Translation in Malaysia: Which Language Should You Translate for Malaysia?

Translation in Malaysia


Where is Malay Spoken?

Modern Malay Language

A Brief History of the Malay Language

What is Manglish?

Where is Arabic Spoken? The Beautiful Arabic Language


Translating for Malaysia

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country consisting of three main populations, namely Malays, Chinese, and Indians. In addition to that, there are numerous ethnic minorities residing in the Peninsula as well as in Sabah and Sarawak. A myriad of languages is used in Malaysia because of the ethnic diversity. This should be considered when targeting the Malay locale and discussing translation in Malaysia.

Bahasa Malay is the official language of Malaysia. English is widely spoken by most Malaysians and the Chinese dialects used by the Chinese population are Mandarin (Simplified Chinese), Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan and Fuzhou. The Indian dialects used by the Indian population in Malaysia are Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Malayalam as well as several indigenous languages spoken by minority ethnic groups all over Malaysia. In total, there are more than 100 languages spoken in Malaysia!
The Federal Constitution of Malaysia outlines that “the official and national language in Malaysia is Malay, but everyone is free to teach, learn or use any other languages except on official purposes…” Hence, it is clear that every citizen in Malaysia, regardless of their ethnicity, have to know how to speak, read and write in Malay, while other languages, such as Chinese and Tamil, may be freely practiced. It is important to note that the Malay language is not only the national language but also “the main language of communication, language of knowledge, and language for nation-building”.

The Malaysian Government recognizes English as an international language and as the language of commerce and the language of instruction in most public universities. English is also a compulsory subject in school. English is like a second language for Malaysians, but it is more frequently used in urban areas than in rural settings. As an example, most street signs, public transport, offices, airports, hotels, shopping malls, parks and restaurants (especially in Kuala Lumpur and other big cities) are in English or at least have an English translation. Therefore, even if you do not speak or understand Malay, there’s no problem…you can still easily visit and live in Malaysia!
Ideally, if you were to target a cross-section of the majority of the demographic groups and ethnicities, you would need to translate English into Mandarin (Simplified Chinese), Bahasa Malay, Tamil and, as the last candidate, Malaysian English!

It would be difficult to conclude that one language can be excluded from a translation communication point of view – aiming for the widest understanding.
Most of the inquiries from businesses/corporations/individuals are by far for translation to Malaysian Mandarin and Bahasa Malay. If there are budget constraints, these 2 languages could possibly be the priority. Depending on the intended use of the translation and its target audience, some or all of the above languages may be justified.