Modern changes to our modern languages

The Portuguese and German languages have undergone reforms in the new millennium, and in the current decade, the Chinese government has been pressuring Hong Kong to adopt simplified Chinese. These changes, while seemingly cultural in nature, affect all aspects of international business and have a direct impact on the translation industry.


The Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement was created to standardize “the sixth most spoken language in the world, writes Adrian Lancashire on in May 2015. “The Portuguese written word is being brought closer to the spoken word, creating a unified spelling to be used in all Portuguese-speaking countries.

“The rules are supposed to apply to all the countries where Portuguese is the official language. Added up, that is approximately 261,000 million people, although Brazil has nearly 80 percent of the world’s Portuguese speakers,” Lancashire says, leading some opponents to call it the “‘Brazilianisation’ of the language.”

It has been a long process, with the agreement signed in 1990 and initial implementation beginning in Brazil in 2009; schools phased in the rules in 2011, while public institutions’ documents were required to be written under the agreement in 2012, Lancashire states.

“In Portugal, the change was signed into law on July 21, 2008…allowing for a six-year transitional period, during which both orthographies have co-existed. This transition period…concluded on May 2015,” says JABA-Translations CEO Joaquim Alves.

While the agreement affects 1.5 percent of the language’s words, many people view the changes from a personal standpoint and view them as an attack on cultural diversity. “Differences proliferate among linguists, academics, journalists, writers, translators, artists and political and business societies in the Portuguese-speaking countries,” Lancashire writes.

He points to reaction from fiction author and former history teacher Jose Geraldo Gouvea: “Thanks to the spelling reforms, our literary classics had to be re-edited several times. If you find an old copy of Machado de Assis you won’t be able to read it, because the ancient spelling often rendered words completely different.”


The German Orthography Reform of 1996 affected spelling of common words, capitalization, and compounding, according to publisher McGraw-Hill’s Higher Education website.

A product of a special commission of German educators and linguists, the “spelling reform is an attempt to simplify German spelling by making it more uniform and predictable,” reports a Michigan State University paper on “The German Spelling Reform & Vorsprung.” Not surprisingly, there was “considerable opposition from some publishers, writers and others, including several court challenges.”

Nevertheless, German schools were allowed to begin teaching the new spellings in 1996, but the “old” spellings, which were to be considered as “out-of-date,” would not be considered “wrong” in Germany until 2005, according to the internationally advised Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society’s 1997 publication, No. 21.

Citing a brief history, the journal states, “The previous official spelling system dates from 1901-1902, and was designed to provide a standard for teaching in German-speaking schools everywhere. Simplicity was not its primary aim, and numerous complications have arisen since. Further reforms to make the orthography simpler and more systematic in keeping with today’s needs were long overdue. The main aim of the reform is to simplify by removing exceptions. The rules thereby become more widely applicable and more systematic, and the orthography easier to learn and use. At the same time, the general appearance of the written language will be unaffected, so ensuring that old texts are still readable.”

However, The Economist’s online Johnson blog on Sept. 15, 2010, reports that “it didn’t go so well in Germany.” Writer R.L.G., who says he was “a student in Germany during the early days of the reform process,” reports that “even though the reforms were fairly sensible and not terribly difficult, they met massive opposition. One state had 60% of voters reject the reforms in a referendum; two others announced they would ignore the reform, which had been the product of 10 years’ work.”

Professional translator Gerhard Preisser, says in the early days of the spelling reform, incorporating the changes “into my daily work as an English-to-German translator was a real headache. I didn’t mind learning all the new rules—an excellent knowledge of his own language is what anyone should reasonably expect from a professional linguist. The greatest challenge was to educate my clients, such as convincing a cutting-edge software developer that holding on to the old way of spelling might make the company appear not as ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ as it liked to portray itself in its advertising.

“There were a few other problems as well, but those were easier to deal with: ‘perfect’ matches in older translation memories would require a second look, and there were heated discussions with editors about what changes were mandatory as opposed to optional,” Preisser says. “And it didn’t help that book and newspaper publishers in Germany had created their own, far-from-unanimous sets of rules.”

He adds, “Today, none of this matters. In case of doubt, I simply reach for the Duden (now in its 26th edition), which is the prescriptive source of German spelling and neatly clarifies all instances of doubt.”


Nearly one year ago, the UK’s Telegraph reported the uprising by more than 10,000 Hong Kong TV viewers after a local station switched its subtitles from traditional characters to simplified ones that are commonly used on the mainland.

This came on the heels of a plan promoted by local education officials for young students to learn the simplified characters. According to The South China Morning Post, “The simplified form is used on the mainland, but deemed inferior to the traditional form by some, and sometimes mocked as ‘crippled’ or ‘mutilated characters,’” the March 2016 article states. “While acknowledging the practical functions of simplified characters, those interviewed by the Post all resoundingly rejected the idea of using them in schools, saying there was no need. Supporters, especially the city’s international schools – which mostly teach simplified characters – maintain simplification can speed up learning and writing, as well as aiding integration with the mainland.”

Critics have taken to Facebook, as well. According to Amy Li’s July 2013 blog on the South China Morning Post, “A page named ‘Protect Hong Kong culture and report businesses using disabled Chinese’ urges people to expose and confront shop owners who use simplified Chinese in advertisements and signs.”

The fear among some Hong Kong residents is that they are being “colonized,” The Telegraph reports in its March 2016 article.

On the other side, according to Li’s blog, Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong’s criticism of the simplified character movement met with quite a backlash. Discussing the furor, she wrote, “Many others, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, interpreted the message as a HongKonger’s declaration of superiority over the mainland Chinese.”

From translator Dr. Ying Peng’s point of view, the overall impact of the movement has been minimal. “I have not felt much effect of geopolitical/cultural shift on my work. I do think that the ‘different versions’ of Chinese, simplified or traditional, are coalescing, with ‘preferred’ vocabularies flowing from one into another and vice versa, which results in each version becoming less distinctive. I think a more noticeable trend is the speed at which new vocabularies are being created each year, many of which are closely related to new technology, new services, new products, and even current world events.”


These changes, updates, and controversies can leave clients with translation needs quite confused. Because all documents must adhere to the legal requirements of their countries, translation companies must be up-to-date on all agreements and reform movements in the global marketplace.

Sometimes a client is unaware of the current language requirements for the prospective country. This is where Argo Translation can help. Argo Translation is prepared to serve its clients on all these fronts, from adapting existing materials to creating new documents.

Argo Translation is also a full-service translation department for corporations. Guidance on international language rules, controversies, and changes can help clients produce accurate, professional documents when conducting business worldwide.

In addition to providing guidance for language rules, Argo Translation helps clients with project management. Innovative technology helps develop and maintain translation glossaries, translation history, and budget history, while professional translators worldwide concentrate on the best translation possible. This complete process maintained by Argo’s experienced project managers provides clients with comprehensive translation solutions.