According to Ethnologue’s latest figures, there are approximately 1,299 million native speakers of Chinese in the world today—the largest number for any language. But these gross figures conceal a great degree of linguistic diversity that is important to consider when you are seeking Chinese translation or interpretation.
Written Chinese Translation
In written Chinese, there is one major split that many people are aware of—Simplified/Traditional (often confused with the Mandarin/Cantonese dialect split). This split refers to the character set used. Traditional Chinese uses tens of thousands of characters, although the number in everyday use is much smaller and some are only found in old writing. Many of them are also very intricate.
When the Communists took over mainland China in 1952, Mao decreed that there should be a simplification of writing to promote literacy. The simplification included both decreasing the number of recognized characters and simplifying the writing of many others by removing some elements. The most recent lists of commonly used and frequently used characters, published by the Chinese government in 1988, contain a total 10,500 characters; 7,000 of them are denoted “commonly used.”
Because of its simplicity, this writing system was also adopted officially in other places, most notably Singapore. Meanwhile, the traditional characters continued to be used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Traditional Chinese characters are also widely used in emigré communities. But the Simplified/Traditional split isn’t the only important difference in written Chinese.
There can also be important differences in word usage between Chinese communities in different countries and localities, whatever the official character set. The differences may not be huge (they have been likened to the difference between American and British English), but they can be important to making your translation look local. Common words as “bus,” “laser,” “potato,” and “air conditioner” can require different translations for different places. In long-existing emigré communities scattered across various countries, local usage may be even more varied. (However, there is a standard business Chinese that is accepted across mainland China, despite local differences.)
In other words, before you request a translation into Chinese, find out where the intended audience is located. If you don’t specify, your translation partner should ask you before they carry out the translation.
Spoken Chinese Interpretation
When it comes to spoken Chinese, differences among communities are much more pronounced. Ethnologue lists 13 individual languages under the general macro-language designation “Chinese.” Eight of them are spoken by more than 10 million people each. There are many more dialects. Differences in word usage and pronunciation can make it difficult, if not impossible, for speakers of different versions of Chinese to understand each other.
The split between Mandarin and Cantonese does not correspond to the split between Traditional and Simplified Chinese. For instance, Mandarin is the primary language in both mainland China and Taiwan. Cantonese originated in the Guangdong Province of China, but today most speakers are in Hong Kong, Macau, and in emigré communities. Ethnologue includes it under the Chinese language Yue for which it lists 11 separate dialects.
Having been turned over by the British to the PRC in 1997, albeit as a territory with a great deal of autonomy, Hong Kong maintains Cantonese as its language in the face of indications that the government is starting to push Standard Mandarin. One Hong Kong illustrator did his part by creating a picture of everyday life with references to 81 Cantonese proverbs.
Mandarin is by far the largest Chinese language and standard Mandarin is usually what you would want at an event like an international conference. However, if you are looking for an interpreter for a particular Chinese person or small group, it is important to know what language and dialect is most appropriate.
If you are seeking a dialect other than the major dialects, more lead time and a larger budget may be necessary to locate and hire an interpreter since qualified interpreters may be in short supply and located outside the immediate geographic area.