Where have all the native Chinese-English translators gone?

June 7, 2011 by admin

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Rosetta opened an office in Shanghai, China, in 2008. As with many things in China, this was quite an adventure to start with, but by now, our Shanghai translation agency has achieved profitability and is developing nicely.

One issue that we have had to deal with from the start is the relative shortage of good native English Chinese-English translators, particularly specialised ones. This might seem surprising at first, but a number of factors contribute to this situation.

For one, while the whole of China is quite literally learning English (every primary school child in China is now grappling with English, or at least Chinglish), very few people in the West still learn Chinese. It is true that reports frequently appear in the media about the great surge in interest in all things Chinese. Where language is concerned, however, this is mostly limited to beginners’ courses, which, obviously, gets the students nowhere in terms of translating ability.

The number of universities in countries such as the USA or the UK offering full-time Chinese courses is certainly on the rise. One has to remember, however, that a) in practically all of these courses, Chinese is taught from scratch and b)a substantial proportion of courses are actually combined ones, such as Economics and Chinese. Given the very substantial linguistic distance between English and Chinese (as opposed to, say, English and German), it would be unrealistic to expect the graduates of even the full-time courses to be business-fluent in Chinese, let alone to be competent translators.

In addition, it is important to stress that these are graduates in Chinese, and definitely NOT graduates in Chinese translation. Only relatively small subsets of these students move on to pursue Chinese translation and/or interpreting courses.  Such courses, evidently, being the minimum requirement one would apply for most languages in order to become a ‘qualified’ translator or interpreter.

Experience is another issue, and here the situation is much worse in this language pair than in many others. The rise in interest in Chinese language studies has understandably been triggered and encouraged by the rise of China as a major economic power, and the opportunities this affords. Thus, in the late 1980s in the UK for example, only about half a dozen universities offered any Chinese degree course. As a result, there is an even greater shortage of experienced Chinese-English translators, because so very few people studied Chinese a decade or two ago.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many native English speakers studying Chinese do so for strictly pragmatic, career-related reasons. What I mean by that is that they never plan to go into the translation industry or teach Chinese. Rather they view mid-level Chinese language skills as a useful tool in their skill set, something that – because of the fast-increasing economic importance of China – will allow them to stand out in the corporate rat race, alongside a prestigious MBA or an accounting qualification. The proportion of such Chinese students that only use their additional language skills as a tool in the mainstream corporate world appears to be higher than for, say, students of French or Italian. These people are much more likely to end up in the boardroom of Fortune 500 companies (and possibly as translation clients) than as freelance Chinese translators or interpreters.

Taking all these factors together, we can confidently answer the question in the title of this post with: “They were never there in the first place”.

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