Language Variants and Why They Matter: CHINESE

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Traditional, Simplified or Hong Kong?

In my experience as a Project and Program manager, Chinese is probably one of the most requested languages for all service types, including HR, games, and marketing. And that is often how it is requested… “Chinese”. The problem is, China is one of the largest countries in the world, home to 18% of the world’s population, and has several spoken-only Chinese language variants that have developed a written form only as recently as the last 50 years. In this article, I’ll explore the three most requested “Chinese” variants (Traditional, Simplified, and Hong Kong) and their spoken and written origins. I will also make recommendations for which variant or variants are the best for your target audience.

Spoken Vs. Written

One of the most confusing requests that I often receive is for translation into Mandarin, a request for which I am happy to provide a quote, but the quote will necessarily be for voice-over. Let me explain. Mandarin, for the most part, is a spoken language only! While it is the most spoken Chinese language variant, like Cantonese and Taiwanese, there is no distinct written version in a traditional sense.

Instead, the most common form of writing for most Chinese language variants and thus markets is Traditional Chinese. Thought to be developed sometime at the end of the Han Dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), written Traditional Chinese is used throughout China’s regions and territories. However, by 1949 the literacy rate in China had declined to such a degree that another, more simplified form of written Chinese was developed, which, lacking a better name, is called Simplified Chinese.  

Moreover, one often hears of Cantonese, and you may wonder where it fits into this scheme. Well, this variant of Chinese, which is named after its home, Canton, the English name for Guangzhou, is in fact the variant of choice for much of Hong Kong. Cantonese once again is a spoken language, but the written form, which is frequently requested as Chinese Hong Kong, favors Traditional Chinese characters, but has its own very distinctive terminology, tone and style. In sum, often clients are just not sure what their specific needs are when they request translation into “Chinese”, but the usual range of choices, depending upon their intended target audiences, consists of Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese Hong Kong. 

In-Market Release and Strategy

Now that you know a little about the Chinese language variants, it’s time to decide which variant is the best choice for your needs. The guiding mantra in localization, as it is in real estate, is “location location location”. This speaks to what differentiates localization from mere translation, i.e., the emphasis on pitching language with sensitivity and accuracy to a particular target audience.

So, my question to you is: who is your target audience? If you are a US or global financial business, it’s more than likely you are doing business in Hong Kong. Ranked as the third best region in the world for business by Forbes in 2018, Hong Kong, despite recent political developments, is still renowned for its free market economy. If your aim is to target this audience specifically, then Chinese Hong Kong is your best choice for written Chinese. However, if your aim is to reach a broader, more regional audience, then you may also want to localize into Traditional Chinese. This way you will impress all of your potential colleagues and customers in China with your understanding of and sensitivity to their language and culture. 

On the other hand, my personal expertise is in digital/online games and entertainment (i.e., TV shows and movies) and my recommendation might be very different for these markets, in light of the particular requirements of the Chinese Government. It’s important to know that in 2018, China formed a new division of its National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) called the Online Game Ethics Committee.

Subsequently, in order to be distributed in China, a  game must be reviewed and approved by both the NRTA and the Online Game Ethics Committee, while TV shows and movies need only be approved by NRTA. In any case, all content must meet the exacting standards of cultural perspective and business development objectives imposed by the Chinese Government. What does this mean for localization?

With respect to games, it means: no depictions of gambling, corpses, undead, blood or “concubines”, just to name a few proscriptions. For example, in order to satisfy the government standards and distribute its classic role playing game in China, Blizzard Entertainment was required to remove all the iconic piles of skeletons and globs of blood from its classic roleplaying game, World of Warcraft. Another example: in 2004 Paradox Interactive’s game, Hearts of Iron, was banned in China on the grounds that the game distorted history and damaged China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by portraying Tibet as an independent country. 

That kind of insurance of cultural and political understanding may seem strange to you and me; however, in China, which has a deep cultural heritage that emphasizes its unique history and governance, the government wants to ensure that what is published conveys and reinforces its messaging.  So, you can see how important it can be that the Language Service Provider you work with to localize in China knows their language, history and culture.

Moreover, a developer wishing to distribute online games in China needs also to be aware that foreign companies are generally not allowed to directly publish or operate games of any sort in China. However, the solution is simply to partner with a suitable Chinese distributor. This partner, far from being  a dead weight middleman that you pay simply to have your content pushed into the market, should actually handle all marketing and distribution in China. So, given the added value, the cost of this partnership may not be such an unreasonable price to pay to reach China’s massive market.

So, you now know there are some things to know and discouraging hoops to jump through to get your game, movie or show released in China, but that shouldn’t stop you from localization into “Chinese”. Consider, for example, the Chinese-speaking audience in the US. Did you know that Chinese speakers represent the third largest immigrant group in the US? Many of these Chinese speakers immigrated before Simplified Chinese had been conceived. So, many write, and have taught their children to write, Traditional Chinese. On the other hand, more recent influxes of Chinese immigrants have significantly diversified the Chinese population across the country. So, to reach this vast audience and to ensure that your message is understood by all US Chinese speakers, I recommend localizing into both Traditional and Simplified Chinese! 

In this post, I’ve used the example of Chinese to illustrate the potential complexity and avoidable pitfalls of expanding into global markets. See how important it is to work with an LSP that knows its stuff? We look forward to writing more about this topic in the next part of this series; Language Variants and Why They Matter: Spanish.

Why Glyph

Preparing your document for release into another market merits consideration of a number of factors; focusing your effort on the right market is crucial. These are all things we at Glyph Language Services have a proven track record of getting right. In my own experience of targeting the Chinese market, it can be complicated, usually requiring dialogue and continual consultation in the long run. It’s worth partnering with a team that will be straightforward with you and provide up-to-date accurate market information. To learn more, please reach out to
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To our valued community,

With the inevitable measures that all businesses need to undertake to support staff and clients, I would like to provide you with an update on our operations. For over 5 years 100% of our staff have been trained and able to work remotely while still maintaining weekly office days for collaboration and team building. We have cultivated business platforms and operations that run digitally without sacrificing security, service quality or capabilities during the better part of the last decade. As of March 9th, all company operations were transferred to work-from-home with no expected change in services, capacity or staff availability.

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