Chinese Translation & Localization: How to Choose the Right Chinese Dialect
Translating Chinese and diving into Chinese localization can be a complex task. For those unfamiliar with the Chinese language, it is often unclear which Chinese dialect to translate into for your target audience. Let’s discuss the different dialects, where and when they are used, and how to decide which is best when translating to Chinese. Plus, we’ll give a few helpful tips for those interested in localization for the Chinese market.
How many Chinese dialects are there?
When discussing Chinese dialects, it’s important to first understand there are multiple spoken Chinese and written Chinese dialects, which vary throughout China and other Chinese-speaking countries and regions like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Unlike other languages with different dialects, like American and British English, or Latin American and Castilian Spanish, Chinese speakers who don’t speak the same Chinese dialect will often be completely unable to understand each other.
Mandarin is the main dialect spoken in China, and the type of Mandarin used there is often referred to as simplified Chinese, as it uses a simplified version of the traditional Chinese characters. When you see written Chinese used outside of China, it is likely Mandarin, and most people without intimate knowledge of the language are referring to Mandarin when they talk about the Chinese language. Cantonese, on the other hand, is a widely spoken dialect of spoken Chinese, used in everyday conversation but not written due to its traditional, more complicated characters. In addition to these main Chinese dialects, smaller regional dialects used throughout Chinese include Min, Hakka, and Wu (which is sometimes referred to as Shanghaiese).
Of course, Chinese is one of the most spoken languages in the world, with roughly 1.3 billion native speakers, many of whom are located outside of China. There are Chinese-speaking communities throughout the world, but it’s an official language in many Asian countries and territories, including Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Singapore.
In Singapore, they use the same simplified, or standard, Mandarin Chinese that is spoken in mainland China. In Hong Kong and Macau, the population speaks Cantonese. In Taiwan, they speak Mandarin. All of these countries and regions, however, write in traditional Chinese. But despite sharing a written language, written expressions vary between these regions – much like you might imagine Spanish expressions varying slightly between Spain and Mexico.
Of course, the full picture is more complicated than this, and there are so many lesser-used dialects, specific characters, and other aspects of the language that differ between Chinese-speaking regions, but this overview will help you answer the following question:
Which Chinese dialect should I translate to?
As you may have guessed, the answer to this question depends on your target audience. By far the most common dialect chosen for translation is the simplified form of Chinese that people in Mainland China will be able to read and understand. For companies looking to break into the Chinese market, this is the language you should choose when translating your website, marketing materials, product descriptions, legal translation contracts, and other assets. The same goes for if you are translating any personal documents for use in Mainland China, like identification for a visa, recruitment ads for babysitters and cleaners, or even love letters (yes, we’ve translated these!). Of course, in personal translations, there may be exceptional cases in which you will need to use a rarer regional dialect, but for business purposes simplified Chinese should be your go-to translation choice.
If you’re looking to do business in Taiwan or Hong Kong, however, it’s best to go with traditional Chinese. As previously mentioned, those who use traditional and simplified Chinese essentially speak two different languages, so it’s important to pick the right one depending on your target market and audience. While Cantonese is the main spoken language in Hong Kong, traditional Chinese is still the way to go when it comes to most translation and localization projects for your business or personal needs. Cantonese translation would only rarely come into play for projects such as transcription, or if you are seeking a very informal, colloquial translation for a familiar audience.
Though Chinese is an official language in Singapore, and widely spoken, much of the business that takes place in the country is actually done in English, and almost everyone in the country speaks the language. So, if you’re only looking to reach the Singaporean market, it’s more important to localize your English content than to translate it.
Bonus tips for Chinese localization
China is a huge market with huge potential, making it a major target for expanding international companies. If you’re one of those, we have some bonus tips that will help you with the other aspects of localizing for China, beyond just translating to the right dialect.
1. Start with Tier 1 cities – the Chinese market is broken down into a tiered city system, with 5 tiers based on factors like GDP and population. If you want to succeed in China, go after tier 1 cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen first, followed by new tier 1 cities like Chengdu and Hangzhou, and work your way down to tier 2 and so on. Target these metropolitan areas in your marketing, make shipping available there, or open offices or physical stores in their business and shopping districts.
2. Research the potential success of your industry in China – Industries that have major potential in China include gaming, fashion, and eCommerce. In fact, China’s eCommerce sales make up 3.2% of the country’s GDP, compared to just 2.7% in the US, according to Asialink Business. With 632 million internet users, this eCommerce boom means your business can do well in China even with minimal physical presence. If your business falls in one of these areas, check out the local competition and see how you can use localization to reach a new customer base in China. If not, make sure your industry has a chance to break into this difficult market before taking the leap.
3. Utilize the right social media and localize SEO – Maybe you’ve translated your ads, website, and product descriptions to the right dialect of Chinese, but how do you make sure your brand and messaging reach your Chinese-speaking audience? If you’re targeting Hong Kong or Taiwan, your localization will be made much easier due to the fact that websites and apps restricted in mainland China are available for use there. If you’re targeting consumers in China, however, you can forget about Facebook, Google, YouTube, and most other sites used by the Western world. Baidu is the most popular search engine in China, so you’ll need to set up your Chinese ads there, plus do local keyword research to improve your SEO and rank on the Baidu SERPs. It’s also important to adjust your content to make sure you avoid being restricted by the Chinese authorities for using “forbidden words”.
As for social media, WeChat is the place to be if you want to gain a following and attract customers in China. What is WeChat? Think a Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Paypal, Zoom, gaming hybrid. Chinese users can do everything on this platform, so you’re going to want to build a presence there. Weibo is the country’s second-largest social media platform, similar to Twitter, but without a character limit. And, of course, Tik Tok, known as Douyin in China, is all the rage these days. Make sure to not only translate and localize all your social media content for your Chinese audience but make sure it’s visible where they can actually see it.
Think you’re ready to take on the Chinese market?
It’s a big task, but one that could have a major payoff if done right. BLEND’s native Chinese experts can help you translate and localize all aspects of your business to appeal to local audiences in China and Chinese-speaking regions.