Differences Between Spoken and Written Chinese
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The term Chinese is broadly applied to many different forms of written and spoken languages and dialects. More than one billion people – one-fifth of the world’s population – speak Chinese as their first language. Whether you are doing business in China or with the increasing number of Chinese speakers around the world, it’s worth understanding a little about these languages.

China’s Spoken Languages

Spoken Chinese is actually a collection of as many as seventeen major regional languages so different from each other that speakers of one often cannot understand speakers of another. Mandarin is the most common, with a number of native speakers greater than the entire population of Europe (about 840 million native-language Mandarin speakers). Three other important languages, Wu, Min and Cantonese, each have more native speakers than the populations of Italy, France or the UK. The next three languages, Hakka, Xiang and Gan, are the first languages of more than 30 million people each. Adding to the complexity, each language has dozens of distinct regional dialects, making China home to hundreds of very different spoken languages and dialects.

Speaking Putonghua

An effort to adopt a single spoken language in China was started in the 20th century with the creation of Standard Mandarin (“Putonghua” or common language). Based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, Standard Mandarin is now the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and Singapore, and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Putonghua may be the official language of the media, education and politics, but the other local languages still thrive. Most Chinese are multilingual, switching between their local dialects for casual conversation and Putonghua for business and formal situations. These differences may be important for interpretation assignments or for voice-over recording.

Written Chinese

Translating the written language is fortunately much simpler. There are only two written forms, called Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Both are character-based writing. Either form can be universally applied to any of the spoken variants (Hong Kong and Taiwan have their own sub-classifications of Traditional Chinese, but we’ll discuss those differences another time). People from different regions of China may not understand each other when they speak, but they can read each other’s writing. In the 20th century, to increase literacy in mainland China, Simplified Chinese was created by reducing the number of strokes required for the more complicated characters, making them easier to write and memorize. Simplified Chinese is now the standard writing system for the People’s Republic of China, Singapore and Malaysia. Traditional Chinese remains the standard in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other overseas Chinese territories.

The table below illustrates some examples of the differences, with traditional forms in the first column, followed by their simplified forms, pinyin pronunciation, and English equivalents.

Implications for Localization

Although Taiwan and Hong Kong both use Traditional Chinese, their writing styles have diverged noticeably. If you are writing specifically for just one of those two areas you may wish to request that local flavor of Traditional Chinese. If, however, you’re targeting mainland China or Singapore, any qualified professional Simplified Chinese translator can provide the translation you need. Considering that the People’s Republic of China alone has over 560 million internet users (Larger than the entire US population – making it the world leader in internet users), Simplified Chinese is rapidly becoming a dominant Internet language.

Technical Tip: If your translation will appear on a website, make sure you use the correct character encoding or your Chinese will appear as a string of meaningless characters. Use Big5 encoding for Traditional Chinese and GB2312 for Simplified, or save yourself trouble and use Unicode for everything you do – it covers most known written languages.

Converting Between the Two Forms

Simplified and Traditional Chinese are known as “language variants.” Translating between Simplified and Traditional Chinese is relatively easy and inexpensive because of the strong similarities. If you need both written forms, then translate first into Simplified Chinese because it is less expensive (larger supply of translators), and have that edited into Traditional Chinese. Your overall costs will be less than if you translated directly into both. Your translation partner will know how to manage this for you.

It may seem complex at first, but a qualified translation services company will have no problem helping you accurately communicate with your Chinese-speaking market. With more than twenty percent of world’s population living within the Chinese borders, it’s a market worth addressing correctly.