Chinese: Why you can’t translate into Mandarin

Understanding How Politics Divides the Chinese Markets

Why You Can’t Translate into Mandarin

Unlike alphabetic languages whose letters represent distinct sounds, Chinese is written in characters. Foreigners must learn the writing, the meaning and the pronunciation of each character individually.

Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukienese, Shanghaiese and hundreds of other dialects are spoken pronunciations of individual characters. Each dialect can sound like a distinct language, and when interpreting – rendering spoken communication — the requested dialect, not just “Chinese”, must be specified.

Before and after World War II, China was wracked by many years of civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists.

  • The Communists won the civil war on the Mainland and declared the People’s Republic on October 1st 1949.
  • The Nationalists fled to the offshore island of Taiwan, ostensibly to regroup and re-invade. They have remained there as a separate government ever since.

In the 1950s, the Mainland Communists started to simplify many complex written characters to improve literacy. Therefore, these Simplified characters are used for translating, which is written communication, for Mainland markets (and Singapore).

Outside of China, Traditional characters are commonly used in Taiwan, Hong Kong (which, as a “special region” of China is now transitioning to Simplified usage), and among Chinese in the US. Traditional also has its own distinct grammar and vocabulary.

Documentation and websites for all Chinese markets must therefore be written in both Simplified and Traditional characters to avoid offending either government and to ensure readability.

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