The 3 Things You Must Know to Record Chinese Voice-Over

3 Pronunciation Musts for Text-to-Speech Voice-Over Recordings
January 30, 2017
Has text-to-speech really improved that much? Listen for yourself.
February 6, 2017

1.197 billion. That’s the number of native Chinese speakers worldwide, more than any other language. In total, we’re talking about 17% of the world’s population. On top of that, China has the world’s fastest-growing consumer market, and it is the second largest importer of goods in the world. For these reasons alone, Chinese voice-over is an essential part of any multimedia localization strategy.

This blog post will list the 3 things you must know for successful Chinese voice-over translation.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

China is the world’s second-largest economy

We touched on the explosive growth that China has had in our introduction – its ascendance as a consumer market is a huge economic development of the past two decades. Even more impressively, China is also the world’s largest manufacturing economy, exporting more goods than any other country. Therefore, there are two kinds of localization needs for China – translating marketing materials and content for goods and entertainment products going into the market, as well as the e-Learning and corporate communications necessary to manage a local workforce.

Photo by Catherine Fox.

If you operate or manufacture in China, sell in China, or plan to broadcast in China, you have the need for high-quality, accurate and culturally-sensitive voice-over.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Chinese is a macrolanguage

A macrolanguage is a group of related languages that share a common source, or a common history or cultural identity. Though the distinct languages within a macrolanguage are relatively similar, their speakers generally can’t understand one another. Many people use the word dialect to refer to the different Chinese languages – however, this is misleading, since generally speakers of different dialects of the same language can understand one another.

How many languages exist within this macrolanguage? Currently, 13 of them each with 1 million or more speakers. And many other with fewer speakers. This means that you can’t record with one Chinese voice over talent for all of China.

2. There are a few distinct languages and variants that cover most speakers

Don’t worry – you probably won’t have to record 13 or more versions of your voiceover. There are five major variants of Chinese that cover most corporate, entertainment and e-Learning needs.

  • Mandarin: With 873 million native speakers, Mandarin is the most-spoken distinct Chinese language. It’s spoken in most of mainland China, and by many members of the large Chinese diaspora worldwide, including in the US. More importantly, there are 178 million second-language speakers of Mandarin – that makes over a billion total speakers. This means that localizing into Mandarin should be the priority for content going to China.
  • Cantonese: With approximately 62 million speakers around the world, it is the main language of the province of Guangdong in southern China, as well as one of the official languages of Hong Kong and Macau. It is also spoken by many communities of Chinese descent across Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. Because it’s spoken in areas that are economically dynamic, Cantonese is the second-most common Chinese language in terms of localization. Hong Kong, in particular, has a thriving entertainment industry – Chinese voice over dubbing into Cantonese is quite extensive as well.
  • Taiwanese Mandarin: Mandarin was promoted by the Chinese government in Taiwan starting in the 1970s, so that now it is used commonly for official documentation. While it’s similar to the Mandarin spoken in mainland China, the accent is different enough that it’s worthwhile recording when going specifically to Taiwan. Although there are only 4.3 million native speakers, most residents of Taiwan are second-language speakers.
  • Taiwanese Hokkien: This is one of the native forms of Chinese spoken in Taiwan, with 15 million native speakers. While not generally used in official communications, it is widely used in Taiwanese media, school education, informal conversation, and entertainment.
  • Shanghainese: As its name suggests, this variant is spoken primarily in Shanghai and the surrounding area. Approximately 14-15 million speakers. A common target language specifically because of the economic importance of Shanghai.

3. There are different Chinese scripts

Aside from the differences in speech, Chinese also has two forms, stemming from the decision from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to simplify the Chinese character set, with the objective of increasing literacy rates nation-wide. The form promulgated by the PRC came to be known as Simplified Chinese, and is used widely in China, Singapore and Malaysia. The traditional form – now known as Traditional Chinese – was kept in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (though note that Taiwanese Mandarin is written in Simplified Chinese).

Engage in-country marketing managers or staff

You should always do this for any translation project, but this is especially important for Chinese voice localization. Your in-country staff – whether marketing staff, local managers, or even business partners – can help you make several important decisions. First, they can clarify your localization needs – what variant of Chinese you need to go into, and what script it requires. They’ll assist in picking a Chinese VO artist that works for your local audience. They’ll provide local insights to your translation. And finally, they can provide feedback on the recorded audio. In conjunction with a dedicated Chinese voice over agency, they can ensure the success of your localization project.


Download “7 Myths of Audio & Video Translation,” JBI Studios’ indispensable guide to audio translation and dubbing.