Translation market in China

News just out from the Translators Association of China (TAC): China’s translation industry generated about 11 billion Yuan (US$ 1.32 billion) in 2003, and is expected to grow to over 20 billion Yuan (US$ 2.5 billion) in 2005. Or if you prefer this source, they even forecast that this market could double in the “not-too-distant future.” In other words, during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The effect of large international events (e.g. Tokyo in 1964, and Seoul in 1988) on kick-starting the translation/interpretation professions in Asia is well known. And China’s entry into the WTO is obviously growing Chinese translation volume (and hopefully quality). However, the large current supplier base is considered to be poorly trained, structured and supported.

In November last year, the State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine issued an official Specification for Translation Service, which began in June, to provide objective criteria on translation qualifications and compulsory regulations. A certified translator examination system, China Aptitude Test for Translators and Interpreters, was also introduced last year. So far, about 30 percent of the 4,600 people who have sat the exam have passed.


I imagine this training effort is largely due to Wusun Lin, the then VP of the TAC, whom I met in Shanghai in 1998. At the time he told me that, there were almost no translator training programs worth the name, but estimated that there was a translator/ interpreter population of 500,000(!), 10% of which were “accredited professionals”. This figure of course covered translators working between the 55 official ethnic and linguistic minorities in the country. I notice there same figure is being quoted today, yet there is still “a 90 percent shortage in the number of qualified Chinese-foreign-language translators.”

The TAC claims there are currently over 3,000 translation companies operating in China. The number may actually be closer to 10,000 in that many small companies, which are registered as consultant agencies, actually conduct translation businesses. And they are not yet tooled up, though Trados, SDL and other extrenal tools suppliers are gradually making inroads. The People’s Daily reports that research on translation software in China was launched in the mid-1990s, but there are “only” 10 established domestic translation software companies, including China National Computer Software and Technology Service Co , Huajian Machine Translation Co and SJTU Sunway Information Technology Co., whose products are not really market-ready. In terms of population to translation technology company ratios, ten companies looks like a low figure. But is the ratio of active, sustainable translation technologies companies to populations any higher on a global level? The TAC rightly believes that as the market grows more competitive, translators will need to “look to technology to improve efficiency and quality.” But it is very unlikely that a local firm will be automating translation of the Beijing Olympics.

What’s missing from these reports is data on which languages are involved. We know about the need for Chinese localization of English and to a lesser extent European language content. We know about the need for translation into Simplified and Mandarin versions of Chinese. But it would be useful to know about volumes involving Chinese and other (Asian?) languages.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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