Mind the Gap – Beware of the Differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese

A typical mistake non-Chinese natives make is mixing Chinese locales and take a one-fit-all approach when it comes to linguist selection.

Another typical mistake is taking for granted that simplified Chinese can be converted into traditional Chinese and vice versa easily in machine translation or word processing software.

Due to years of isolation, the Chinese user group has been divided into several subgroups. While most users can read Chinese, be it simplified or traditional, each subgroup advocates for their uniqueness, making it difficult to neglect the differences of the locales.

Now there are several layers of differences among the Chinese locales that marketers and technical writers need to take into account:

1. Convertible:

This is a matter of difference in their written forms. Using word processing software or machine translation tools, one locale can be converted into another. 

2. Preferential: 

While some expressions are acceptable to all subgroups, choosing the less preferred expression for a certain context can lead to loss of a large number of potential customers. Such preferences become more sensitive when voices to defend local culture are high.

 3. Semantic:

Same Chinese characters or expressions can mean different things in different locales. Sometimes they have quite opposite meanings - the worst scenario is misleading your target audience and hence damaging your brand.

With the existence of layers of differences, it is NOT OK to use one linguist to translate all, unless he/she is highly talented and continuously exposed to the nuances of all locales - such linguists, alas, rarely exists.

Neither is it OK to turn to conversion software, since they can only address the first layer of difference.

Below are a few suggestions on handling different Chinese locales:

1. Carefully identify which market you are targeting at: is it Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Singapore or a certain Chinese user group in another country?

2. Closely examine your linguists' profiles to identify their native locale; or entrust your projects to an agency which have linguistic resources for all locales, make it your requirement to use native speakers of the locales

3. Where both time and budget it limited, turn to native speakers of the target locales for adaptation if applicable, however, this is preconditioned by an accurate translation prior to adaptation

4. Refrain from converting between locales yourself.