The population of mainland China is close to a billion and a half now*, and millions of people in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and widespread overseas communities also speak Chinese. But this single language is represented by two different written scripts, “Traditional” Chinese, and “Simplified.” Most mainland Chinese speakers and businesses use Simplified Chinese – it is far more easily adapted to modern situations.
It can be extremely intimidating to consider trying to communicate in a language with logographic characters like Chinese. But if you want to translate and localize your business materials, website, multimedia, and apps for the Chinese market it is completely doable – the best course is probably to seek the assistance of language professionals supported by sophisticated technology and a global network of specialists. An experienced Language Service Provider like Skrivanek, for instance, offers:
- Native understanding of the main Chinese dialect, Mandarin
- Native understanding of additional Chinese dialects that may be beneficial for you to translate into
- The ability to adapt your graphics and programming for Simplified Chinese, or Traditional when necessary
- Cultural and political insight into the complexities of the Chinese culture that might affect your communication
Simplified Chinese was adopted in 1949 in order to increase literacy and facilitate communication with the outside world. It’s comprised of about 2,000 characters which are stripped-down, abstract forms of the Traditional characters, and the total number of characters is also reduced. Taught in schools and used throughout mainland China and Singapore, these characters are either commonly used abbreviations of the Traditional, portions of Traditional characters, or compacted characters that phonetically echo the originals. Some of the Simplified characters represent several different Traditional ones.
A practical and political problem with Simplified Chinese is that it is not used in Malaysia, Taiwan, Macau or Hong Kong. For this reason, as well as aesthetic and scholarly concerns, there are Chinese speakers who oppose Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese is often still chosen for communication that seeks emotional impact, such as slogans, signs, advertising, and artwork. But for most text intended for an audience in mainland China or Singapore, Simplified Chinese is the language to use. And the Mandarin dialect, spoken by the majority of Chinese, is a good place to start in creating Chinese translations.
This conflict over the use of Traditional versus Simplified is not a new issue stirred up by a more global and industrial society. In fact, simplified versions of Chinese have existed for over 2,000 years, and criticism of the complex Traditional Chinese script comprised of thousands of characters has ranged from declaring it the “writing of ox-demons and snake-gods”** to blaming it for the country’s economic problems.
Both versions have, however, been integrated into modern life, as evidenced by the development of computer encoding versions of each: GB for Simplified, and Big5 for Traditional. As it happens with languages – all of which carry forgotten histories in their forms as they morph to our needs – some of those computer-compatible characters originated in Oracle Bone Script used more than 3,000 years ago to divine answers about weather, hunting, warfare, and the best days to hold sacred ceremonies.
Look beneath the surface of any foreign language and you will find clues to the complexities of the culture of which it’s part. In addition to helping you prepare your communication for China, Skrivanek’s Chinese translation and localization teams help you navigate the features of Chinese-speaking societies that are difficult for non-natives to understand.
*2020 census: 1,411,778,724
**FuSinian, a leader of the May Fourth Movement
J. V. McShulskis