Translating Chinese means big business

Updated: 2011-08-02 10:48

By Li Xing (China Daily)

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 Translating Chinese means big business

Marion Boers (left), president of International Federation of Translators (FIT), presents special commendation to Huang Youyi, vice-chairman of Translators Association of China (TAC), on Monday at the opening of the FIT world congress. Huang was commended for his effort to bridge cultures between China and the rest of the world through his nine-year mandate as FIT's council member and then vice-president. Li Xing / China Daily


Translating Chinese means big business

SAN FRANCISCO - Jiri Stejskal cannot forget a "Please Do Not Disturb" sign that once hung at the door of the hotel room he stayed in Beijing seven years ago.

The back side of the sign read: "Please Disturb". The words are correct, but it is just not proper English, not in the English language culture, Stejskal, vice-president of the International Federation of Translators (FIT) and chief organizer of the XIX FIT World Congress in San Francisco, told China Daily.

It was his first visit to China, and he remembered taking quite a few photos of "funny English" he found in the streets of Beijing and other cities.

Since then, he has traveled to China several times. He has noticed "funny English" is decreasing. "The changes are really enormous," he said, adding that translation in China has a much better standing in the world.

That may explain why the Chinese translators have arguably the third-largest presence - next only to the Americans and Norwegians - at the FIT world congress. The four-day forum, which opened on Monday, attracts more than 700 translators and interpreters from around the world; the registered attendees from China are 54.

They represent a booming language service industry that has grown with China's opening, rapid economic development and increased globalization as China is the second-largest economy in the world. The industry ranges from translation/interpreting and localization services, language technology development, language teaching and consultancy in linguistic issues. Localization services are the ones that help international firms turn their intranets, websites and even some software into Chinese as they open offices and start operations in China.

According to a study by Translators Association of China (TAC) last year, 15,039 firms were offering translation and/or localization services on the Chinese mainland by the end of 2009 - a dramatic rise from a previously believed 3,000 businesses, Huang Youyi, TAC's vice-chairman, told the forum in his keynote speech on Monday. Huang Youyi has just completed a nine-year mandate as a member of FIT's council and then its vice-president.

"A very conservative estimate of a total revenue of the translation and localization outsourcing market in China is more than 12 billion yuan (about $1.9 billion)," said Huang, who received a special commendation from FIT for his many years trying to bridge the cultural gap between China and the rest of the world.

It accounted for 7 percent of the $26.3 billion global market for outsourced language services, a 2010 figure that came from US-based consultant Common Sense Advisory, Huang said. Market demand is expected to increase as more Chinese companies seek to develop overseas.

Zhang Yu, a partner of Beijing MicroMice Translation, told China Daily his 6-year-old firm just completed the translating introduction to a Naked Eye 3D software into 38 languages for a company affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

To facilitate the increased demands for qualified translators and interpreters on the market, the universities with a master's program of translation and interpreting rose from 15 in 2007 to 158 this year, Huang said. Meanwhile, some 42 universities have also opened programs offering bachelor's degrees in translation and interpreting.

Along with the booming market is the tough competition. "Most people in the industry see too many players as a challenge rather than an opportunity. When the market is in a very fragmented and competitive state, it often leads to lower prices and lower quality to the detriment of the industry as a whole," Huang said.

Zhang said the rate for the Naked Eye 3D software translation is 2.25 yuan a Chinese character on average, which he said is a medium ranges.

Quality and professionalism is undermined with cut-throat low prices, Huang said.

Stejskal likened the work of translators and interpreters as "gatekeepers", who open up the door for cross-cultural understanding.

That's why he said translation goes far beyond language learning, as it involves acquiring knowledge of the culture in its broadest sense.

For instance, in a draft Chinese translation of a memoir by an American soldier working at an airfield in Yunnan during WWII, the author described how a chef placed a toothpick on top of dough and placed it in an oven to bake a cake. Clearly the translator had no idea that the toothpick is used only to test whether a cake is done or not.

Translations of classics are very important in bridging different cultures. Over the decades, almost all top classical Chinese literature and philosophical works have been translated into multiple languages in different versions. The best example is two English versions of the Qing Dynasty novel, The Story of the Stone translated by David Hawkes, or A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Yang Xianyi and his wife Gladys Yang.

"The Yangs' did a beautiful job and their work is well-accepted as theirs is more loyal to the original Chinese narrative," said Mao Sihui, professor and director of Center of English, Macao Polytechnic Institute, who is one of the new 17-member FIT Council elected on Sunday.

However, "Hawkes' The Story of the Stone is very popular because the translation is more readable," Mao said, even though some people argue the translation of a Chinese work should give a sense of "Chinese-ness".

Mao stressed that traditions and ways of thinking in different cultures are hurdles for translators as they try to convey not only meaning but also emotions and other cultural nuances.

For example, instead of clearly articulating their ideas, ancient Chinese philosophers expressed their thoughts in such ways that required their readers to "feel" or "sense" their messages, Mao said. "International readers are often clueless as to what these ancient Chinese talked about."

Meanwhile, the contemporary world with its rapid scientific and technological advances and economic globalization, also requires translators to master special knowledge and know their customers, Stejskal said.

Translation can go wrong for lack of the essential knowledge. For instance, an English-to-Spanish translation of a direction on a baby formula container contained such errors that if it hadn't been discovered before the product went on sale, it would have likely caused serious consequences, Stejskal said.

He also described an earlier Japanese language introduction to the iPad, which was translated from English. The translators assumed that the iPad would be used by young people so they used Japanese words and expressions for young customers.

They were not aware that a lot of Japanese adults and even seniors also buy iPads, Stejskal said. The language used in the earlier version of the iPad introduction was not suitable for an adult audience.

China's language services, too, have to face similar challenges of satisfying the demand for specialized fields, Huang said.

Zhang pointed out that the bulk of language services deals with straight technical, industrial and business translations that emphasize accurate renderings of meanings from one language to another.

At present, there is only one general national accreditation test for translators and interpreters.

"In the actual translation and interpreting market, specialization is often required. What's more, the language service industry also requires other types of talents, such as multilingual project managers, tool developers and terminologists," Huang said.

Huang is a major promoter for the use of Chinese instead of foreign language initials for terms from the West. Early 20th century Chinese translators were able to render modern Western inventions into simple but good Chinese, such as feiji for airplane, or tanke, for tank, Huang said.

However, contemporary Chinese translators are not doing a good job in translating contemporary economic, managerial, scientific and technological terms into simple and understandable Chinese terms, Huang said.

For instance, there is still no good and short Chinese phrase for MP3, except a lengthy explanation of a patented digital audio encoding format using a form of lossy data compression.

In a taxi ride in Beijing, the cab driver told Huang that he didn't know what IPO (initial public offering) meant even though the radio anchor read out business news day after day.

"Whether you convey the meaning or the pronunciation, you must enable the man in the street to memorize the new terms," Huang said.

"That's what contemporary Chinese translators must strive for."

China Daily