The Translation Industry in China: How Does It Differ from the West?

January 5, 2015 by Alison Tunley

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translation industry in China

I have been instrumental in setting up, developing and running the Shanghai office of Rosetta Translation since we first planned a China office in 2007. It might be tempting to think that running a translation business is pretty much the same everywhere, but the situation in the translation industry in China is really quite different. Many of these differences are mirrored in other industries.

Translation industry in China 1: Customers are exclusively fixated on price

When we first opened our Shanghai office, we were obviously keen to get into the domestic Chinese market as well as the expat market. We had the following kind of conversation too many times, in one shape or another:

Customer: “Our internal linguist is really impressed with your test translation, and you come across very professionally, but unfortunately your price is double that of domestic Chinese competitors.”

Us: “Well, that’s because we work with qualified and experienced native (English) translators who are experts in their subject area, rather than the Chinese university students that our competitors use. You get what you pay for.”

“I understand what you are saying, but I am not that interested in quality. I ‘only’ want a translation. Please give me a better price.”

And that’s usually the end of that.

This exclusive focus on price is prevalent in all industries in China, and the spirit behind it is why even the local Chinese rightly consider domestic Chinese products as low-quality and unreliable. What makes the situation worse in the translation services industry is that the Chinese customers tend to be resolutely monolingual and mono-cultural, and thus couldn’t imagine the enormous difference between different quality standards of translation. This is perhaps different from an area like, for example manufacturing, where the Chinese customers are perhaps close enough to the subject area to appreciate the difference between a machine made in China and one made in Germany.

In our case, we decided to focus on Chinese subsidiaries of foreign companies instead, and we are very happy with that decision.


Translation industry in China 2: Freelancers often have a ‘real’ job

This is a common limitation when assigning large or urgent projects. Many of the better Chinese translation freelancers have a company job (language-related or not), and are only available for translation in the evenings or during weekends. In practice, larger projects often therefore have to be split between more translators, which is obviously not ideal.

Chinese translation companies often have many in-house translators

This is related to the previous point. The general business model of larger Chinese translation companies is quite different, and they genuinely have a large pool of salaried in-house translators sitting at their desk at the company offices, waiting for the next translation to come in.

This was originally quite a surprise to us. It was also an additional hurdle in getting into the truly domestic market, in that local customers were surprised and rather put off by the fact that we have so few staff in our own Shanghai translation company. We often have to explain the obvious advantages of the freelancer model (better fit for expertise required for individual translations, availability of translators, etc).

Lack of good linguists

Yes, the Chinese education system now apparently teaches every child English from primary school, and yes, there are quite a lot of language graduates, but the quality of these graduates is often very poor. I have interviewed many candidates for in-house positions whose major was English language and literature and who had achieved an advanced interpreting qualification as well. All too many of them ended up not understanding my deliberately simple and clear questions in English (I didn’t understand their answers either, so there is some fairness there). The problem gets a lot worse once you move beyond universities in Beijing, Shanghai and a few other Eastern Seaboard cities.

There is a specific bottleneck with translation from Chinese to English, in that there are (still) too few native English who translate from Chinese.

Once you move on from English to other languages, you are pretty much lost. There are a handful of Chinese-German and French translators, but beyond that, a translation via English (with all the problems and extra costs that that entails) is almost the only option.


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Andreea Mohan

Taylor Wessing LLP

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Maximus Crushing and Screening

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