Chinese Translation: What you need to know – Language spotlight series

The Chinese language is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world with approximately 1.3 billion first-language speakers. This means that Chinese translation is, well, a necessity to reach one-sixth of the world’s population. With this in mind, we’ve tapped into the expert (in our humble opinion) on the Chinese language and Chinese translation to discuss the intricacies of this prevalent language.

A quick lesson in history and geography

Just a brief look first at how the Chinese writing comes about – ideographical character evolved from pictogram many years ago: Refer to these pictograms taken from

The far right column is where today’s Simplified Chinese characters are presented in ideographical representation.

As you may know, there are variations in the Chinese writing systems and it depends on where the Chinese community is based. For example, in the region of Greater China where Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are located:

  • Mainland China uses Simplified Chinese.
  • Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan use Traditional Chinese.

Besides the Greater China region, due to early days of settlement of Chinese immigrants in the South-East Asia region, countries such as Singapore and Malaysia use Simplified Chinese for their Chinese communities.

Global connectivity influences the Chinese language and Chinese translation

With the global trend of growing business trades across the oceans, we see more and more individuals learning Mandarin as a spoken language in the South-East Asia region as well as around the world. There are also vast interests in the Chinese cultures in order to understand the mindset and behavior of their Chinese counterparts. All done in respect of each other’s cultural backgrounds and to forge deeper relationships which are vital for a strong partnership between businesses.

On a day-to-day basis, does most everyone in the Chinese communities just speak Mandarin – which is the official language – and use the writing scripts, Simplified and Traditional Chinese? Well, regarding written form, yes. Of course, it depends on where the individual is based as illustrated in the image above, as to whether Simplified or Traditional Chinese is used (this holds true then for Chinese translation too). As for spoken form, besides speaking Mandarin, we have Chinese dialects that are frequently spoken too.

The other more common spoken dialects include Cantonese dialect which is the main spoken language of Hong Kong, Macau and the province of Canton in Mainland China. And then there is Hokkien dialect which is another main spoken language in Taiwan besides Mandarin. In Singapore and Malaysia, the frequent spoken dialects – depending on the geographical areas of early days Chinese immigrants from Mainland China – are Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka.

Therefore, we could imagine in Mainland China itself, there shall be hundreds of different dialects spoken across the various geographical areas of the country.

For international usage of spoken language for Chinese, I would say Mandarin remains the official spoken language for business and for individuals who are not familiar with the geographical-based dialects.

Chinese translation tips

In this concluding section, I would like to share some tips on Chinese translation. As in any language translation, the following are also the base goals to ensure a high-quality and authentic Chinese translation:


  • The right interpretation of the meaning of the source content. The tricky part to look out for is when it comes to translating marketing materials and web content. Unlike technical documentation translation whereby the expressions are usually more instructional in style, and usage of technical terms are straightforward, for marketing content it might include the slogans and catchy phrases or idioms used in the source language which might not have a direct equivalent in the Chinese-speaking regions. In such cases, cross-cultural adaptation is needed in the translation effort to ensure the level of accurate interpretation of the source is attained. Examples of such phrases and idioms from the English language: “is a piece of cake,” “call it a day,” and “get the ball rolling” do not have direct equivalents in Chinese.


  • The terms that are used by the local Chinese audience. This depends on where they are based. For example, Mainland China and Singapore use Simplified Chinese, however, this does not mean the terms such as ‘air-conditioner’ or ‘computer’ are translated the same for these two regions. The Chinese terms used are very different for the two regions. In fact, the term ‘computer’ in Chinese for Mainland China is equivalent to the term ‘calculator’ in Chinese for Singapore! Therefore, you can imagine the embarrassment if a translator would have translated the term ‘computer’ for the wrong region!


  • English/Chinese grammar and punctuation are differently represented in both the word order and the symbols used. The usage of active and passive voice is also different. Therefore, it is extremely important not to translate word for word for English into Chinese as the sentence will not be presented in a natural Chinese language form.


  • The right type of tonality and expression given in every sentence and phrase translated. Depending on the expression of the sentence, sometimes in the English context or slogan, we see usage of ‘!’ an exclamation mark as a sign of excitement. However, in the Chinese context, at times ‘!’ an exclamation mark may come across as a rude expression.


  • Local elements such as measurement units, decimal notations, date/time formats, currency formats etc. have to be taken into consideration.

We thank Shirley for sharing her extensive knowledge with us – so that we could share it with you! What are your Chinese translation questions?

If you have a need for Chinese translation (or any translation or localization need for that matter) don’t hesitate to reach out! Call any of our global offices or email us at

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