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Which Chinese is the “right” Chinese?


Kit Tan

Talent Manager

Ian Gilchrist

PureFluent Roving Reporter

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August 6, 2019

Our third topic for discussion with PureFluent Talent Manager Kit Tan is one which may deceptively appear straightforward – which versions of Chinese should I translate my content in to?

Ian:If I was thinking of trying to sell my products in China, knowing that there are a number of language options including Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese, how do I decide which is right for me?

Kit:This is a really interesting question, and is a bit more complex than you might initially think.

The straightforward answer is that Simplified Chinese is your likely translation choice, because that’s the official language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has a population of 1.4 billion people – but when you dig in to this a bit deeper the answer may actually be that you want to go for more than one version of Chinese.

It’s worth outlining some of the background that will help inform the answer to this, as this isn’t just a question of which language, it’s also a question of which writing system is to be used.

While the main languages are of course Mandarin and Cantonese, there are also a lot of other Chinese dialects, but for the purposes of our discussion we’ll stick with the two biggies. Simplified Chinese is the writing system of Chinese characters that was introduced in the 20th century after the coming to power of the Communists in 1947. In two main moves the Communists introduced the change from a wide and detailed character set to a much narrower and simplified character set, which of course was all about trying to eliminate illiteracy, to make it much easier for their people to learn to read and write.

As you can imagine this is a controversial and political subject, but regardless it’s reduced the complexity of the characters one needs to learn in order to be able to read and write Mandarin Chinese; so in PRC, Mandarin is expressed in its written form with Simplified Chinese characters.

Ian:So that’s China, but how about Taiwan and Hong Kong?

Kit:Travel across the straits to Taiwan, the predominant language is still largely Mandarin Chinese, but it’s written in Traditional Chinese characters. Travelling on to Hong Kong, the main language used is Cantonese, also written using Traditional Chinese characters. Just as the same letters are used to express both French and English, Traditional Chinese characters are used to express both Cantonese and Mandarin, so there is a kind of matrix between the character set that’s used to express the language and the language itself.

There’s an awful lot of spending power with Traditional Chinese as well, so you certainly shouldn’t write it off. Just as you wouldn’t want to write off 80 million German consumers, you shouldn’t write off 60 million Cantonese consumers.

So the Chinese markets are Taiwan, Hong Kong, or PRC. But it’s actually broader than just Cantonese in Hong Kong, because there are also over 60 million speakers of Cantonese in China predominantly within Guangdong province and Singapore, where the written language is Simplified Chinese (as well as English, of course).

The biggest bang for your buck in some respects then will be to go with Simplified Chinese, which will cover most of PRC, Singapore and a significant number of overseas Chinese – but there’s an awful lot of spending power with Traditional Chinese as well, so you certainly shouldn’t write it off. Just as you wouldn’t want to write off 80 million German consumers, you shouldn’t write off 60 million Cantonese consumers inside PRC as well as many more in Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. But bear in mind that many of your Cantonese customers will also be able to read Simplified Chinese, even if it’s not their first choice.

 Population (m)GDP (US$Bn)GDP (US$) per CapitaLanguageWriting System
Guangdong1121,45913,027CantoneseTraditional Chinese
Hong Kong7.536548,667CantoneseTraditional Chinese
Taiwan23.258925,388MandarinTraditional Chinese
Singapore5.836462,759MandarinSimplified Chinese

As you can see, this is more complicated than just “which Chinese?”, as the key commercial question is to do with what market or markets you’re trying to address.

Ian:Outline for us the difference between letters and Chinese characters.

Kit:This is a fascinating subject in its own right, and people spend their academic careers studying this.

Rather like the hieroglyph system of ancient Egypt we developed our writing system using letters in the western world, but most Asian languages use characters rather than letters; the key difference is that a character on its own can express an entire word.

In old Chinese the words are mainly monosyllabic, and in modern Chinese the words are mainly bi-syllabic.

Ian:Are any Chinese words polysyllabic?

Kit:They’re just two syllables, or at least the majority of them are now, and each of those syllables is expressed as a character. If you think about this in general terms about how many letters there are versus how many characters there are, in a word that might have five, six or seven characters in English will have two characters in Chinese.

The origin of the characters is rooted in the pictogram, which is a similar concept to a hieroglyph or an ideogram which expresses an idea in a character, and the characters are rooted so far back in history that their origin can’t be easily detected, if at all.

It’s important to understand that the Chinese don’t use letters in the way that we do, they’re employing characters.

The cost of translating is typically determined by how many words have to be translated; in the case of German for example it’s sometimes determined by how many characters you have. You can have very long words in German which are a kind of concatenation of multiple elements that would be separate words in English.

So we have almost a kind of exchange rate, if you like, in terms of the volume of letters or characters between different languages. Obviously, the fact that you have a much smaller number of characters in Chinese compared to English or German is something which directly affects the cost of translations.

About the authors

Kit Tan

Coming from an engineering and research background, Kit has considerable interest in technology, fully immersing herself in the translation industry during her 3 years as Project Manager. Now focused mainly on Talent, she is keen to work with the team on exciting new challenges.

See all posts by Kit Tan
Ian Gilchrist

Ian has worked in music and home entertainment product development, marketing, and journalism in the U.S., Canada and the UK, where he currently lives, for over 30 years.

In that time he's has aided and abetted an eclectic array of artists including Alison Krauss, Talking Heads, Madeleine Peyroux and Slade, and has worked for a diverse range of labels and companies including Universal Music (Canada), Pioneer LDC (Europe), Milan Records (France), the British Film Institute (BFI), Rounder Records Group (Canada) and BMG (UK). In his guise as a film journalist Ian's interviewed many renowned and influential people, including director John Carpenter (Halloween), actors Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Tom Hardy (Venom), director Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and many more.

See all posts by Ian Gilchrist

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