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  • Writer's pictureFang Sheng

Simplified or Traditional, It's Not That Simple

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Photo by: Rod Ramsell

Simplified Chinese vs. Traditional Chinese; Mandarin vs. Cantonese – what are they and what should a client know about them?

This seems to be the most frequently asked question, ever, of a specialized English-Chinese translation service. Various kinds of misconceptions and myths exist about this unique phenomenon. Some clients, quite ironically even seasoned LSPs (language service providers), often equates Simplified Chinese with Mandarin and Traditional Chinese with Cantonese. Thus, we often get requests to translate something into Mandarin and/or into Cantonese. For an untrained eye, there’s nothing strange about this statement. But if you know the Chinese language a bit deeper, you can tell how wrong they are.

To help non-Chinese speaking clients better understand this linguistic phenomenon without being too technical, here’s my take of the issue:

The Chinese language evolves in such a unique way that there is a disconnect between its various spoken dialects and its writing system. While many different dialects are spoken in China, some being mutually unintelligible, as in the case between Mandarin and Cantonese, there is only one Chinese writing system, called characters, not alphabets. When we talk about Traditional or Simplified Chinese, we are talking about the variants of the Chinese writing system. This system transcends differences in pronunciation and unifies the culture as a whole. The so-called “Pinyin” (developed in Mainland) is only a modern-day Romanized tool to help pronounce Mandarin, not a reformed Chinese writing system in itself. Mandarin refers to the spoken dialect being used as official language in both Mainland China and Taiwan. Cantonese is the spoken Chinese dialect used as official language in Hong Kong and Macao. But when it comes to writing system, Hong Kong/Macao and Taiwan use Traditional Chinese, while Mainland China, as well as Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore and many places in Indonesia use Simplified Chinese. The table below is a summary to help map your target markets:




Mainland China


Simplified Chinese



Traditional Chinese

Hong Kong; Macao


Traditional Chinese

Singapore, Malaysia; Indonesia

Mandarin; Cantonese; Hakka; Hokkienese, etc.

Simplified Chinese

So if you have content to be translated into Chinese, I hope this chart can help you clarify which script you’d need to use.

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