Focus
From Specialist to Generalist
The emerging translation market in Singapore
Susan XU Yun
Susan XU Yun is an associate professor and the head of Translation and Interpretation at Singapore University of Social Sciences. She pioneered the certification examinations for professional interpreters and translators in Singapore. These examinations are compulsory for translators and interpreters working in public services in Singapore. She is the author of Translation of Autobiography: Narrating Self, Translating the Other.
Susan XU Yun headshot
From Specialist to Generalist
The emerging translation market in Singapore
Susan XU Yun headshot
Susan XU Yun
Susan XU Yun is an associate professor and the head of Translation and Interpretation at Singapore University of Social Sciences. She pioneered the certification examinations for professional interpreters and translators in Singapore. These examinations are compulsory for translators and interpreters working in public services in Singapore. She is the author of Translation of Autobiography: Narrating Self, Translating the Other.
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ultilingualism in Singapore necessitates translation activities in everyday life. Public discourse needs to be translated from English into three other official languages — namely, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil — to connect with citizens of these respective ethnic groups. Though translation services are not mandatory in the private sector, businesses seem to proactively engage customers through multilingual communication.

“The translation market and developing economies: A preliminary study of ASEAN countries,” published in 2013, points to a market in Singapore that is “driven by foreign, not local, demand” and “derived from external trade-related activities.” More often than not, translation or language gaffes detected in official documents have caused public outcry, alerting the public to substandard translation practices that result from lack of standardization and regulation.

Contrary to the common belief that bilingualism is conducive to translation and interpretation, there has been a deeply rooted prejudice against it in this small, advanced economy. Translation was never thought of as a respectable pursuit in Singapore, and neither was the profession promising or lucrative. Misconceptions prevailed. Many believed that anyone proficient in two languages could translate or interpret. As a result, translation professionals in Singapore have been trapped in an underdeveloped market that sets low entry barriers and prioritizes price over quality. Substandard translations ensue.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. In the recent decade, government-led initiatives have been launched to improve the local translation landscape. The National Translation Committee, chaired by Senior Minister of State Sim Ann, Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), has been formed to enhance whole-of-government translation capabilities as well as raise standards across the industry. The Translation Talent Development Scheme and Community-in-Translation program are available to spot and groom local translation talent.

So some due recognition is now given to translation and interpreting professionals. The minister herself well understands the challenges: she translated a book, Chasing Rainbow, from Chinese to English, and completed a graduate program in translation. Her passion for lifelong learning goes well with Singapore’s national SkillsFuture movement.

Paradigm shifts
A government-funded initiative called SkillsFuture Singapore promotes a culture of lifelong learning to enable Singaporeans to acquire skills that meet the demands of the future economy. The initiative supports industry transformation to expand sectors with potential. Professional service has been identified as a key high-value growth sector for Singapore. Translation could be one of these.

Generic skills and competencies, referring to employability skills, are an integral part of the skills framework. There is a long list: communication, computational thinking, creative thinking, digital literacy, global mindset, interpersonal skills, managing diversity, problem solving, and transdisciplinary thin-king, just to name a few. The list overlaps with the top five soft skills and ten hard skills companies need most in 2020, according to recent research conducted by LinkedIn.

For as long as the activity has existed, translation in Singapore has been considered a skill rather than an academic discipline — labeled as an art or a craft, rather than a science.

Contrary to the common perception of “jack of all trades, master of none,” generalization has become a key to success, at least according to a 2018 survey by LinkedIn on “what it takes to become a CEO.” The survey concluded that the commonality among CEOs is not what they studied at university, but their ability to handle complex problems, inspire others, and prove themselves at every stage of their careers. The shift from specialization to generalization is also observed by David Epstein, the author of New York Times bestseller Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein posits that a person skilled in a particular field but having broad knowledge and abilities can make connections across far-flung domains and ideas. This could sharpen their problem-solving tactics in an increasingly complex world. Our society’s transition toward this recognition of skills bodes well for translation and interpreting.

When we translate, we frequently step into the unknown as the materials we translate often have nothing to do with our domain knowledge. We have to make sense of the unknown, drawing upon our knowledge accumulated over time, reflecting on our past experience. In the process, we use technology — perhaps more extensively and long before many other professions.

Climbing up the value chain
The threat of technology “dis-intermediation” powered by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has created much anxiety among translators and interpreters. Their roles in facilitating cross-cultural communication are likely to diminish further as more and more bilingual and tech-savvy millennials join the workforce. In multilingual, globalized Singapore, professionals working in the field of translation and interpretation are like drops in the ocean facing the tidal wave of technology disintermediation. Our options are limited: go with the flow or sink the ship.

Recent breakthroughs in AI-powered machine translation (MT) claiming human parity can both pose challenges and create opportunities in Singapore. For example, an MT engine known as SG Translate was jointly developed by the MCI and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) under the Smart Nation and Digital Government drive. It is said to have produced good translations that suit the local context. SG Translate now supports the trans-lation division of the MCI, which undertakes the most important translation work for the government, enabling the team to handle a higher volume of translation within a shorter duration. To fight against COVID-19, the engine was deployed to translate public communication materials such as a WhatsApp daily update.

The use of MT augments human translators, though, and human touch is still essential. We need to deal with subtle expressions and complex structures, and most importantly, to resolve conflicts arising from sociocultural, geopolitical differences. The increasing use of MT underlines an urgent need for a mindset change. Now we have machines to do the basic, tedious linguistic transfer, we humans must regenerate ourselves to create higher values than ever before.

The interdisciplinary nature of translation and interpreting gives us the opportunity to learn, unlearn, and relearn. This does not mean that the bilingual skills that we have spent years honing are going down the drain. They are still very useful and relevant. What we should now focus on is making our skills transferable to those anticipated to be in greater demand. For example, a bilingual advantage allows us to embrace a global mindset. Translating culture-specific phenomena makes us adaptable and creative, especially in the case of untranslatability. To thread our way through conflicts between cultures, religions, and ideologies, we strengthen our ability to manage diversity. Our digital literacy developed over the years in the use of computer-aided-translation (CAT) tools may allow us to take technological advancements as fish to water. These skills will help us climb up the value chain.

Undeniably, some parts of our thinking need to be adjusted. We might have become too accustomed to our dominance with CAT tools. Now we have to adjust ourselves to auxiliary roles — human-aided MT. While we can still take pride in our grasp of the art of translation thanks to abstract thinking, we need to gear ourselves towards computational thinking by understanding big data and machine learning. We can then play a part in training neural MT systems. In so doing, we turn our passiveness into activeness.

Translation industry profession-als in Singapore are lucky. Even though they are just drops in the ocean, they can tap on the vast resources made available through the national SkillsFuture movement to reskill and upskill. While AI-powered changes continue to make waves, those who think broadly and embrace diverse perspectives can steady the ship in a stormy global economy.