Perspectives: Translating in Asia

In 2010, I left my job as a terminologist at IBM and moved from Canada to Hong Kong to complete PhD studies in terminology management. Having already been exposed to the translation industry in Asia, I noticed many differences compared to the West. I wanted to learn more about it, and hopefully contribute in some way to its development. In the past six years, I have participated in translation-oriented events and lectured at universities in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Japan, South Korea and, of course, Hong Kong.

The last major event I attended was the Asia-Pacific Translation and Interpretation Forum (APTIF), in Xi’an, China, last April. The opening ceremony was an extravaganza — a language Olympics — with megatron screens blazing visuals and giant speakers thundering energizing music. Countless young aspiring translators dressed in color-coordinated T-shirts were running about, unable to contain their excitement. The message was clear: translation and interpreting are vital for China’s economic growth.

It seems that China is not alone in coming to this realization. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an economic consortium of ten member nations: Negara Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Some leading figures in the ASEAN language industry are seeking to establish a Center for Multilingualism, Translation and Interpretation (ASEAN-MTI). The Center’s mission will be to provide language services and training to support the three pillars of the ASEAN agreement: economic growth, social progress and cultural development.

Nor is it a coincidence that since 2013, a LocWorld conference has been held in Asia every year: Singapore (2013), Bangkok (2014), Shanghai (2015) and Tokyo (2016), whereas in the ten years prior to that there was only one. I attended them all, and the number of attendees and exhibits grew rapidly. Certainly in my case, the networking opportunities have paid off.

Yet in spite of this growing interest, my distinct impression is that the translation industry in the East is lagging behind the West in some ways. Consider translator training. Until recently, only a handful of universities in China offered degrees in translation. In response to the increasing demand, there are now quite a few. This is welcome news. But as these newer programs are still developing, there are gaps in their curricula. In most courses, students are asked to translate texts in various genres (legal, literary, cultural) and the translations are graded by the professor. It is difficult to find any courses on translation theory, software localization, translation project management, terminology management, computer-assisted translation, technical writing, language standards, XML markup languages and so forth. I’m not saying that courses in these areas don’t exist. That could be easily challenged. But I maintain that the curricula in general are unbalanced, not only in China but in Asia as a whole. The graduating students I have spoken to had little, if any, exposure to these areas, and they desperately want some. The problem isn’t easy to solve: often the professors themselves are in the same boat.

Let’s look at terminology management, one of my obvious interests. I was shocked to learn that my university, which has a strong translation and linguistics department, does not offer a single course in this area. To make matters worse, the department head was not interested in having me teach one either, even though I am qualified to do so and have taught at other universities. As time went by, I learned that in this region, terminology is virtually unknown as a scholarly discipline, and managing terminology is not recognized as a necessary skill for translators. This is in sharp contrast with the West, where terminology management has been a core discipline in translation studies for decades. There are even universities in the West that offer dedicated degrees in terminology management, right up to the PhD and even post-doctorate level. You can’t find this in Asia.

Let’s now look at the maturity level of language service providers (LSPs) with respect to terminology management. After completing my PhD, I focused on my terminology management consultancy business. I have helped several China-based LSPs prepare a service proposal in response to a request for proposal (RFP) from a major global enterprise. Generally, LSPs in Asia do not invest in developing terminology resources. At most, they create some bilingual glossaries in Excel. But global enterprises have an expectation, explicit or not, that there should be a “proper plan” for addressing terminology as part of an agile translation and localization service. Since the LSP doesn’t have any such plan in place, I create one on the fly for the purposes of the proposal. However, if the LSP doesn’t win this client, the plan is abandoned until the next RFP comes along, at which time it is revived, at least on paper. This reactive (instead of proactive) approach means that the LSP is not prepared to deliver the promised service.

Then there are recognized best practices and standards. Let me focus on two golden rules of translation: (1) do not use a pivot language, and (2) translate only into your mother tongue. These two rules are commonly broken in Asia. A pivot language is the target language of a translation project, when it is subsequently used as the source language of another translation. For example, a company in China creates a website in Chinese, translates it into English, and then sends the English version for translation into other languages. This approach is adopted for economic reasons. First, local Chinese writers are more widely available (and therefore cheaper), than English ones, and they can easily communicate with local staff (engineers, marketing). So Chinese is often the source language in China. Second, translators who can translate from Chinese to most languages other than English, such as Portuguese for example, are hard to find and therefore more expensive. A Chinese-to-Portuguese translator should, in theory, be a native Portuguese speaker with Chinese as a second language — a rare find indeed. So translating directly from Chinese to Portuguese (and likewise many other languages) is ruled out. Third, translation training in China focuses on the Chinese/English language pair; local translators supposedly competent in English are widely available. And it is relatively easy to find an English to Portuguese freelance translator in an online translation marketplace. So translating from Chinese into English, and then English into other languages, makes good business sense, or so it seems.

Notice that I referred to local Chinese translators as “supposedly” competent in English. I have no intention here to challenge the competency of translators in China. On the contrary: they are diligent, hardworking and high achievers. This is where the second golden rule comes in: always translate from your second language into your first, and never in the opposite direction. As a translator, my mother tongue is English, and my second language is French. Therefore, I am qualified to translate from French into English, not the reverse. In Asia however, translators are often required to translate from their mother tongue into their second language — the wrong direction. This is once again a consequence of market pressures. In China translation from Chinese into English is much more in demand than from English into Chinese. And finding a translator in China whose mother tongue is English can be quite difficult.

Violating these two golden rules can have serious consequences on translation quality. An English translation created by a translator whose mother tongue isn’t English — no matter how qualified he or she might be — will not match the quality of a translation done by a native speaker; in fact, there will be obvious problems. Then, the pivot occurs: this problem-ridden English translation is given to other translators as the source text. The problems snowball. Other language services can also suffer. One Chinese LSP I worked with, which claimed to have qualified French linguists in-house, added part-of-speech and gender values to the French terms in an Excel glossary. I was shocked to see the number of mistakes, none of which would have happened if a native speaker were used.

If an LSP feels that it must break the golden rules so that it can offer competitive pricing, for instance, then embracing technology becomes critical. Using English style and grammar checkers, a terminology database and a clean translation memory can help to mitigate (not solve) the problems. Unfortunately these technical aids have not yet been widely adopted anywhere, much less in Asia. In fact, most people in this situation who I speak to are not even aware that they are breaking any translation rules, that in so doing they are severely impacting translation quality or that technology could help. And as we all know, quality takes second place behind cost, so even when the problems are brought out into the open, there is not much incentive to fix them.

Global market pressures will continue to have impacts on the translation industry that affect quality. The emergence of machine translation is another case in point (that will have to wait for another article). Key players in Asia — teachers, translators and LSPs — are merely reacting to these pressures. However, if clients of language services are aware of the impacts that market-driven decisions can have on quality, and what that means for their business (weaker brand, unsatisfied customers, for example), then they are empowered to influence those decisions. An informed client can negotiate the terms of the translation contract to get the results he or she wants and avoid unpleasant surprises.

Finally, lets give some credit to initiatives such as the ASEAN-MTI. They can play a very positive role in setting standards and establishing best practices for the language industry. Similar initiatives need to emerge in other jurisdictions. Those three pillars — economic growth, social progress and cultural development — depend on it.