Having been working in Chinese language services (both translation and interpretation) since 2003, we’ve seen plenty of popular but ultimately wrong perceptions about these services. Client decisions based upon misunderstandings of best practice and incorrect assumptions usually cause problems both small (need to re-translate and often re-print) and large (severely damaged corporate credibility).
I asked the Illuminant language services team to summarize the main misunderstandings that new clients often have. The team and I have ranked these main misunderstandings according to potential for trouble and damage.
Please note that by “language services” we are mostly talking about reshaping English into Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese or vice versa, because that’s what the Illuminant team usually focuses on. This post may or may not be applicable in cases of converting between any other two languages.
Also, we differentiate between “translation” (working with written language) and “interpretation” (helping Chinese and English speakers understand each other in real-time). The terms are frequently confused however the roles are very different and call for distinct skills and training.
I hope that the short post that follows will help you to make good decisions within your Chinese language services!
Myth #1: Interpretation is harder than translation. Therefore our interpreter will do good translations (and vice versa).
This is only sometimes true, and depends entirely on the individual under discussion. It is a dangerous myth because most individuals do not possess the skills and training necessary for both disciplines.
Interpretation and translation are very different tasks. Interpretation is to facilitate quick exchanges of essential points. It requires lightning-fast responses and excellent accuracy, but not much more. Less than perfect phrasing is largely okay, and omission of some not-so-important details is frequently tolerable. These are judgement calls made by the interpreter, and her tough training has (hopefully) given her the skills to apply good judgement in real-time across a range of subjects and contexts. On the other hand, translation projects usually have more generous deadlines, but a much harsher demand for quality. A translator must deliver whatever is written in clear words (the facts and figures), and what’s not (the style, any tension, suspense, the sense of humor, and a dozen other factors).
Interpretation is like journalism, where a reporter writes down where, when, what and why in a short but essential piece, then get it published overnight. On the other hand, translation is like artistic painting, where the painter captures the place, the people, the light, the atmosphere, and expressions on every face with brush strokes. A reporter and a painter can tell the same story, but there’s no way of saying which is better or worse. Many professionals are capable of both, but never assume that your interpreter can do accurate and effective translation, or (the more common and dangerous assumption) that your translator will make a good interpreter.
Myth #2: Translation apps are good makeshift solutions. Its okay to rely on them.
We’re the first to admit that translation apps are often “good enough” for many languages. However this is never the case for any European language into Chinese or Chinese into any European language.
Unlike English, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin and similar languages, the Chinese language has a unique and particularly annoying feature: lack of spacing between words. Chinese people process sentences into words correctly without trouble because they use common sense and context while reading. Computers currently simply don’t have such faculties.
Also, in the Simplified Chinese system, one character often has multiple pronunciations, thus multiple sets of meanings. This adds more fuel to the fire by going beyond the petty intelligence of computers. That’s a reason why every now and then there are hilarious pictures popping up on the web showing Chinese signs mistranslating “to dry” or “dried” into, um, “to have sexual intercourse with”. There is always a risk of critical miscommunication when using computers for English–Chinese translation. Take extreme caution, and use a real (qualified) human whenever possible.
Myth #3: Students from Chinese “foreign language universities” make good and cheap translators/interpreters.
Chinese students (that is, Chinese nationals studying, say, English at language universities) are definitely good budget-wise. But language services, especially translation, is a two-stage task that Chinese students are particularly ill-suited for.
Accurate translation requires understanding and comprehension of the source text. This is the first stage. The second stage, which is so frequently overlooked, is to recreate everything under another culture-language framework while keeping all of the spirit of the source text. English to Chinese translators must be as close to professional Chinese writers as possible, and vice versa, and sadly Chinese literature and writing is usually not what foreign language colleges train their students with.
Also, Chinese university students have invariably lived a much more sheltered life than their western counterparts, and lack a certain worldliness and diversity of experience and exposure to ideas. These factors invariably result in inadequate and often damaging language work, since “I think I made a mistake” is not commonly in the contemporary student’s vocabulary.
Myth #4: This is academic/professional document. Don’t bother with translators. Let’s find a Ph.D in that field to do it.
This, more often than not, is wrong. A lot of people, especially Chinese publishing houses, hold it as a fundamental truth. The unfortunate result is a mountain of low quality book translations released to the market each year, scaring readers away and lowering the quality standard of the entire publishing industry.
A remarkable example is The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (sorry if you are reading this, Mr. Paul Strathern). The Chinese version was done in such a crude form that to a bilingual-capable reader, the English version is far easier to understand. The translation was riddled with stale phrasing and unrivaled ambiguity.
The math should be done this way: it takes a couple weeks to train a translator about industry basics, but at least a couple years to hone a science professor’s bilingual reading/writing skills. Language workers are professional impersonators by nature. They can toss the jargon very well after a little training.
Consider scholars first only when the document in question is really, really hardcore academic that translators/interpreters need to be trained from fundamental theories.
Myth #5: We have an app to localize into Chinese — its not complex like a novel would be. Go grab anyone who can speak English and Chinese. What could possibly go wrong?
Software localization is a very special kind of translation. It involves a lot of programming codes or tags interwoven with plaintext strings. A translator with some programming training background is more desirable for the job. Get specialized people, use specialized tools (Trados, Logoport, etc). “Some random translator” carelessly manipulating what should not be translated will likely end up in endless debugging and lots of time burned.
Myth #6: We are new in China. Whom shall we trust with our language works? It’s definitely safe contracting that internationally renowned language agency, right?
Not necessarily right. Multinational language agencies have good credibility and look safe. However, signing a contract with them doesn’t necessarily mean your work is actually done by their careful hands.
The author of this post was briefly involved in the localization project of a massively popular rapid application development (RAD) software suite. The owner of the property, one of the few giants of the global IT industry, entrusted the project to a leader-of-the-industry language agency, however, it was re-contracted at least once to a small Chinese company, and that was how your author was appointed to it (in a job prior to Illuminant!)
That’s it for mythbusting. The moral of the story? Let’s summarize it like this:
- Professional communication needs professional language workers.
- There are different kinds of professionals. Usually language workers best others in language-related works, no matter what’s the theme or topic.
- Even within the pocket universe of language services, there are different kinds of professionals. Some are good at talking, some best in writing, others could talk to machines. Choose according to your specific needs.
- Spend some time, find a trustworthy language service provider, and stay with them.
- There is no such thing as “too much proofreading” in the game of word-spinning. Establish a final proofreading or quality control department in-house. Or get a strategic partner for that.
Here at Illuminant, we do things seriously, be it PR, strategic communications and very much so for language services. We know about good and bad, and share the knowledge with our clients. We believe that an open and honest way of doing business benefits everybody.
Feel free to contact us for more tips on language works — we’ve been professionals in the translation and interpretation disciplines since 2003.
For more insight into Illuminant’s view of Chinese language services, see Illuminant’s Approach to Chinese-English Translation and I’m Passionate About Language.
Article by Kane Gao, Illuminant’s head of research.