If you’re translating a website for Chinese-speaking audiences, it’s worth learning a lesson from one of the most-accessed websites in the world: Wikipedia. A recent New York Times article covering the subject of political and cultural debates raging on Chinese Wikipedia highlighted the complex language and localization issues companies face when Chinese is their target language.
When Chinese Wikipedia debuted in 2002, the site offered dual-versions of content using two different writing systems. A merge between the two versions backfired when linguistic differences caused strife between users. The site now uses language conversion software to permit users to choose their preferred version of Chinese.
Wikipedia affords us a great lesson in the complexities of Chinese. While English doesn’t make a distinction between spoken and written versions, Chinese languages do, and Mandarin can be written in either Simplified or Traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese began in the 1950s in Mainland China as a movement to make the language easier to read by reducing the number of strokes in traditional Chinese characters. Users in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia primarily utilize simplified Chinese. In Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, traditional Chinese tends to be the preference (with Taiwan’s government identifying traditional Chinese as “orthodox”).
In terms of spoken Chinese, there are many “dialects” (a term which some linguists argue doesn’t go far enough to delineate how different these spoken varieties can be). Depending on your business’ geographic focus in China, you may need to translate audio components of your site into one or more spoken versions.
Choosing the right version is a regional choice. Mandarin is the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China and is the largest in China (estimated 1.3 billion speakers), common in Northern and Southwestern China. Wu (90 million) is common in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai. Yue, also commonly known as “Cantonese” is spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau, parts of Southeast Asia (70 million). Min is prevalent in Fujian, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, (especially Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore). Xiang, also known as “Hunanese” dominates in Hunan, with new Hunanese heavily influenced by Mandarin. Hakka is spoken across southern China, Taiwan, and regions of Southeast Asia as well. Similar to Hakka is Gan, spoken in Jiangxi. (It helps if you have a map!)
Effectively translating your business communications for Chinese customers means selecting the right written and spoken forms for your target audience. While you may not be navigating controversial historical and political topics, there’s plenty of complexity to keep you entertained!