Mandarin or Cantonese – What Dialect Should We Translate into?


When companies decide to include China as part of their global expansion strategy or target Chinese-speaking prospects in the USA, translation of their websites and marketing collateral are always part of the plan as well.  Sooner or later they will be wondering which dialect they should be translating into. “Should we translate into Mandarin or Cantonese?” is the most frequently asked question.  Let´s explore the answer to this question and get you the answer you need.

Chinese Language & Dialects
First of all, Mandarin has been the official and national language of mainland China since 1913, and it is also the official language in Taiwan. It is, by the way, one of the official languages of the United Nations as well.

However, there are many other dialects or spoken languages in China that are quite different. The most common of all is Cantonese, which happens to be the official language in Hong Kong together with English. Other dialects are Hakka, Min, Wu, Xiang, Gan, and many more.

Interestingly enough, Mandarin, which is spoken in most parts of northern China and parts of Western China, is broken up into different dialects. Each region has a particular style of speaking Mandarin and pronunciation varies greatly.

So Should You Translate to Mandarin or Cantonese?
The quick answer to this question is NEITHER! As you might have noticed, we have been referring to “spoken” Chinese. When translating websites or documents, you will be working with written materials. Therefore, regardless of the dialect or spoken language, you need to determine if your translation needs to be done in Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese. The oral dialect does not matter.

Let us explain.

All the above languages and dialects share one common writing system (use of Chinese characters) which enables communication among Chinese people who speak different dialects.

Each Chinese character represents a Chinese word or morpheme which is monosyllabic. Characters represent ideas, meanings and objects, and they are not used independently.

Today, a well-educated Chinese person will read and recognize around 4,000 to 6,000 characters.  Currently, there are two systems for Chinese characters: the Traditional and Simplified.

The Traditional System uses standardized and complex character forms (made up of various strokes and arranged differently) that do not contain new characters or character substitutions made after 1946. On the other hand, the Simplified System uses simplified characters that allow easier reading. This Simplified System was developed in 1954 to fight the illiteracy rate.  The People’s Republic of China considers a person to be functionally literate when readers can recognize around 2,000 characters.

The Traditional System is used in:

  • Hong Kong
  • Taiwan
  • Macau, and
  • Overseas Chinese-speaking communities located outside Southeast Asia.

The Simplified System is used in:

  • Mainland China,
  • Singapore, and
  • Malaysia.

In short, the location of your target audience will determine if you need to use Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese when translating your materials.  If you have any questions or need further assistance, please let us know and we will be happy to help.

Language Concepts Consulting is a boutique provider of multilingual translation service. Languages we translate from and into include: English, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese and many more.  Please give us a call at 480.626.2926.

Kathy Paredes


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