Chinese Translations

None of us can afford to ignore China as a major new world power, but how much do you really know about its languages? 

Dr Cheng Ma explains the basics:

People, including language professionals who haven’t learned Chinese, are often confused by the variety of terms referring to the Chinese language. This short article aims to demystify these differences.

In its written form, the biggest difference perhaps lies between the so-called ‘Simplified Chinese’ and ‘Traditional Chinese’.

Simplified Chinese is used by 1.3 billion people in China. The term ‘simplification’ refers to the reduction of the number of strokes of a character only; the structure or the grammar of the language cannot be and has not been simplified. In other words, Simplified characters have fewer strokes than Traditional characters. The process of simplification of Chinese characters started in the People’s Republic of China (Mainland China) in the early 1950s in a drive to eliminate illiteracy.

Traditional Chinese (using traditional characters with no simplification) is the written form of Chinese used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and some other overseas Chinese communities including the UK.

Both Simplified and Traditional are standard Chinese in terms of grammar and structure, but there are some distinct regional variations in terms of vocabulary. Their computer font encoding systems are also quite different. Spoken Chinese, on the other hand, often distinguishes between Mandarin and Cantonese, which are mutually unintelligible.

Mandarin is the official spoken form of Chinese used in the whole of the People’s Republic of China and in Taiwan. For language practitioners, Mandarin is only relevant in an interpreting setting, as it describes the language in its spoken form.
Cantonese is the official spoken Chinese used in Hong Kong and in some other overseas Chinese communities including the UK. The term Cantonese is only relevant when it comes to interpreting work involving audiences from Hong Kong or ethnic Chinese residents in the UK. This is because early migrants to Western Europe were mainly from Hong Kong and Southern China’s coastal region of Canton (Guangdong Province).

Changing times
In recent years, with the booming Chinese economy bringing increasing numbers of students from China to study in the West, the dominance of Cantonese in the UK and other EU countries is in decline.

In the last fifty years or so, people in mainland China have grown unfamiliar with many of the traditional Chinese characters. Likewise, many people in Hong Kong or Taiwan – including older-generation Chinese immigrants living in the UK or other Western countries – cannot read Simplified Chinese characters. Job providers or translation project managers looking for freelance Chinese translators need to tell them whether the target language should be in Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese rather than simply specifying the target language as ‘Mandarin’ or ‘Cantonese’.

Alternatively, translators will be able to decide the correct form and whether they can handle the subtlety of linguistic variations if they are told where the translated documents are going to be used.

For language practitioners, Mandarin and Cantonese are only relevant in an interpreting setting, as they describe the Chinese language in its spoken form”


Examples showing how traditional characters are simplified:


Traditional Chinese

Simplified Chinese




Joy and Fun









The table below summarizes which country/region uses which form(s) of Chinese:

Country / Region





Simplified Chinese



Traditional Chinese

Hong Kong


Traditional Chinese



Simplified Chinese

*Referring to the linguistic forms used by ethnic Chinese communities in those countries.

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