The Value of Creating Original Content vs. Translation vs. Transcreation
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Understanding the differences between the two character sets can help you choose for your next localization project.
Understanding the differences between traditional and simplified Chinese can help you choose for your next localization project. It’s no exaggeration to say the market of Chinese-speaking people is massive; there are over 980 million in mainland China alone. Hong Kong and Taiwan add another 19 million Chinese-speaking prospects, and substantial numbers of Chinese-speaking communities can be found in Southeast Asia as well. So, if you have a product or service targeting this market, translating and localizing it into Chinese is imperative. But that’s where the confusion often starts as there are two major verbal dialects and two major written character sets to mix and match depending on the market. Confused? Let’s break the challenge down into its parts:
Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most common verbal Chinese dialects. But that doesn’t automatically dictate which character set will be used in your translation project. The table below solves the riddle so you can answer the question: “Is Mandarin traditional or simplified?” or “Is Cantonese traditional Chinese?” with confidence (though that last question has a bit of an exception we’ll reveal at the end of this article).
In mainland China and Singapore, Mandarin is the spoken language and people use Simplified Chinese (SC) when they write. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the predominant dialect while people write in Traditional Chinese (TC). The exception is Taiwan where people speak Mandarin and write in Traditional Chinese.
The reasons behind this linguistic riddle require a quick history lesson.
When did Simplified Chinese start? It was established in 1949 when the communist regime in mainland China took power. A relatively modern form of text, SC, was created to encourage literacy. The complex traditional writing was simplified to use fewer strokes for complex characters. Some characters were replaced altogether to motivate more people to learn how to write.
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 were already widely used).
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 SC.
In the beginning, the differences between traditional and simplified Chinese only concerned 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. In addition, the political and physical distance between the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan has also caused variations in style and vocabulary, like those between British and US English.
The translation of lunch box in SC uses two characters, 盒饭, which literally translates to “boxed food.” The TC, 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”.
Because these two-character sets continue to diverge in vocabulary, translating from SC into TC or vice versa is not as easy a task as it might seem.
A simple machine translation won’t produce acceptable results because this challenge requires a well-versed translator to notice certain unique terms and linguistic contexts and correct all the potential mistakes a character-for-character translation will cause.
In fact, even in a document with Traditional characters perfectly converted from Simplified ones, a native speaker from Taiwan or Hong Kong will be able to tell the document was just converted and not properly localized.
In the end, the choice of Simplified and Traditional character sets comes down to the geographic location of your target audience:
There are two interesting quirks in this equation:
If you find all this information is a bit overwhelming, remember, you don’t have to tackle this challenge alone. Contact us today – we’re happy to apply our Chinese translation expertise to your localization challenge.
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