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Traditional or Simplified Chinese?

Which should we use: Traditional or Simplified Chinese?

We are often asked to explain the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese, and when each should be used. Mostly, clients want to know which is the most appropriate to use. The short answer is: use Simplified Chinese for mainland China (PRC), Malaysia and Singapore, and use Traditional Chinese for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Areas that use the traditional characters tend to use them exclusively. However in mainland China, where Simplified is the norm, traditional characters are still used in certain contexts — such as very formal business or professional texts (contracts, Government statutes, etc). That said, most Chinese-speakers in mainland China would find a text in Traditional Chinese uncomfortable, and possibly confusing, to read.

Find out more: What is Chinese?

What we should really be asking

However, it gets much more interesting than this. In the first place, it’s not really the right question! The question should really be “should we use the traditional or simplified script?”. Since it’s not the language which changes, but the characters used.

There are three distinct Chinese written languages:

  • Traditional Chinese for Taiwan
  • Traditional Chinese for Hong Kong SAR
  • Simplified Chinese for mainland China (PRC)

Chinese is one of the world’s oldest and most complicated languages. The characters evolved, quite slowly, over several thousand years. There are over 50,000 Chinese characters, and 20,000 words in use. For most people though, around 3,000 characters are commonly used, plus 6,000 that are used in literature and technical writings. Each character represents a word or a concept—or in some cases, several words or concepts.

In 1947 the Chinese government decided to simplify a couple of thousand of the most commonly used characters. Primarily, they reduced the number of strokes needed to write them. The goal was to improve literacy by making reading and writing more accessible to a largely illiterate population.

The simplification was carried out by Chinese linguists in conjunction with the government. In 1949, this system was officially adopted and is now the standard writing system for the mainland population. (Singapore accepted the simplified script, but Taiwan and Hong Kong rejected it and continued to use the traditional versions of the characters.) This simplification was achieved in two ways:

  • Reduced number of strokes: Simplified Chinese uses fewer strokes than Traditional, making it quicker and easier to write. So, the character for ‘leaf’ in simplified Chinese is 叶 — which is considerably less ornate than the Traditional version, 葉. Where the traditional character is simple, it has not been changed. For example, the character for ‘person’ 人 is the same in both writing styles.
  • Merging characters: Each character in Simplified Chinese represents one or more traditional characters. Readers understand which, via the context.

Language vs. script

There is some difference in style and pronunciation (consider US vs. GB English) but the language itself is not affected by this change (just as writing draught or draft in English is merely a spelling convention). However, there are some characters that are unique to Hong Kong (ie. not used in Taiwan). That said, most educated Chinese speakers can read texts written in both types of script, and in any case many characters are the same in both systems.

Does it matter if we use Traditional or Simplified Chinese?

So if the language is the same — does it matter? Can we just produce one Chinese translation and then write it out in two versions: one in traditional script and one in simplified? In principle yes, but in practice “Simplified Chinese” implies Chinese as used in the PRC and “Traditional Chinese” implies “Chinese as used in Taiwan or Hong Kong”. And these are not quite the same; just as British and US English are somewhat different. So we mostly end up with two separate translations, one for Taiwan in Traditional script and one for China in Simplified script (see Language Localisation).

So even though we started by saying the labels Traditional and Simplified refer only to the script. In fact, they end up referring simultaneously to the variants of Chinese used in these places.

In terms of market size mainland-China is clearly the most significant, however in terms of market value Hong Kong and Taiwan are worth consideration, and to make an impact in this market, you will need to communicate with your potential customers in a language they are accustomed to.

Find out more: Best Practices for Translating into Chinese

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