Translator Interview: Brendan O'Kane


Brendan O’Kane is a talented young writer, much beloved in the China blogosphere scene for his pieces on He has also earned much praise for his amazing spoken Chinese and understanding of Chinese poetry and classics. This is the first interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.

1. What formal Chinese study programs have you participated in?

My study history has been kind of a patchwork. I began learning Chinese with evening classes at the Community College of Philadelphia in September 1999, and continued there until December 2000 when they didn’t get sufficient enrollment for the spring 2001 semester. After that, I got private lessons with my old professor’s husband for a semester, then joined the Stanford/Beijing University summer program from June-August 2001. When I started at Temple University in fall ’01, I went into third-year Chinese with Louis Mangione (who is worth his weight in gold as far as I’m concerned) and took a semester of independent study classes in Classical Chinese in spring ’02.

After that it gets a bit messy: I spent a year teaching in Harbin from 2002-2003, which was just wonderful for my Chinese — though I doubt it was much help for my students’ English. After a year of teaching little kids, I decided I’d rather be a student than a teacher, at least for a while, and went back to Beijing University through its 对外汉语学院 [College of Chinese as a Foreign Language] from fall 2003 to spring 2004. I found that the advanced classes there were not really much help, so after a semester of language classes, I switched to regular undergraduate classes in the Chinese department. I don’t think I made the most of that opportunity, and still regret being basically a slacker during that time — but I did manage to get a fair amount out of it with courses in 文字学 [graphology]、《》《导读 [guided readings in Laozi and Zhuangzi]、and 现代汉语语言学 [modern Chinese linguistics].

And that’s pretty much the end of my formal training. When I went back to the States to finish my degree at Temple, I took a couple of independent study classes in which I decided to focus on my written Chinese (a topic that i don’t think any program really addresses in any kind of serious way), and after a year of that, I came back to Beijing, where I’ve been ever since.

I wouldn’t want to downplay the help I’ve gotten from my teachers, but I think I also got a lot out of studying and reading up on things on my own. I’ve been raiding second-hand bookstores (and first-hand bookstores, when I’ve got the money) pretty much since the beginning of my study of Chinese, and I think my extracurricular reading has been a huge help in my studies. Being in China for a lot of it has also helped a lot, obviously, but I’m not sure I would have gotten the same benefit if I’d been here from the start of my studies — but that takes us to:

2. How has living in China helped prepare you to become a translator?

It’s been key. Chinese-as-a-second-language teaching materials suck, for the most part, and don’t really do much to prepare students for dealing with Chinese as a living language. (When asked my opinion of Chinese textbooks, I tend to rate them from ‘bad’ to ‘less bad.’) Once you get past a certain level, language environment is the real make-or-break factor — but I think there’s a lot to be said for beginning one’s studies overseas and coming over here as a relatively autonomous individual, as opposed to starting from scratch in China and getting into the habit of relying on English speakers or Chinese-speaking friends at the outset.

Having a sense of the way Chinese is actually used in day-to-day life is really important for doing any translation of “natural” Chinese — that is, if you’re going to be translating nothing but technical manuals and memorials to the Emperor, or People’s Daily editorials, you might be able to get by without it — but who wants that kind of life?

I started answering these questions from Suzhou, where I and a bunch of other translators were taking part in the Sino-British Literary Translation Course. We spent our days sitting around with a book (in my group’s case, 《风雅颂》by Yan Lianke) and rendering it into something that would be acceptable as English literature. This is the kind of thing where having a sense of the actual language is completely necessary to determine the tone of a sentence, or to decide what bits to translate and what bits not to. Chengyu, while nice, tend to be much less visible to a Chinese reader than they would be to a foreign reader of Chinese, so there’s no real excuse for rendering something like 每个字贵如金玉 into chinoiserie like “every word was as precious as gold or jade” when the text is just using a bog-standard set phrase that would pass unnoticed in Chinese. Knowing what to delete and what to add, what to soft-pedal and what to amplify in a translation is important, and the only way you can really know is by having a sense of what people are actually saying — and that comes from long-term immersion in the environment.

3. How did you start working as a translator? How did you know you were ready?

When I was in my second semester at Beida, I met Kaiser Kuo, who was at the time working as a freelance writer and translator. He was kind enough to take me under his wing and start sending me some translation work — a real-estate contract at first, I think — which I struggled through with Wenlin and Kingsoft PowerWord. (This was the first of many times that I would understand something in Chinese, but be unable to think of the technical English term.) We later collaborated on a script for a faintly icky TV show that was going to be shot overseas, and then he sent me a screenplay that was in need of an English version for foreign investment. And there were Budweiser press releases in there, too, providing a crucial first lesson: the corporate stuff is what really pays.

When I came back to Beijing in September 2005, I found a job doing translations of breaking Chinese tech industry news for a telecom/IT consulting startup’s weekly newsletter. This was my first real experience, all-nighters aside, of the translation ‘grind’ — translating anywhere from 5 to 19 articles in their entirety daily. This wasn’t much fun, but it did speed me up a lot for that kind of work, and helped teach me how to enter The Zone. My next job, working as a researcher for a foreign news outlet’s Chinese-language service, also sped me up considerably.

As for “ready” — I think the screenplay was when I first felt like this might be doable. It was the first time I had worked on anything that long on my own, and the first real paycheck I got. I was still making a fair amount of reference to my dictionaries then, and I’m sure if I saw my translation now I’d be horrified, but it was real work, for real money.

I was going to say that I have still got a nagging fear that I’m not actually ready and will be exposed as a complete fraud at any moment, but that’s not really true: after lots and lots of practice, the kind of work that pays the bills is pretty much second nature by this point. Readiness is an ongoing process, though, and running up against fresh challenges is one of the things that makes translation so much fun for language fetishists. Literature, in particular, is a delight, and there’s always a thrill that comes with discovering some usage or some shade of meaning that you hadn’t known before.

One case in particular sticks out in my mind: the Dragon-Boat Festival a couple of years ago, back when I was working a day job at a PR company. I decided to do a quick translation of the poem 怀沙, “Embracing Sands,” which was supposedly the last thing Qu Yuan wrote before chucking himself into a river, on my lunch break. As I went over the text I noticed a couple of characters that weren’t even in the computer’s font, let alone the pocket dictionary I was carrying around with me.

So I went to the online edition of the Kangxi dictionary, dusted off my memories of how to look things up by Kangxi radical, located the pages that had definitions for the characters in question and printed them out, then puzzled out the meaning from the classical Chinese definition given. Then I went back and turned it into a quick English draft translation and mailed it off to my parents and grandmother, and realized, a little while later, that this was the happiest I had been in weeks. I handed in my letter of resignation not long after that.

4. What were the major challenges you faced when you first started translating?

When I first started translating, I had very little confidence, so I made a lot of reference to dictionary glosses and was probably much too conservative in my choices. I tended to leave clauses in the Chinese order rather than in the order that would be more natural in English, and in general was not doing nearly enough editing or rewriting out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the text. (This sort of ties in to what I was saying above about knowing what people are really saying, rather than just converting their words into the literal English equivalents.) It was also very slow going to begin with, which meant much less time for editing my final translation. I now try to budget a lot of time for editing and polishing; I didn’t know to do that then.

Research is another area that I think people forget to budget time for when they’re starting out. Some – most, if you’re lucky! – translation jobs won’t require much of it, but every now and then you’ll get (e.g.) a 60 page coal mine survey report and find yourself scrambling for the technical dictionaries. Online texts are becoming increasingly useful references for stuff like this (particularly online Chinese-language academic resources, which frequently have English-language titles and sometimes even abstracts), but if you’re planning to spend a lot of time taking technical translation jobs, it pays to have specialized dictionaries.

I think one of the biggest challenges most translators face is finding work. I was fortunate enough to have Kaiser and other friends passing work along to me, so I was able to build up a bit of a network before I went completely freelance about a year and a half ago, but it can still be hard to find work at times — particularly during the periods before and after holidays, as projects are either winding down (and thus don’t require a translator) or just starting up (and thus ditto), respectively. Then, of course, there are other instabilities: getting visas has been a problem recently — it eased up a lot after the Olympics, but there are rumors that it’s about to get tight again, this being another sensitive year — and for people who have families or are planning families, it sucks not having any kind of insurance or benefit safety net. Extra-special sucky is when you get deadbeat clients, which happens a lot more often – at least to me – than one would think likely.

It strikes me that a lot of what I’m complaining about above is specific to freelance translators — I don’t know many people who work as translators for institutions or translation houses, so I can’t really comment on that.

5. Can you tell about any particularly challenging translation job you’ve done?

As I mentioned above, technical translations entail a lot of research and are not really any fun to do unless you’re interested in the topic at hand. The big challenge with that kind of job is just making yourself do the work, or at least that’s the big challenge for me, More often than I’d care to admit, I look at a long document full of technical jargon or 党八股 [party jargon] and hear a little voice in my head screaming “but I don’t wanna!” Terminology research also takes time and effort, but that’s a distant second in terms of difficulty.

6. How have recent technological advancements affected your work as a translator?

Computerized dictionaries are a great help, but there isn’t any single solution: Wenlin is very useful for literary texts, particularly texts that don’t include a lot of newer terminology; NCiku is a very useful resource for technical terms and English-Chinese (which Wenlin is nearly useless for); Adso is good for helping to make sense of particularly torturous sentences; International Scientific’s online interface to the 说文解字 and to scans of seal, bronze, and oracle forms of characters is hours of fun; Pleco plus the custom 康熙字典, 汉语成语词典, and 汉语大词典 dictionaries is an invaluable tool, or at least would be if my beat-up old Palm Pilot weren’t constantly breaking down. (Incidentally, I’m using Pleco 1; I understand that Pleco 2 and the forthcoming iPhone version of Pleco won’t support custom dictionaries, which seriously reduces the usefulness of the software as far as I’m concerned.) (Also, as a side note: Wenlin is expensive software, but it is really worth every penny of the price, particularly if you can get it at an academic discount. I’d strongly encourage people to shell out for it if they’re making significant use of it, and help fund the development of Wenlin and the ABC Dictionary on which it’s based.) There’s a sad dearth of worthwhile tools available for the iPhone – even the least-crappy one, WeDict Pro, is still unusably bad – but I understand that Qingxi Labs is working on something big, so with any luck I’ll be able to cut down on the number of gizmos I carry.

There are also plenty of resources out there that aren’t straight-up language resources. Baidu Zhidao, in particular, is very useful for when you come across a neologism or a chengyu that isn’t in your dictionaries. As I mentioned above, Chinese academic sites can be useful when you’re dealing with technical or academic vocabulary, as many of them have English-language titles or abstracts for their articles. And browsers like Firefox, Chrome, and Safari (with the Glims plugin on OS X) allow you to set up ‘quick searches’ so that you can type (for example) “nc 光电调制器” into your browser bar and search an online resource (in this case, on my computer, nCiku) directly, without having to call up the homepage and enter the text there.

The other great thing about the internet, besides the terrific wealth of information, is the ease and speed of access. As a learner, I tend to prefer searching through paper dictionaries for unfamiliar words — I find that the extra inconvenience helps my retention — but if I’m translating, my priority is speed, and the tools I mentioned above let me search 10 different dictionaries in a matter of seconds. If I have a question, I can shoot it over to a friend (usually Joel) on Google Chat, or ask it on Twitter, and get an instant response.

I do get some work through the internet, but even in those cases it generally seems that people find me by word of mouth, rather than through LinkedIn or something like that.

7. How do you see the state of Chinese-English translation in China?

Big question, and I’m going to have to punt on the answer. Freelance translation is definitely a mess, but probably no more so than freelance anything-else. There is definitely work out there, and I don’t see why that wouldn’t continue to be so in the future, but finding it takes a certain amount of networking and hustling, which don’t seem to be very common skills among most of the translators I know. Translation isn’t the road to fame and wealth — by a long shot! — but it does more or less pay the rent most of the time, and I don’t think now is worse than any other time to get started.

8. What kinds of material do you love translating? What do you hate translating?

My dream translation job, at the moment, would be literary, probably having to do with either classical literature or the 寻根 writers. I remember the thrill I got at feeling a real personal, human connection with the 《庄子》 across two millennia when I first read the text, and I think that feeling is why a lot of us got into this in the first place: to help other people feel that same connection across distances of language and geography and time that they wouldn’t have crossed on their own. I do plenty of commercial and corporate translation — it’s what pays the bills, and I certainly don’t mind it — but the chance to introduce people who’d never have met otherwise is what it’s really all about.

Brendan keeps an infrequently-updated blog at, and also contributes to Paper Republic, where he writes on translation-related issues. He is open to translation projects.

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