Traditional and Simplified Chinese translation: Frequently Asked Questions

February 24, 2012

An audience of over a billion people is a big market to miss by making the wrong choice. The following is a compilation of questions and answers that will help you get a better understanding of the differences between a Traditional Chinese translation and a Simplified Chinese translation and of your options when planning your next localization project.

What is the Chinese language?

Chinese is a family of closely-related but mutually unintelligible languages. Because there has long been a single method for writing Chinese, and a common literary and cultural history, it is common to refer to the eight main varieties of speech in China as fāngyán (regional languages). Chinese varieties are as different from each other (mainly in pronunciation and vocabulary) as French or Spanish is from Italian. Each of the major varieties of Chinese has dialects. Mandarin, for instance, can be divided into northern, southern and south-western dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.

Although the major varieties of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, most people in China and Taiwan who don’t speak Mandarin as their first language can speak or at least understand it a bit. However, in Hong Kong and Macau few people speak Mandarin and they tend to use English to communicate with people from other parts of China.

What is a Traditional Chinese translation?

This is a translation into the traditional Chinese script. Today, Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong. In these places, media and official publications continue to use Traditional Chinese, not Simplified Chinese.

What is a Simplified Chinese translation?

This is a translation into the simplified Chinese script. Simplified Chinese evolved in an attempt to increase literacy amongst the general population, adopting some simplified characters using fewer strokes for characters to convey the same concepts. The simplified script is used in Mainland China and Singapore. Traditional Chinese is reserved for ceremonies and cultural purposes in these places.

We are planning an SAP translation project. Our users are in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. What Chinese language should we use when localizing our product? What are the different localization approaches?

The short answer is that you should probably translate in both traditional and simplified Chinese. Keep in mind that Traditional Chinese (CHT) and Simplified Chinese (CHS) are not completely different languages. The distinctions between them are in the glyphs, or symbolic characters, and in the vocabulary and grammar. Simplified Chinese characters are essentially simplified forms of Traditional Chinese characters. As for vocabulary, the Chinese languages in China and Taiwan have evolved independently from each other for more than 50 years. As a result, there are differences in vocabulary and grammar between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.

What are the main issues of Traditional versus Simplified Chinese regarding engineering and localization?

Two different encoding systems were developed to display Chinese characters on computers. Computer documents or websites with traditional characters use “Big 5” encoding, and simplified documents and websites use “GB” encoding. These differences in the encoding systems may create further localization issues.

I need my document translated into Mandarin and potentially into Cantonese as well. What should I do?

Unfortunately, we can’t translate into Mandarin and Cantonese since both are verbal dialects of Chinese. Below is a table detailing both the spoken and written forms used in the most important Chinese-speaking markets:

Market Spoken Written
China Mandarin Simplified Chinese
Hong Kong Cantonese Traditional Chinese
Taiwan Mandarin Traditional Chinese
Singapore Mandarin Simplified Chinese

As a result, you should translate your material primarily based on the written system that your audience uses.

We are implementing an eLearning localization project and have employees both in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since the Traditional Chinese versions used in Taiwan and Hong Kong are very similar, will one Traditional Chinese version work in both markets?

Often it is acceptable for one Traditional Chinese translation to be used in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, the recommended method is to complete the Taiwanese Traditional Chinese version first and then recreate a second, Pan Chinese version by way of phrase conversion and editing. 

How did the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese originate?

In the 1950’s, the Communist government of China began a program to “simplify” the Chinese characters that were deemed overly complicated. The government believed that by simplifying the written language, literacy rates would increase and would lead to a more educated population and to the improvement of social-economic conditions.

Today, Chinese characters are written in its simplified form in mainland China and Singapore while the traditional writing system is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities.

What are the major differences between Traditional and Simplified Chinese?

1. In Simplified Chinese Characters are simplified

English  Traditional Chinese translation Simplified Chinese translation 
Body  身體  身体
Change  變化  变化
Because  因為.  因为

2. Some vocabulary is different. Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese sometimes express the same idea in different ways.

English  Traditional Chinese translation  Simplified Chinese translation
Software  軟體  软件
Motorcycle  機車  摩托车
Policeman  警員  警察

This is particularly the case with new words or concepts that have emerged in modern times. The Chinese languages in China and Taiwan have evolved independently from each other for more than 50 years. As a result, there are differences in vocabulary and grammar between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.

Can Simplified Chinese be used when targeting the Taiwan and Hong Kong markets?


Can you automatically convert Traditional into Simplified Chinese – and vice versa?

Yes and no. While there are many tools available that automatically convert from Traditional into Simplified (and vice versa), not all characters are translated properly. As a result, you will probably need a human editor to review the material.

If you would like additional information on this topic or have questions on planning and executing your next translation or multilingual initiative, contact us today for a free 30-minute consultation or call us at (800) 413-7838.

Photo by Pedronet

One Comment on “Traditional and Simplified Chinese translation: Frequently Asked Questions”

  1. Denish Paul says:

    Thanks for sharing all this information