The translation industry in China has to address myriad problems to reap huge returns from building the Tower of Babel
By day, Chen Jing is a customs declarations clerk at a Shanghai-based shipping company. After hours, she moonlights as a translator, working on everything from academic thesis abstracts to contracts to product descriptions.
At first, Chen took on the extra work, because like all those who majored in English in college, she was expected to be able of doing professional translations. But gradually, her translation services became an additional source of income, just as it has for several hundreds of thousands of other part-time translators and interpreters in China.
In addition to these amateurs, the country has 35,000 professional translators and interpreters. According to the Translators Association of China (TAC), there are more than 3,000 translation service agencies in China, 800 of which are Beijing-based. The translation industry reaped nearly 30 billion yuan ($4.3 billion) in revenue last year.
Yet, myriad problems such as varying degrees of quality, a low threshold for entering the profession, a lack of work contracts, a dearth of large, reputable translation agencies and weak professional oversight have prevented the industry from advancing in China.
Work with dignity
Transn (Beijing) Information Technology Co. Ltd., a Beijing-based linguistic services provider, conducted an online survey of translators and interpreters in China last year, shedding light on the living conditions and basic information of translators in the country.
Of all the 14,600 valid responses, 62 percent were English majors, 28 percent were science, engineering and technology majors and only 2 percent had degrees in translation. The majority of them, 62 percent, obtained a bachelor’s degree, and 18 percent had a master’s degree.
The online survey also showed that 65 percent of participants said they translated to “make a living” and were not proud of their profession. About 69 percent said they worked part-time translators or interpreters.
The Chinese clients of translation services generally assume that if a person can speak and write two languages, they can interpret or translate. And this low threshold for the profession contributes to its quality problems.
“Translators who don’t have degrees in translation or any other relative certificates compete with professional translators by charging super low rates and promising clients unreasonable deadlines,” said Geng Jiazhen, who obtained a master’s degree in translation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in 2005 and is now working as a full-time translator for the Representative Office of the United Nations Children’s Fund in Beijing. “As a result, they can’t guarantee translation quality. Their behaviors damage the ‘translator image’ and disturb the market.”
“The problem isn’t exactly all the client’s fault though,” said Nancy Tsai, a freelance interpreter and translator in Beijing. “Many people do not understand the specialized training that is needed for translation and interpretation.” Tsai obtained a master’s degree in translation and interpretation from MIIS in 2006.
“Compared with the rising demands for professional interpreters, there are few professional interpreting schools in the world,” Tsai said. It was not until last year that universities in China widely began to offer master’s degree courses in translation. There are even fewer colleges that offer interpretation training on the Chinese mainland.
Tsai said she rarely works for local Chinese clients because of the low rates.
“The professional interpreting community therefore has a responsibility to educate the client in the professional aspects of the trade,” she said. “Otherwise, everyone in the profession will likely suffer the fate of becoming blue-collar intellectuals.”
No contract guarantees
Another threat to the large quantities of freelance translators and interpreters is that they often work without contracts.
Teresa Tang, a self-employed senior interpreter based in China, told Beijing Review only one out of every 10 translation agencies sign contracts with freelance translators and interpreters in the country. Tang, who received a master’s degree in conference interpretation from MIIS in 1999, has logged more than 2,000 hours of simultaneous and consecutive interpretation over seven years.
“There is no guarantee of interpreters’ interests without contracts,” she said. “For example, the interpreter will suffer a loss if a conference is cancelled. It could also give rise to dispute over the quality of the translation.”
Most demand for interpretation services in China comes from Beijing and Shanghai. Tang said the quality of services in Beijing is generally much better than in Shanghai due to the fact that the capital hosts more large official conferences that have higher service. Most of the interpretation work in Shanghai is business-related, and companies there tend to offer services at very low rates to stay competitive.
Oh, the misery
Compared to interpreters, translators are much more miserable and “given neither the time nor the money to do a good job, ” said Eric Abrahamsen, a freelance literary translator in Beijing who also offers agent-type services for foreign publishers, literary agents and journalists.
The biggest problem for foreign publishers of Chinese literature is “a lack of information,” Abrahamsen said. “Foreign publishers simply don’t feel confident enough about choosing Chinese writers or books, and they often won’t take the risk.”
Cindy Carter, a freelance translator of Chinese literature and film since 1999, agrees.
“Literary translation is still a risky business,” she said. “For every book deal, there are at least three or four other projects that fall through or fail to materialize. This can mean a lot of wasted effort on the part of the translator and agent.”
For most of the translation agencies in China, literary translation accounts for fewer than 10 percent of their contracts, and they mainly focus on commercial and technical translations.
Apart from low translator fees, Carter said other downsides of the business include the limited number of Chinese books translated and published overseas, poor sales figures for Chinese literature in overseas markets and the long gap between the inception and the completion of a book project.
“All of these hurdles are related, ” said Carter, who has translated more than 40 Chinese films, two novels and dozens of essays, short stories and scripts. “Taken together, they magnify the problem of selling, translating and publishing Chinese literature abroad.”
In terms of film scripts and subtitle translations, Carter said young Chinese filmmakers are very conscientious about the importance of good translations and are willing to spend a great deal of time and effort making sure their subtitles are perfect.
“For this reason, many independent Chinese features and documentaries boast better subtitles than big-budget co-productions or films made through the state studio system,” she said.
Without proper guidance and supervision, the Chinese market of translation services has lapsed into disordered competition between agencies of varying sizes and backgrounds.
China Translation and Publishing Corp. (CTPC), which was established in 1979, is one of the country’s earliest translation agencies with an outstanding reputation. Most other agencies were founded in late 1990s.
According to a survey of translation agencies in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou by Beijing Language and Culture University in 2005, only 29 of 400 agencies in the capital had more than 100 part-time and full-time translators, while about 91 percent had less than 10. The percent was smaller in the other three cities.
The situation has scarcely changed in the past three years, according to TAC.
Jiang Xiaolin, Chairman of the official translation supplier for the Beijing Olympics, Beijing Yuanpei Century Translation Co. Ltd., said his firm’s zero-mistake promise and sophisticated translation quality-control mechanisms distinguish it from smaller firms. Jiang’s firm offers 24-hour workflow monitoring, a five-stage quality control system and a three-stage examination.
“Quality control should begin before a translator sits down to translate,” Jiang said. “It’s much easier than revising the final product.”
The Translation Service Committee of the TAC was established in November 2002 to work out a series of standards and criteria for the industry. It has drafted criteria for translation and interpretation services and issued requirements for translation standards during the past several years.
It also has assessed the qualifications of nearly 100 translation agencies and granted them certificates of “Honest Services” since 2005. The committee has organized training courses based on industry standards for a dozen general managers of translation agencies nationwide in October 2006.
Still, many translation agencies have decided not to adopt TAC’s tough standards.
“We don’t use the standards for quality control TAC worked out because they are too general to be practicable,” Jiang said. “TAC should and could play a more active role in regulating the industry.”