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Understanding China: A Localization Perspective

Getting your head around a diverse and massive market

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Understanding China: A Localization Perspective

From an outsider’s perspective, China is often thought of as a single country. However, a localization professional knows that the Chinese language exists in a multitude of forms across many locales, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. If a localization project requires Chinese language production, it’s paramount to know the differences and approach the market from a knowledgeable perspective.

Let’s look at the nuances involved in Traditional and Simplified Chinese, with respect to mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, including a breakdown of which language applies to which area or country, and the pertinent differences in spoken vs. written Chinese.

Simplified Chinese

As the term implies, Simplified Chinese is a set of Chinese characters that have been simplified in their written form, in an effort to make the 8,000+ Chinese characters an educated Chinese speaker knows more approachable.

Simplified Chinese characters are used by the Mandarin Chinese speaking population of mainland China. This means Beijing, and the majority of mainland Chinese people, speak Mandarin and read and write Simplified Chinese characters. However, in southern China, when approaching the Hong Kong area, people speak Cantonese yet still read and write Simplified Chinese. Crossing into Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese is spoken and Traditional Chinese characters are used.

Traditional Chinese

The original and more complicated set of Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia. However, each locale has their own spoken Chinese, so in a video production, for example, the narration and subtitles would need to match their respective target market. The list below is handy as a general rule of thumb:

China: Simplified / Mandarin
Hong Kong: Traditional / Cantonese
Macau: Traditional / Cantonese
Taiwan: Traditional / Taiwanese Mandarin
Singapore: Simplified / Mandarin
Malaysia: Traditional / Mandarin

The Simplified / Mandarin pair may be best for reaching the largest number of people. However, if you want to reach people in Taiwan, Hong Kong or elsewhere, a singular Simplified / Mandarin approach will unfortunately prove ineffective.

Perspectives and Target Market

From a Western perspective, narrating a commercial for an American product in a thick British accent to be aired on American television will leave many consumers in the dark. They might be able to technically understand the content, but it won’t resonate with them culturally or personally. Airing a commercial in with Simplified Chinese text and Mandarin narration in Hong Kong would have a similar effect.

For this reason, it’s important to decide exactly who your content is targeting when localizing for the Chinese market. From a financial perspective, reaching the vast majority of Chinese speakers does require two versions of your content: Simplified / Mandarin and Traditional / Cantonese. If you’re focused on delivering quality content to Taiwan as well, a third version that uses Traditional / Taiwanese Mandarin is potentially necessary.

The next time a client asks for Chinese language production, we hope you’ll be prepared to ask them, “Which Chinese market are you targeting?” with full knowledge of the linguistic nuances the Chinese language presents.

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