Ambrose Li

No one who asks for a “Chinese translation” knows what they’re talking about

A few weeks ago I read about someone running for a byelection in my city. She had campaign material in Chinese. I hopped over to read it. It was a mix of simplified and traditional characters; this is like writing Serbo-Croatian in a mix of Latin and Cyrillic letters.

My mom watches Cantonese-language TV news. Religiously. A few months ago, before I got so fed up with the reporting that I stopped watching, I found the actual news reports littered with Northern terms‍[Note 1] that probably no one in their target audience uses.

Government decided to air Cantonese-language COVID ads on TV. I heard it almost every day because mom watches Cantonese news religiously. It was narrated in unnatural, bookish written language.

I once took a proofreading job. The publisher wanted their book to be readable by “all” Chinese speakers, but when I opened the file I almost had a heart attack I thought the book was full of errors, before realizing it was written in Taiwanese Chinese, littered with the occasional Mainland Chinese. There aren’t really that many Taiwanese Canadians, and I’m not one. The book had already been published in the States.

The scary thing isn’t that a new politician or the government, or the TV station doesn’t know the complexities of the Chinese language; it’s that even translation agencies don’t seem to know. This is from an actual ad:

We are in need of one translator for a 1500 words text to be translated from English into Chinese

There is zero context: What kind of Chinese? For which country or region? No one knows.

And this is not an isolated incident.


  1. Terms used by Mandarin speakers from the PRC Mainland


  • #Chinese languages
  • #internationalization
  • #translation agencies