Chinese to English translators are needed

I do freelance Chinese to English translation for about 20 different translation agencies based in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Florida (some of those 20 agencies give me lots of work every month, while the rest send me the odd small job interspersed with the odd big one).

This week one of my agency clients asked me to give them recommendations for translators because they’re so hard up. They need people. I gave them my list of 5 personally approved C-E translators (ironlady, you’re one of them!), while once again turning down yet another assignment from them because I’m just too busy.

I started this topic and told you all that to tell you this: there’s a future in freelance Chinese to English translation if you are good enough and really want it. China’s growing economic importance and overall influence don’t hurt my field, I’ll tell ya. But here’s another aspect: I’m getting a sense that many people are willing to pay four times as much money to an agency in New York for a native English-speaking translator (me) in order to have the job done right, because they know that the “English-speaking” translator in China working for peanuts is a “monkey.” If your Chinese comprehension and English writing skills are both up to par, you can make a go of it in this business because the customers are there.

Just give yourself five years. I think five is the magic number when it comes to how many years you need to get good and established. For those first few years you might not make much money (I didn’t), but I’m currently writing this from the house I bought using the proceeds of my earnings. Learn Chinese well, practise translating simple sentences from textbooks to see if you have any aptitude for it, help your Taiwanese friends out at their companies by editing the English materials they want to send overseas, and who knows? You may have found yourself a career.

Caveat: you gotta really want it. There are no half measures in this business.

That was an encouraging post… just when I’ve become convinced that my new LE’s with substandard English represent the future of the Chinese to English translation workforce. Do you mind me asking what your background is? When did you start learning Chinese/living in Taiwan and when did you start translating?

You meant five years to establish yourself as a translator, right, not five years from the time you learn “ni hao”? And of course you’re speaking to native English speakers (just to clarify).

Which agency is this, BTW? Are their payment practices sound? Competitive rates?

Lumberjack: I began studying Chinese on my own when I went to Taiwan in 1993. I didn’t take any classes, though for a while I used the green and red textbooks put out by Shita. I began developing an interest in translating in 1998, and jumped in with both feet in 2000.

Ironlady: Yep, five years working as a translator, not five years from the time you begin studying Chinese. And the agency should be contacting you, I would imagine. They do pay, and they pay enough (I don’t want to mention their name on a public forum).

Yes but how can one, as a foreigner in Taiwan, work legally as a freelance translator and gain an ARC other than by marriage to an ROC citizen?

Legally, you can’t. Strictly speaking, unless you are a Taiwan citizen or hold a spousal ARC or an alien permanent residency card and open work permit (obtained by legally residing for five continuous years if married to a local or seven years if single), you need to have a separate work permit for every client/employer you serve. (There may be some exception for students on work-study programs – not sure about this.) Getting numerous multiple work permits is possible in theory, but in practice few people have more than one or two.

In actual practice though, many beginning “freelance” translators will get a work permit/ARC for a part-time job through some organization such as a magazine, newspaper, translation agency, or government agency. They will then pick up other freelance jobs from other clients who do not go through the process of issuing them a work permit but who generally will withhold taxes and issue them withholding statements to file with their taxes at tax time. This is not actually legal from either the translator’s or the client’s point of view, but it has been widespread practice for decades. The tax office does not ask questions when you file taxes on such income, nor when you collect your tax withholding refund if you have one coming (at least I’ve never heard of them doing so – they’re just happy you’re paying tax).

There is nevertheless always some risk of getting in trouble with the authorities for this, but this usually only happens in rare cases where a complaint is filed by a third party. (Occasionally one hears horror stories about competitor translation agencies or jilted partners filing complaints about illegal workers – rarely though.)

If there is any possibility you will stay in Taiwan for a long time, you should try to get an ARC as early as possible and start accumulating years toward the APRC and open work permit.

Search the archives – I’ve commented on this at some point or another here.
Basically, I was told by the dean of the Graduate Institute of Translation and Interpreting at Fujen that work as a freelance translator isn’t illegal as it is not “work” under the Labor Law – something about no supervisor, no insurance, no benefits, no fixed salary. Whether she qualifies as a legal expert or not is questionable, but I can say that playing the game between 1993 and 2004 I never had a problem.

You definitely can’t use freelance work as a basis for residence rights, but if you can figure out some reason to be in Taiwan in teh first place, it seems to be a very, very grey area of the law, and in practice you can front up to the Tax Office with nine or ten tax slips from different translation customers and they will not only accept the fact placidly, but help you get the best deduction (you get a fat deduction for income in category “gao fei” – probably a good month’s salary or more for many).

The trick is to get residency rights. The other trick is that the Tax Office wants to see approximately the same level of income from year to year, or they get suspicious and may even ask you “What’s going on?” If you have a logical answer (went back to school, got married and am devoting self to housekeeping, whatever) they let it go.

Article 51 (3) work permits are a great out for those who have 5 years legal work in the ROC, as you can get a friendly publisher or someone to give you a “pro forma” work permit (or even try a shady translation agency – PM me if you need the name of one! :raspberry: ) or pay a very basic salary in exchange for very minimal work, then make your real income by freelancing. Solves the residence problem and allows you to concentrate on the job at hand – translating.

Some day they may even change the law to recognize us as professionals, but I think that day won’t come during my lifetime, unfortunately.

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porcelainprincess or anyone:

While this topic is still recent, I have a general question. What is the situation with specialization? I’ve seen apparently successful translators, in this forum and others, who seem to work with many different subjects (medicine, tech, etc.), sometimes in more than one source language. I’ve heard from others that a translator’s area(s) of specialization requires the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in that subject. What are your thoughts on that? More specifically, you say five years is good for establishing a career as a translator, but what kind of commitment is required for knowing a subject and its Chinese terminology well enough to translate?

The five year standard is for establishing yourself to be economically viable, I think, not to be professionally good (necessarily). The period of time to become professionally good would vary wildly. The amount of time to be able to live off your translation efforts, unless you have fantastic connections, probably wouldn’t vary as much.

For Chinese level, if you are looking up anything other than truly technical terms in a document, IMHO you probably are not ready to translate professionally, because that would indicate you simply haven’t had enough contact with Chinese documents. Dealing with documents, articles, and writing is different from living in a Chinese-speaking environment (you can live for months without reading a patent, if you try! :smiley: ) and you need to gain as much exposure as possible. There are many good bilingual resources on the Net these days, particularly from the Government of Hong Kong, who seem to have a bilingual mania (bless them!)

In the beginning as a C>E translator, you really can’t specialize too much (at least on the US/European market) because you won’t be getting enough work to pick and choose. Then again, you do have to pick and choose because there is nothing more damaging than accepting work you cannot do to a professional standard – word gets around – and you shouldn’t accept things you feel more than 10% uneasy about. (You may always feel some percent uneasy, or you may get over it after awhile – that depends!)

So how do you decide? You need to be able to write about the subject at hand as though you are thoroughly familiar with it in English. You don’t have to come up with all the connections between all the points – that should be supplied by the original author – but you should be able to make sense out of it. Understand it. Translating word-by-word is not translation. We all hit things we have no clue about now and then, but these days it’s easy to get in touch with others with more experience and ask, so those problems aren’t as serious as they were in the days before the widespread use of the Internet, and for a good translator, it’s a “spot” of cluelessness, not entire paragraphs.

For a small example about writing, if you’re doing a document on insurance, you need to know that the word is “premiums”, not “fees”. It’s a good idea to brainstorm for five semi-specific terms you might expect to find in an article about the topic at hand and Google them, then read the resulting articles in English. Be sure that the web sites come from native English speaking places, though – no sense learning wrong terminology, and you can certainly find poorly written English on the Web in great abundance.

Your final product should sound as it should sound – not like Chinglish. This is the biggest stumbling block to go from pedestrian okay-ness to really good translation for the C>E combination, IMHO. Many people know what the Chinese means, or can look things up, but they never get from constructing a painful English sentence to writing in English, and although their grammar might be a step up, they’re not much better than the Chinese native speaker who is convinced his English is perfect and he can translate from C>E. Get so that you can write freely in a wide variety of styles (technical, engineering, patent, legal, contract, patent, diploma, advertising, whatever) in your target language, and you’re well on the way to being able to command the big money. And you acquire these styles through reading. If you did a degree in the subject, you would have been in contact with many documents and books and articles on the subject; since you didn’t, you just cram!

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Great thread.

While I am not a translator, I am finding it very interesting to get a peek in on what you all do (and how you do it).

Just of curiousity: Are the majority of the articles and text you are translating in traditional Chinese characters? Or do some translators also translate documents with simplified characters as well?

It would seem that with the PRC being such a big country, there might be more of a demand for translating documents with the simplified characters. Yet, on the other hand, I guess there must be plenty of demand for translation of text from Taiwan, Singapore, and HK.

Just wondering if anyone sees more of a demand for one or the other.

I do about half and half, I’d say. The big lawsuits (read: months of work, sometimes) tend to be coming out of the PRC these days, as folks get around to suing over ridiculous stuff that has been going on for some time. But I get about as much work in traditional characters as I do in simplified, and this month I did about 90% traditional because I picked up a long, long law from Taiwan for a car manufacturer. That’s for written translation; the majority of the interpreting market outside of Taiwan deals with the PRC variant(s) of Chinese, and that means simplified characters, although for the most part if someone else is translating the documents it doesn’t affect me one way or the other, since all I have to do is read them. Choosing the right variants is important, though.

[quote=“fee”]Yet, on the other hand, I guess there must be plenty of demand for translation of text from Taiwan, Singapore, and HK.

Just wondering if anyone sees more of a demand for one or the other.[/quote]
My impression of the translation market in HK is that companies that really give a shit about getting it done right (HSBC, Cathay Pacific) hoard the small number of translators who as much as could ever be expected can work both ways. These folks seem to be able to produce copy that is editable by a non-Chinese speaking native speaker of English. That seems to be the way they do it and I’ve seen job adverts describing these two roles. The government and any other companies that don’t sell their products or services to many foreigners just hire locals who work both ways and produce reams upon reams of rubbish. Aside from the really big companies like HSBC, the Swire Group or a few other big banks, nobody even has a native English speaking proof reader in the process, much less a native English speaking C>E translator. They don’t even acknowledge that the latter exist.

My wife works for a company that publishes airline magazines. An in-house local had been doing most of their translation (badly), but when this translator recently quit, my wife tried to talk the boss into hiring the C>E work out to native English speaking freelancers. She initially had the boss convinced. She showed her that it would ultimately be cheaper and explained to her that the end product would be better. I even contacted PP and a few other translators I know of to get their contact details. In the end, though, the boss changed her mind. They just can’t believe that a non-native Chinese speaker could translate from C to E. At first she insisted that they would send the work out to a freelancer, but that it would be proof read by some fuckwit local friend of hers who would be paid BY THE HOUR. My wife explained that this would be a waste of money, especially if this dumbass local, whose English is no better than my wife’s, actually tried to improve the translation. The boss then insisted that my wife call around to a few translation agencies in HK and ask about their rates for C>E done by a native English speaker. None of them even claimed to have any native English speakers on their books (which I found a bit surprising; I expected them to lie) and a few of them quite rudely told my wife that “foreigners can’t translate Chinese.” The company finally just gave the work to some mainland agency. The result is complete crap. Some of it is obviously machine translation. But my wife’s company doesn’t care.

It seems to me that the opportunities for a native English speaking C>E translator in HK are few and far between. The big companies have in-house systems in place that are probably pretty wasteful, but they ultimately get passable translations. The government and everybody else don’t really give a squat about the final product and/or think that locals are good enough to get the job done right.

One thing I’m curious about concerning translation in Taiwan is how many students coming out of the MA programs actually go freelance or even think of that as a goal. I know a lot of young folks who studied translation here. I’d say fewer than 10% of them go into translation when they finish their degrees, and all of those who do go into translation go for in-house work. I know people in other countries who started with an in-house job just to get started, but nearly all of them had the goal from the very beginning of eventually doing nothing but freelance work. I’ve never even met a 100% freelancer in HK, and of the translators I do know, none of them are interested in going freelance. Most of them aren’t even interested in the odd side job. Interpreting seems to be the same way. HK translators just don’t seem interested in working for themselves. This confirms for me what I’ve thought all along: people who’ve got the skills and want to develop them further go freelance. People who can’t compete for the jobs from all over stay in-house, which I imagine makes for an extremely boring career of translating the same sorts of documents over and over again with few productivity boosting tools at hand. The tranlators I know in HK have never heard of the software that PP and Ironlady have talked about here.

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I can’t figure out what translators coming out of grad programs do with their degrees either. There seem to be one or two people every year who can translate both ways and, with help from a professional editor, can turn out great product in English. But these people are very unusual. The rest are simply hopeless. But then again there isn’t much of a market either since Taiwanese companies passionately hate paying for services. They just grit their teeth and do things in English. That leaves government work and a few other scraps.

I’m describing the market for Taiwanese translators coming out of grad programs. Pros like Ironlady always seem to find work somehow :slight_smile:

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My classmates from Fujen’s GITIS are getting out of T&I like rats from a burning building for the most part. A few reasons:

  1. The interpreting market is saturated, and the E>C market in Taiwan pays peanuts. You also take a lot of abuse as the sentiment is, “There are plenty of folks who can do this work, so shut up and accept the conditions we impose on you.” [Translation agencies, by and large. Not all but most.]
  2. The schools somehow manage to turn people off of T&I after they get into school. There is NO linkage to the real world at all. I think the only reason I managed to get through the MA at Fujen was that I really knew what the market was like and that all the hoops they wanted us to jump through really didn’t matter in the real world.
  3. The schools are accepting people who are not truly bilingual nor even close (myself a case in point, and I know many others). T&I schools still “believe” that they are dealing with post-WWII Europe, where people grew up bi- or tri-lingual and just had to learn the skills of interpreting. That hasn’t been the case with T&I students in Taiwan for about 10 years now. The first folks to go to Monterey for MA degrees were mostly double-As (two true native languages) but you don’t see much of that now, and the schools refuse to acknowledge the fact that the students need language support and training.
  4. The students being accepted are getting younger and younger – traditionally you had to have real work experience before getting into an MA program for T&I, now they’re taking them out of the English department of Taida – which means their Shakespeare is considerable but they have never read a contract in English. Not that they see contracts during their tenure at T&I school for the most part. I still remember the E>C translation class [held at the teacher’s house because it was oh-so-hard to get such a good teacher you know, so the fact that ten students had to drive over an hour each way and walk up four flights of stairs meant nothing] which featured mostly book reviews from the New York Times. Lots of emphasis on how artsy Teacher’s English was, and very little on what the students would be expected to translate on the market.
  5. Students have no idea how to run a business, and that’s half of making it as a freelancer. Self-promotion is the thing. If your languages suck but you have good self-promotion, and preferably some letters after your name, you’ve got it made. (Hey, it’s working for me so far… :smiley: )
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Jive Turkey,

Sure do know what you mean about the “foreigners can’t read Chinese” mentality. When I tell a Chinese that I translate Chinese into English, they often react like I’m putting them on. Perhaps they are convinced that the Chinese language is congenital. Even when I was working as an in-house translator, they had a local Taiwanese first translate the Chinese into really nasty English; the boss actually told me not to bother looking at the original Chinese, as if the English were actually comprehensible!