The Translation Industry in China: issues pitfalls and plain oddities

June 8, 2011 by admin

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When our translation agency decided to open an office in China, our unspoken underlying assumption ran along the lines of ‘How different can it be? We know how to provide quality translations profitably in other countries; surely China will be very similar.

Well, with hindsight, it is clear that that was a stunningly naïve assumption to make. Three years on, we have come to realise just how much we didn’t know at the time. There are a number of factors that make the Chinese translation market substantially different from Western markets at least.

One major factor, not unique to translation services, but rather a general attribute of the Chinese business culture, is a more pronounced sensitivity to price amongst potential Chinese customers. I have personally experienced a number of variants of the following short – sadly comical – dialogue:

–          I like what you are telling me, but why are your Chinese-English translations twice as expensive as your competitors?

–          Well, it’s because we use qualified and experienced native English translators, rather than local Chinese university students. The quality will be far superior.

–          Hm, yes, I understand that, but I really don’t care about quality, just offer me a lower rate!

–          [stunned silence, at least the first few times]

There are several reasons for this situation. For one, in a resolutely monolingual culture such as the Chinese, there is a lack of understanding that there can be different levels of excellence in the mastery of a foreign language, beyond being merely competent. Translation is regarded as a simple commodity, and as such there is a resulting scepticism about why a unit of the same commodity should cost more from one provider than from another.

In addition, reaching out internationally is a relatively new phenomenon for most Chinese companies. Related to this, and perhaps even more pertinent, is the fact that Chinese companies have traditionally always competed on price, not quality. This is just about to change, as great efforts are made in China to move the national economy up the value chain. This drive, however, is still in its infancy, and the importance of slick English language marketing material or a perfectly intelligible user manual to support the perception of higher quality products is only just becoming clear to Chinese managers.

Another factor is that, traditionally, Chinese companies have turned to languages departments of universities for translation services. The latter – understandably – enjoy a reputation for being authoritative in language matters, and therefore, by extension, in translation. This has allowed university professors to develop a whole cottage industry, extending to farming out translations amongst their students. The results are predictably mixed.

The quality of available translators is also quite low, noticeably lower than in many other major languages. This blunt assessment may at first sound shocking and unbelievable, but there are good reasons for this situation. I already mentioned the general shortage of native English translators and its causes in an earlier post, so I won’t dwell on it here. The more surprising assertion may be lack of quality the other way around, i.e. a lack of translation quality for English-Chinese translation.

Think, however, about a stereotype of an ideal translator: somebody with at least 20 years of experience, some of that in industry and with substantial everyday (work) experience in a country where the source language is spoken. Well, that person quite simply does not exist in China. 20 years ago, the country was barely waking up from its century-long economic slumber, and the number of professionals with this length of relevant experience is therefore tiny. In addition, compared to the West, translators are poorly remunerated compared to practicing professionals. Your jaded corporate lawyer is therefore far less likely to make a lifestyle change and switch to translating than his Western equivalent might be.

Finally, one also has to take into account the quality of the Chinese educational system that has produced all these (inexperienced) translators and interpreters. I have interviewed quite a lot of young graduates in Shanghai with the highest possible translation and interpreting qualification in China, and on average, their level of English – both spoken and written – is very disappointing, and would mostly not be sufficient to get them an equivalent qualification in the West.

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Taylor Wessing LLP

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Maximus Crushing and Screening

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