China has a culture that goes back nearly 4,000 years and currently hosts the world’s fastest-growing economy. The Chinese economy grew at an average rate of 10% a year for the three decades up to 2010. In per capita terms — a rough indication of living standards — China advanced by 1,300% from 1980 to 2010.
Over the past few years, economic growth has slowed down. In 2014, the Chinese economy grew 7.4% and the International Monetary Fund’s most recent forecast is 6.8% growth for 2015 and 6.3% for 2016. However, the Chinese government wanted a slowdown and after decades of growth, it is inevitable and better to have a gentle slowdown rather than crash.
Even with a slowdown in growth, China is the second biggest importer of goods and services in the world. With a population of 1.3 billion, it is not hard to conclude that there is also a growing demand for Chinese language services. As western goods and services flood the Chinese market, global organizations have to be able to communicate and engage with customers in native Chinese locales.
Many Chinese are keen to buy foreign brands and now have the disposable income to afford them. The Chinese government is also actively promoting Chinese goods and culture, which is generating demand for content to be translated from Chinese into top languages such as English and French.
In Interbrand’s latest report in October 2014, Chinese telecommunications and network equipment provider Huawei made global brand history as the first Chinese brand to enter the report with 65% of its revenue coming from outside of China. This accelerated globalization in and out of China over the past two decades shows that the Chinese localization industry has grown rapidly.
In China, it is known that there is a lack of translator retention in the localization industry. Many qualified people do not stay in the role of translator in the long term because translation is not perceived as a desirable profession by many Chinese parents and communities. Qualified translators see translation as a stepping stone to another career path, and translators are often seen as the lowest link in the localization production chain. This leads to high turnover, which can impact translation quality for enterprise clients and those clients seeking highly accurate technical translations when using less experienced or qualified language service providers.
Standard Chinese (also known as Mandarin, Putonghua and Guoyu) is classed as a mega-language with nearly 1.2 billon native speakers (around 16% of the world’s population). Standard Chinese includes the writing systems of Traditional and Simplified Chinese. In the Welocalize 2014 Language Report, Simplified Chinese was second in the language ranking with Traditional Chinese ranking twelfth in word count. The demand for translation into Chinese has increased significantly as the Chinese economy has grown. According to independent research firm Common Sense Advisory in 2015, global marketers need 14 languages to reach 90% of the world’s population and simplified Chinese ranks right up there as the number two top tier language, with 21% share of the global online audience and 36.5% share of online gross domestic product.
Even though China has experienced massive economic growth over the past years, the translation services industry remains relatively immature. Many small and medium sized companies use university students for translations. This is good for language students to supplement their income; however, this can impact quality and it also puts a downward pressure on the income of the professional translators, both freelance and in-house. As opportunities open up in other areas of industry, qualified translators will look elsewhere for career development and higher income.
Chinese translation service companies are optimistic about the future of business having Chinese as a source or target language. The Translators Association of China (TAC) was founded in 1982 and it is the only national association for the translation and interpreting service industry in China. According to the latest TAC report, the number of organizations registered is 642 with 2,083 individuals, although TAC statistics show that there is a shortage of experienced, senior translators, which could restrict the industry’s development.
It would seem many young people are training as translators because it is highly desirable to be fluent in English and Chinese, though it is not considered a long-term profession. Many of those working in the Chinese translation industry are highly qualified. Figures issued by TAC show that 96% of full-time translators have a bachelor’s degree, 23% have a master’s degree and 9% have a doctorate degree. Translation as a starter career is popular, especially Chinese into English, as the English language is very important in China.
Liang Shuang is head of the translation department of The School of Translation and Interpreting at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). Liang Shuang explained how the BLCU offers a wide range of translation, computer-aided translation and project management courses. Each translation course is given by native language teachers and in terms of applicants, there is increasingly more competition to enter the Master’s Degree of Translation and Interpreting (MTI) each year.
“To qualify as a professional translator in China, the academic way is to study the MTI program for two years then work for one to two years as an intern,” said Liang Shuang. “When I qualified after three years of study in ESIT Paris and one year as an intern, I still felt I had a long road to run to be able to deliver translations that were high enough quality to be used in the global business world. Many students in China study language and linguistics but may not have the right skills to be able to apply this knowledge to translation in the international business world.”
Salary prospects seem to be one of the key drivers to creating stickiness in this profession in China. As the cost of living in China continues to rise, especially in the mainland’s first tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, it is not just the respect that certain professions earn that attracts talented young people to certain careers, but more importantly the long term salary prospects.
“It is relatively easy to find work as a translator, freelance or otherwise, because there is such a strong demand for translations in a number of language pairs,” said Shuang. “However, in China, translation is perceived as a hard career without a good income. Many see it as a stepping stone to work for a large international company in a more ‘profitable’ or ‘easier’ job, like project management, quality management or engineering. Historically, these roles only existed in Europe and the United States but now these opportunities exist in China with many of the multilanguage vendors providing full-time opportunities in these areas. We do find that interpreting is a popular area because many of the students think interpreting will provide a better income after they graduate, and they’re right, interpreting work generally does pay more in China.”
In China, many small to medium-sized translation companies use university students. This means that anyone who understands English could apply for translation work. This affects the income of professional and in-house translators, as it pushes up the supply of translators. This can also negatively impact quality. However, as the demand for Chinese translations for all content types, from technical documentation through to transcreation, increases from large, global brands, it will create demand for high quality translations.
Not only do large global organizations require language skills, they also require translators who have knowledge about the target markets and the products and services for which they are translating. Today’s translators must also possess the right computing skills and ability to integrate translation automation into the work.
“There are a lot of translators in the Chinese market but it is difficult to find very good translators who deliver quality translations and can work with the relevant computer tools,” noted Emily Wei, sales manager at Linguitronics Co., Ltd., in Shanghai. “It takes several years for them to qualify and they need to experience a lot of projects for them to become professional translators. In China, though most people learn at least two languages, only a few people can transfer the two languages freely, skillfully and artfully to meet the high standard required by industry. Students do see translation as a stepping stone to other professions, such as management positions in a large global company, because those professions pay well.”
Wei continued, “As the localization and translation industry draws more and more attention, the situation might be changed some day. With the increase in demand for localization and translation projects in China, we do find it a challenge to find qualified translators with the right level of experience. At Linguitronics, we continuously recruit and train translators to help them develop their skills.”
Where does the future lie?
One of the key factors to creating more stickiness in the Chinese translation industry is to forge strong links between industry and education institutions, such as BLCU. This will attract talent, provide them with the right skills to have a lifetime career in translation and not just a stepping stone to other more lucrative careers.
More information and education on translation as a long-term career will help older Chinese generations and societies view translation as a desired, coveted profession. As Western goods and services continue to enter the Chinese market, the demand for high-quality translations will increase, giving appropriately paid work to qualified translators, rather than using inexperienced individuals who are good linguists but not necessarily good translators.
The demand for translation for marketing and sales materials is increasing and this type of content requires the skills of a professional translator and can command a good salary that over time will increase the perception of translation as a profession.
“A challenging part of localization and translation in China is the increased demand in work from Chinese to English or into other languages, like French,” said Shuang. “A lot of translations are from Chinese to foreign languages, but only a few foreign translators have Chinese as language B or C in their language pair. So we have to train more Chinese translators to be qualified to do these jobs. The Chinese government has set up projects with the purpose of connecting China with other countries and promoting Chinese culture to the outside world. We have to train our students to know languages but also other skills that will help them further understand the extent and impact of their translations.”
How do we raise the perceptions of tomorrow’s Chinese translators? The answer does seem to lie in establishing strong links between industry, academia and government initiatives. This will ensure translators have the right skills to work in the localization industry long-term, meeting growing demand and quality levels. Hopefully, over time, translation will be further established as a well-respected and appropriately paid profession. As China continues its rise on the worldwide economic stage, the demand for language services in a variety of language pairs and content types is there and set to grow. With institutions such as BLCU working closely with industry, the future is looking bright for the next generation of translators working in China.