest quality of delivered product.
We adapt the Chinese translation to your needs, including versions suited to the local market, whether it be mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore or Chinese communities in the US, Canada, Europe or Southeast Asia. Output is provided in traditional and/or simplified characters, as the market requires. See our Chinese Translation Guide for more information on language style, adaption to local market and when to use Traditional or Simplified Chinese.
The language with the most native speakers in the world
The world is home to some 1.3 billion native speakers of Chinese, of which 918 million claim Mandarin, the official language of mainland China and Taiwan and co-official language in Singapore, as their native tongue.
Chinese is the official language in Hong Kong, China, Macao, Taiwan and Singapore and is spoken in 19 more countries as mother tongue by a part of the population.
Chinese is not one language, but rather a group of languages (also often referred to as “dialects”) that are not mutually intelligible, so that a person who speaks only Cantonese will not be able to understand one who speaks only Mandarin and vice versa. However, as all speakers of Chinese, regardless of type, share a pictographic-based writing system, they can communicate effortlessly through writing.
All the different types of Chinese originate from a common earlier language and share similarities in vocabulary, syntax and grammar such that the differences between any two types is comparable to the difference between two languages descended from Latin. Mandarin and Cantonese are said by Chinese linguistic experts to be about as different from each other as French and Italian.
Mandarin has been the official language of the country since 1782, when the capital was moved to Beijing. Yet, as recently as one hundred years ago, China’s linguistic map remained a hodgepodge of mutually unintelligible dialects. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty before the birth of modern China, Mandarin was once again voted the national language and efforts were undertaken to oblige all schools across China to conduct all classroom teaching in the variant. The effort was further intensified after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Today, although family and street life retain vibrant use of the local dialect in every city across the vast country, an overwhelming majority of the populace is fluent or highly conversant in Mandarin.
Nevertheless, for both historical reasons and due to the dialect having been deemed official in Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese remains a highly significant language or dialect that must be considered when building a marketing program or communicating with certain audiences.
The key Chinese dialects
Mandarin is spoken by about 955 million people and natively by 918 million. The variant is most widely spoken in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Cantonese (or the Yue dialect) the fourth-largest Chinese language with 70 million speakers, is the official language of Hong Kong, Macao and the lingua franca of a vast portion of Guangdong province that includes the Pearl River Delta, China’s economic powerhouse. Although it counts fewer speakers, its importance far outweighs that of the second and third most spoken dialects, the Wu and the Min, due to the dialect being the language of everyday life not only of the region’s economic capital of Hong Kong and the gambling mecca of Macau, but also of Guangdong province, the region responsible for 11% of the Chinese economy. The importance of Cantonese when your market includes Hong Kong, Macao, and, to some degree, Southern China, is that the vast majority of the population remains much more comfortable reading texts written in the style of the region. Any marketing materials destined specifically for Hong Kong or Macao must be localized for Cantonese.
The Wu and Min dialects each have about 75-80 million native speakers. The Wu dialect, is mainly spoken in the Eastern Chinese provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu as well as in Shanghai. The Min dialect’s speakers are principally clustered in Taiwan and in China’s Fujian and Hainan provinces. At variance with Cantonese speakers, the vast majority of Wu and Min speakers is fluent or at least conversational in Mandarin and is comfortable with Mandarin-styled content.
The Gan, Jin, Hakka and Xiang dialects are the next four largest, at less than 50 million native speakers each and are almost exclusively spoken in individual regions of China. There is generally no need to consider content written in the style of the region unless your program specifically targets one of these regions or groups.
Two writing systems
Until 1949, only one universal writing system existed for all Chinese dialects, in all countries and regions where Chinese was spoken. However, following the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, the government acted on a proposal that dated back to 1909 by Chinese essayist, linguist and publisher Lufei Kui suggesting that simplified characters be used in education. Two rounds of character simplifications, one in 1956 and a final one in 1964, followed by popularization of the new written form resulted in the Simplified writing system in use today in mainland China and Singapore. The traditional form remains in use in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Similarly, your translated document needs to adopt the writing system of your target market.
See our Chinese Translation Guide for guidelines on what are the appropriate writing styles in each market where your Chinese-language document is destined.
Two dialects of Chinese are either an official or co-official language in five countries and regions
Standard Mandarin, a variety of Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect, is the official national language of China and is used as a lingua franca in the country between people of different linguistic backgrounds.
There are as many as 292 living languages in China. Most, but not all of the languages are a Chinese dialect. Approximately 70% of the population speaks Mandarin natively.
The public usage of variants other than Standard Mandarin or putonghua is officially discouraged by the government while nearly all schooling and media has adopted the standard variant, with a notable exception being Cantonese in Guangdong province’s media and public transportation. As a result, members of generations Y and Z increasingly have little or no acquisition of their local dialects. Nevertheless, in recent years, there have been small yet successful efforts in reintroducing local dialects at schools and universities through cultural programs while broadcasting restrictions on dialects have been moderated to some degree.
Mandarin is the official language and is spoken by the vast majority of the island’s population. It has been the primary language used in education since the end of Japanese rule in 1945.
Traditional Chinese is used as the writing system in Taiwan. The 70% of the population belonging to the hoklo ethnic group (descendants of emigrants from the part of Fujian province directly across the strait separating Taiwan from China) speak Taiwanese Hokkien (a variant of the minanhua dialect of Fujian province) as their mother tongue, in addition to Mandarin, while members of other ethnic groups have some degree of understanding.
Although Mandarin dominates television and radio, a revival of Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka (another ethnic group originally from mainland China with their own dialect and with a strong presence in Taiwan) has been taking place, especially once restrictions on their use were eliminated in the 1990s. The two variants remain widely spoken, especially outside of Taipei, while a thriving literary scene for both variants has sprung up.
In 2002, the Taiwan Solidarity Union proposed making Taiwanese a co-official language, but this was criticized by politicians supporting a maintenance of the status quo with the mainland (the Pan-Blue Coalition) as well as by those seeking further separation (the Pan-Green Coalition) as promoting hoklo chauvinism at the expense of Hakka and the Aboriginal languages (the languages spoken by Taiwan’s earliest and first inhabitants). In December 2017, Hakka was recognized as a national minority language, allowing the variant to be used for official purposes in townships where speakers form at least half of the population.
While Singapore has four official languages, English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil, as of 2015, the last time a survey was conducted, Mandarin predominated, with 1.2 million claiming it as their mother tongue.
Nearly half a million Singaporeans speak other varieties of Chinese, mainly Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese, as their home language, although the use of these is declining in favor of Mandarin and English.
The public use of Chinese dialects other than Standard Mandarin is discouraged, as it is in China. Since the 1980s, the Singaporean government has actively promoted adoption of the standard through the Speak Mandarin Campaign and forbids any form of non-cable Chinese-language broadcasting and education in any dialect other than Mandarin. However, since the mid-1990s, some relaxation has taken place in permitting the broadcasting of Cantonese-language Hong Kong television dramas and other elements of Hong Kong culture, due to their high level of popularity.
Under the Hong Kong Basic Law, Chinese and English are co-official. However, with 88.9% of the region’s population claiming Cantonese as their native language, and 94.6% claiming proficiency in the dialect, for all practical purposes, the form of Chinese to adopt when translating for the Hong Kong market is Cantonese. Most signs throughout the region are displayed in both Traditional Chinese and English, with the styles of the signs following the Cantonese norm, including use of Chinese characters that only exist in Cantonese. Since the 1997 handover, an increase in immigration from mainland China and greater interaction with the mainland’s economy have resulted in an increase in the number of Mandarin speakers in Hong Kong.
Macau’s official languages are Cantonese and Portuguese. Macau still retains its own dialect of Portuguese, called Macanese Portuguese. Local communities of Mandarin, English and Hokkien speakers dot the region.
Chinese languages “abroad”
The importance of Chinese as part of a marketing program cannot be overestimated when conducting a comprehensive marketing campaign in certain countries with sizeable Chinese populations.
Thailand has the largest overseas Chinese community in the world, with approximately 10 million or 11-14% of the country’s population claiming Chinese ancestry. Yet, Thai Chinese are also the most integrated in the world, with the vast majority speaking only Thai and feeling themselves to be Thai.
Malaysia, though, leads in percentages, with 24.6% of the country’s total population having a Chinese origin. With the Malaysian government the only one in the world outside of the 5 regions having Chinese as an official language supporting a Mandarin Chinese-language education system, an overwhelming majority speak Chinese as a native language. The country is also home to several wide circulation Chinese-language daily newspapers. Any marketer wishing to gain full coverage of the country needs to consider translating and localizing their promotional materials into the country’s variant of Standard Mandarin.
Canada is home to a surprising number of Chinese speakers, with 1.2 million or 3.5% of the population speaking Chinese (641,000 Mandarin and 595,000 Cantonese speakers), making the two variants the third and fourth most spoken languages in the country after English and French.
The US follows with 2.9 million or 0.9% of the population. After English and Spanish, Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the country. Despite the number of speakers being less than 1% of the population, the group’s high median household income makes them an attractive target for real estate investment and other high-end offerings, and a Chinese version of the marketing materials should be seriously considered when targeting this market.
Other countries with significant Chinese-speaking populations include Vietnam (1.35 million or 1.4%), Australia (710,000 or 2.8%), New Zealand (108,000 or 2.2%) and Cambodia (511,000 or 3.1%).
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