Which Country, Which Language?

by John Greenwood

English is English, Spanish is Spanish, Portuguese is Portuguese, Belgian is Belgian, Swiss is Swiss and Chinese is Chinese – true? Well not quite. For starters, two of the six are not languages (but describe great chocolates!)

This article explains some of the choices you must consider when translating for some countries with multiple languages and into some languages that are used in multiple countries. I will make some generalizations, but especially if you are taking products into different countries, do seek advice from your local subsidiary or distributor – and be aware that a consumer-oriented environment is likely to be more sensitive to language variants than business to business. Most countries have multiple languages and some languages are spoken in many countries.

My native United Kingdom counts as native languages English, Welsh, Gaelic (Scottish and Irish), Cornish (in part of the southwest), Manx (on the Isle of Man between England, Scotland and Ireland) and others. However, English is the dominant language understood by just about the entire population and although the Welsh and Scots may disagree, there is little need in business to translate into other UK languages. There is a caveat – since 2011, Welsh is an officially recognized language within Wales (the Western part of Great Britain) and as far as is reasonable and practicable, both English and Welsh should be treated equally in the public sector.

Belgium is a relatively new country formed from the Netherlands in 1830. Dutch (Flemish) is spoken in the north, and French in the south. Although I have worked for a company that translated into Belgian French and Dutch separately from the standard French and Dutch varieties, Belgians understand their neighbors' languages. Belgian Dutch tends to retain traditional Dutch words whereas the more liberal Netherlands Dutch more readily adopts English words. Belgian French and 'standard' French are very similar to each other and standard French (for France) serves both.

Switzerland has four languages: German (spoken by the majority), then French, then Italian and about 1% Romansh. Although the spoken Swiss-German is quite different from that spoken in Germany and Austria, it has no written equivalent and the variants of all languages for Germany, France and Italy work fine in Switzerland; there is no need to generate separate Swiss variants.

Some languages are common to many countries, especially English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. To be culturally sensitive, especially at a consumer level, British and American English should be treated as separate locales. However, if you are going to pick just one, American English would be the variant of choice as Brits and most English speakers worldwide are more used to American English spelling and terminology and can understand and generally accept it (sometimes through gritted teeth!). However, Americans do have more difficulty understanding some of the colloquial expressions used by non-Americans – another reason why American English is more universally understood. Canada probably has a preference for British English, but is more used to American than their transatlantic counterparts. Other English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa also probably have a preference for British English, but American English will be understood and generally accepted.

European French differs from Canadian French in terms of some terminology and stylistic preferences, however the more technical the subject matter, the fewer the differences. European French also tends to more readily adopt certain English words than Canadian French. If your product or service target markets are Québec and France, it would be advisable to localize your product into the appropriate language for each market (Canadian French for Québec and "standard" French for France). The similarity between them lends them to being "make-from" languages: once content has been translated into one, it is feasible to edit the translation in order to be acceptable in the alternate geography (as opposed to translating from scratch).

Spanish needs additional consideration. Each Spanish-speaking country has its own variant and use of words. So Spain is different from Mexico is different from Peru is different from Argentina is different from – well you get the picture! However, especially at a business level, it is possible to translate into "Latin American Spanish" that will be generally accepted throughout Central and South America. European Spanish is your choice if your target is Spain. We can also translate into a "Universal Spanish" that is generally acceptable worldwide. However, there will be some compromises the "higher" you go, especially between Europe and Latin America, and if you are targeting just one or two countries, and have no plans in the near term to expand elsewhere, you would be generally advised to pick the Spanish that most closely matches your target audience.

Portuguese is a different story! Brazilian and European Portuguese have drifted far enough away from each other that you should translate for one or the other; there is no "Universal Portuguese". If you are targeting Brazil and Europe, you require two separate Portuguese translations. Spelling reform started a few years ago to rationalize the spelling differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese, but this reform applies only to spelling, and not to grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation.

China has numerous spoken languages and dialects, Mandarin being the most universal and common. However, there are just two modern written versions of Chinese: Traditional and Simplified. Traditional Chinese was the written Chinese prior to the formation of the People's Republic of China (a.k.a. PRC or Mainland China) in 1949. Simplified Chinese was derived from Traditional Chinese by the PRC in the early 50's in order to simplify many of the ideographic characters and (successfully) promote literacy.

Traditional Chinese is used in the Republic of China (Taiwan). Even though the dialect spoken in Hong Kong and Macau is Cantonese, Traditional Chinese is used for print media, but with a few differences as Cantonese requires a few characters that are not used in Mandarin. Singapore has adopted Simplified Chinese and although Hong Kong has seen more Simplified Chinese since its re-incorporation into PRC in 1997, Traditional Chinese still dominates.

Simplified and Traditional Chinese have many similarities, and those accustomed to Traditional Chinese can read Simplified Chinese more easily than the other way around. However, for the People's Republic of China, translations should be done into Simplified Chinese. Although a PRC native may be able to read Traditional Chinese, they most likely would not be able to write it as well. Thus, the traditional axiom of using a native translator of the target language still applies.

Somewhat strangely you may think, it is easier to translate English into both Simplified and Traditional Chinese than it is translating one into the other. There is a character set issue (Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters do not co-exist in most computer codepages) and translators generally find it easier using English as the source.

So, if your target is PRC (Mainland China) or Singapore, Simplified Chinese is your language of choice. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau require Traditional Chinese (with a few differences for Hong Kong and Macau).

I apologize that I have to some extent over-generalized and oversimplified some cultural issues and I am not suggesting that language variants (Belgian French and Dutch) and less common languages (Welsh, Gaelic) are unimportant or insignificant! I have tried to take a practical approach to the localization effort required to take products internationally, and while the Belgian French might prefer their French, they would prefer standard French to English!