Translator Interview: Peter Braden

31 Mar 2009


Peter Braden is ChinesePod‘s translator, as well as host of Poems with Pete, a podcast which introduces Chinese poetry to a general audience. He is a voracious reader, Elvis impersonator, karaoke king, and proud couchsurfer. This is the second interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.

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

I studied for two years at the State University of New York, Albany and one year at the International Cultural Exchange School (国际文化交流学院) at Fudan University here in Shanghai. I didn’t learn very much in the first year at SUNY. This was partly because the teacher emphasized atonal pinyin above all else, and partly because I hadn’t “caught the bug” and didn’t apply myself completely. Everything changed in the second year when I got an outstanding teacher who put the “fun” in fundamentals. He was much more aggressive about radicals and tones. I got very interested, and knew I needed to learn more.

In addition to the pure language courses, I took a lot of other courses on Chinese history for my double majors, Asian History and East Asian Studies. This included research trips to Tibet and Xinjiang. I also lived in a Buddhist monastery in Kaohsiung (ROC) for a month. These courses got me even more excited to learn Chinese, so that I could read historical documents, interview people, and do research. You can’t learn (or at least you won’t really enjoy learning) Chinese in a vacuum. You need a motivation, or the language will grind you into powder and blow you away.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention ChinesePod. During the Dark Year of My Soul, when I taught English in Nanjing, CPod was my link to the glamour and sparkle of Shanghai, and the promise of brighter times to come. In that sense, CPod was like the Free French broadcasts during the war. Full disclosure: I am now the CPod translator, and I work for John. It’s tons of fun.

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

Living in China is a huge advantage for a translator. You can’t become a very good translator without reading a lot. Living abroad, it’s tricky to get Chinese books, dictionaries, etc. unless you’re in a big city. Here, it’s easy to buy most books — except juicy, politically sensitive ones, which, after all, are the best kind!

Here, we’re surrounded with interesting people. You get a much better sense of the nuances of words when you can use them with the people around you. And of course, you can ask your friends to help you explain subtle differences in usage and tone. In sum, I’d say years in China are essential for becoming a really good translator.

There is one exception — classical Chinese. There are some modern foreign scholars who have not lived long in China but who understand classical Chinese. I suppose that is like learning Latin, Sanskrit or any other “dead” language.

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

I started working as a translator in May 2008. I just decided that I could do a good job with it. I had been reading newspapers and magazines with no problem for about a year. I had worked in a Chinese office for about eight months before the company went bankrupt, and had no problem communicating with my coworkers, writing email, and so on. Much translation in China is done by graduate students who do a really poor job that then needs to be edited by a native speaker. I figured, companies should just hire me, and I’d get it right the first time.

Also, I wanted to stay in China without teaching English or working in a job unrelated to Chinese. There was a niche in Shanghai for a modern day Vito Corleone, a foreigner who’d make a fortune in this wild, emerging economy, and start a criminal dynasty to boot. But that person wasn’t me.

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

My first employer was a Swiss translation company with offices in Shanghai. We did mostly financial and insurance documents. In my experience, that’s where the money is.

There were two main problems. The first was just dealing with the huge amount of complicated financial vocabulary. In the past, I had learned each new Chinese word because it was interesting to me. I’d read it in a book or whatever, and then eagerly studied it. This was my first experience in forcing myself to become familiar with terminology: derivatives, mark-to-market, and so on. I didn’t completely understand these words in English, let alone Chinese. But after a few months of tranche warfare, the situation got more manageable.

The other big problem was learning to deal with empty verbiage. We always assume that language is intended to convey meaning. But Orwell explains that modern language is used at least as much to conceal and deceive as to illuminate. When you’re just reading, you can skip over that stuff. But how do we translate a paragraph of banalities and platitudes that never meant much in the first place? It’s tempting to try to put some meaning in there, but in the end you just need to accept that 1) the fact that the writing is there is more important than what it says, and 2) what they don’t say is often more important than what they say.

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

No single job really stands out. I just remember a couple of hairy afternoons in the early days of the job I mentioned above, trying to wade through pages of texts about bond rates while researching the terms at the same time. That’s not the greatest way to go about things, and although the final documents were well received by the clients, it was not a great experience.

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

One of the biggest new things is TRADOS, an impressive program that allows you to build databases of your earlier translations. It is not, repeat not, a “machine translator.” It is only as smart as the person using it. But it’s a big time saver and precision booster, especially if you are working in a field where sentence structures are pretty constant but the numbers/details change a lot. This is certainly true of finance. For example: In Q4, XXX company saw total revenues of YYY, while income from ZZZ stayed level, etc.

TRADOS allows you to pool your databases with your colleagues, create special databases for particular clients (if Bank A likes to translate 垃圾 as “trash” and Bank B likes “rubbish,” for example.) For poetry, I don’t think it’d be that useful. But if you’re already translating Chinese poetry, you don’t need advice from me!

Search engines are another huge tool, especially the image and video search. Here’s an example– for my poetry show, I recently dealt with the word — cicada. When we see a poem describing the ”sound” or “call” of a cicada, what exactly does it mean? Is it a “rattle,” a “scream,” a “whine”? Youtube clears all that up — I’d call it a piercing buzz. Regardless of how you translate the word in the end, your understanding will be enriched by the concrete sensory information that is now at all of our fingertips.

The same works for image searches — how does Taishan really look at sunrise? Where is Chengdu relative to Emei Shan? Why not just check Flickr and Google Maps? You could get most of this stuff in books. But it would take considerably longer, and it would be impractical for most of us to get so many specialized books on so many different topics.

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

A speaker at a translation conference I attended a while back remarked that, counterintuitively, the rise of Starbucks has actually breathed new life into quirky, local coffee shops. This is because the availability of mass-produced C-grade stuff introduces coffee to people who never thought of drinking it in the first place. Once they start drinking it, they start to think about spending a little more for really good stuff.

I think this is true of translation as well. With stuff like Google Translate, people are able to consider exploring Chinese media, or selling to Chinese markets, when they wouldn’t even have thought of it in the past. But the relatively poor quality you get from online translation is just enough to convince many people to shell out a little money for a real translation. Obviously, online translation software gets better all the time. Unless you’ve got a real love for and expertise in a very specialized area, I wouldn’t recommend it as a long-term job. I think that soon, Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades will be replaced by native-English editors who proofread work done by either the grad students I mentioned above or the increasingly powerful online translators. But I’ve been wrong before.

I am very curious about the state of translation between Chinese and non-English languages– Arabic, Russian and so on. Are the online translators getting really good at that as well? English is the “international language” but there are billions of people who don’t speak it, or would prefer to use their native tongue. Maybe careers in translating between those languages are a little more promising.

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

I am most interested in modern Chinese (post-1949) history and public policy, particularly as it relates to agriculture. I enjoy the sunny optimism and intense message discipline of press releases. I really don’t care much for financial reports, but I will translate them professionally. I wouldn’t translate in the hard sciences or medicine, as I have no background at all in these fields. For my rates or an estimate on a project, please send me an email at pb7024 at gmail dot com.

I will use and love Chinese until the day I die, but I don’t plan to be a translator forever. My goal in life is to help bring back sustainable farming in China (and around the world). I will use my skills in Chinese and English to make a contribution to the health of other people, and Mother Earth. We have ignored this issue for far too long.

Contact Peter at pb7024 at gmail dot com if you have any projects for him. He doesn’t have a website, but you can follow him on Twitter: @pearltowerpete.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I love that it ends with “but you can follow him on twitter…”

    Really nice interviews. Looking forward to more.

  2. I’m liking this series, it’s very interesting.

  3. “I’d say years in China are essential for becoming a really good translator. There is one exception — classical Chinese. There are some modern foreign scholars who have not lived long in China but who understand classical Chinese. I suppose that is like learning Latin, Sanskrit or any other “dead” language.”

    It seems to me that you’re confusing translation (the written skill) and interpretation (the spoken skill). To speak Chinese well, one must spend a fair bit of time in a Chinese speaking environment. On the other hand, one can learn to read Chinese perfectly well outside of China. That is, there is absolutely no need to spend years in China learning to read. And the exception doesn’t only apply to scholars of pre-modern China who read Classical texts. I know 6 or 8 scholars of early Chinese literature who can’t speak Chinese well enough to save their lives, but who can read both Classical and modern Chinese quite well – in any case, as well as any foreigner who has spent 20 or 30 years living, studying, and working in China.

    A certain professor at Harvard, for example, reads and writes Chinese, Japanese, and French. Though he has published in all three languages, he is conversant in none of them.

    Finally, Classical Chinese is hardly dead. Perhaps you’ve spent too much time in mainland China. It is common for scholars in Hong Kong and Taiwan to write in an elevated prose style very similar to Classical Chinese. There has been much discussion over the years regarding the “dumbing down” of Chinese on the mainland.

  4. Standard Issue Laowai Says: March 31, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Great article! I translate documents for a medical company, Chinese to English, and sometimes run into similar issues. Trados looks fantastic, I need to look at this, cheers for bringing it to light!

  5. jdmartinsen Says: March 31, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    It’s tempting to try to put some meaning in there, but in the end you just need to accept that 1) the fact that the writing is there is more important than what it says, and 2) what they don’t say is often more important than what they say.

    That’s a great observation. There’s a learning process here, too: it takes almost as much time to be able to identify when people are skirting an issue as it does to become comfortable with how they talk about concrete ideas.

  6. zhenlijiang Says: March 31, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    empty verbiage (what i generously call 悪文 in Japanese) i know about too well. working mostly in J to E, often in advertising, i will annoy clients and agents by asking “well what does this mean here, what’s being said?” and at least making them acknowledge that the original is bad writing. when the original is well written i’ll often get compliments on my translation and so then always point out that the original was “true” and communicative. perhaps “saying nothing at all” is just done so much all the time in Japan, or our customs of communication do not translate well. eventually i felt the need to seek out work with minimal b.s. (TV documentaries and interviews, w/real people talking are good), as handling too much empty verbiage does take a toll on your spirit. that’s one advantage i suppose robots and tools have over human translators.

  7. Jamie Decter Says: March 31, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Peter, you are truly an inspiration!

  8. Hi Stinky,

    I’ve re-read my comment a few times, and I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with. I explicitly said that living in China (and being able to speak Chinese) are not necessary for scholars of classical Chinese.

    But if we are talking about reading modern Chinese, I would still argue that time in-country is a big asset. Otherwise, your understanding of words and grammar is completely based on dictionaries and references. I can think of countless times when I asked a Chinese friend about a subtle distinction between words. Seeing words on TV, on the side of a truck or on a street sign is also a way to enrich your understanding of words. True, these experiences are not strictly necessary, but I have no doubt they’ve made me a better translator.

    In any language, people fit their writing style to the format. I’m aware that many educated people can still write in an elevated style, and pepper their writing with allusions. The term “dead language” is a bit contentious, and we could make a strong case that classical Chinese (and Latin, for example) live on via the influence they have on modern languages– “via” being the Latin for “road,” for example 😉
    Hell, the Vatican still uses Latin, and some pompous Westerners (including myself) will occasionally choose a juicy Latin bon mot to enliven a phrase. But in terms of cultural and linguistic influence, Latin and classical Chinese are on a long, irreversible decline.

    On a side note, I read a sci-fi story a long time ago where the people of Earth were trying to come up with a common, politically neutral language for the huge project of space exploration. They settled on Latin. I thought it was a great idea at the time. But seriously, Chinese has had enough difficulty adjusting to modern technology– can you imagine trying to force the language of Apollo to do the work of…er…the Apollo missions?

    Hi Standard Issue Laowai
    My previous employers were selling TRADOS at a special reduced rate of USD500 a few months ago. If you’re interested, send me an email and I will ask them if the offer is still good. It is very handy, especially if you use it long enough to develop big databases. The longer you use it, the better it gets.

    Hi jdmartinsen,
    Thanks. Orwell and Lyndon Johnson have had a big impact on my ideas about translation. One was a master of cutting through jargon, the other was the greatest B.S.-er of all time.

  9. Pete,

    Not here to pick a fight. Just want to make a point.

    I think that you overestimate the importance of time spent in China to the development of one’s ability to read modern Chinese. It’s probably true that, for most people, being in China is simply better in this regard. Even so, where reading pre-modern or modern Chinese is concerned, the question is really one of commitment and discipline. Likewise, your idea that one is completely dependent on dictionaries and other references when learning to read in the U.S. simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I know too many people who’ve spent minimal time in China and yet have no problem picking up a Chinese text and reading it with excellent speed and comprehension. For example, an American friend of mine – a graduate student in Chinese literature at Princeton – has spent less than 6 months in China (he studied at IUP at Tsinghua but was forced to leave before the end of the program because of SARS) and can read as well as any foreigner I’ve ever met. His secret? He reads 10 or 12 hours of Chinese a day, every single day. Is his head full of cutting edge slang and Chinese hip hop lyrics? I doubt it. But he loves Chinese and spends just about every waking moment possible reading it. Were you to transport him to China tomorrow, it is unlikely that he would benefit from the new environment. That is, he would do nothing differently. And like you, if he has a question (he often does), he calls or emails me or one of his other Chinese friends and gets immediate help. At this point, he’s way beyond the kinds of crutches (e.g., Wenlin, etc.) that many of you appear to rely on. Instead, he primarily learns from Chinese-Chinese dictionaries and context (i.e., the texts themselves). His Chinese writing is not half bad either. Simply put, no street sign or bus advertisement or television commercial can compete for influence with the sheer determination that my friend demonstrates. He spends more time reading Chinese than anyone I know. In the end, I would bet that he is better at identifying irony, humor, and voice in a Chinese text than most Chinese speaking foreigners who’ve lived in China for the last 10 years.

    I suppose that I’m also a bit unimpressed with all of the software and online resources that are available these days for the working translator. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you have a place to look for answers to difficult questions. Even so, I think that there is a difference between being a good translator and speaking/reading Chinese well. You say that time spend in China is necessary? How much time? Howard Goldblatt spent less than three years and speaks Chinese better than nearly any foreigner I’ve ever met (speak to him on the phone and you’d never guess that he’s not Chinese). Likewise, there was no such thing as Wenlin when he started out. Nor were there the vast number of dictionaries that are available now. I wonder if it’s the case that in relying on such tools as Wenlin in your work as a translator, you are perhaps harming your progress in learning Chinese. Could it be that the lack of such tools made Howard Goldblatt a better translator? In my case, I learned English for some years in Hong Kong as a child. But it wasn’t until I began reading and writing on my own that I really learned to speak and read well.

    Finally, I once met a Chinese man at an academic talk at my university. His name was Jin Di and he had just finished translating James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ into Chinese. The project took twenty years or so. His spoken English was virtually flawless – better than my own, in any case. It turns out that he was more than 50 years old when he first traveled abroad – a two-week trip to Dublin, Ireland. The audience at his talk asked him a few questions related to his remarkable English – in essence, they wanted to know how a man who had spent so little time abroad could speak such good English. His answer was that he spent all of his time with English fiction and took advantage of the few English speaking friends that came his way.

    Is Classical Chinese really a language in decline? Perhaps it is. Even so, to compare it to Latin or Sanskrit does it a profound disservice. Have you studied much Classical Chinese? If you had, you would find that it’s not just about the occasional bon mot. The influence of pre-modern Chinese is evident throughout contemporary written Chinese. I think you would find that a year or two of Classical Chinese at a good university would considerably improve your ability to read modern Chinese. Come to think of it, that may be an advantage my Princeton friend has over you.

    If you enjoy science fiction, you might try David Wingrove’s ‘Chung kuo’ series – a future Earth scenario in which the Chinese have taken over everything and completely rewritten history. Check it out.

  10. Hi Stinky,

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. Here are a few of my own.

    My point in comparing Latin to classical Chinese is that while both languages have already had their heyday, they are valuable to students of the modern tongues that sprang from them. And it’s possible to read and even write in them without the benefit of time in-country.

    After four years of reading Latin, I was able to read and translate in that language. Learning its grammar and vocabulary unquestionably made me a better student of the English language. I was lucky in having a solid textbook, good dictionary, and an incredibly good teacher. Still, I would have loved a time machine that would allow me to experience the Latin of the Romans. I’m sure that it would have made me an even better translator.

    In this way, your argument about your friend at Princeton seems like the stories you hear about the man who lives to 110 despite being a heavy smoker. You can’t help but wonder how long he’d have lived if he hadn’t smoked. Maybe you’re right that your friend’s daily routine wouldn’t change. But I would be surprised if he did not make use of the environment to, among other things, absorb what we could call “ambient information” about modern Chinese (that is, language of the TV commercial/billboard variety that comes to you without you looking for it.) I believe that all this context and environmental learning improves not only one’s speech, but also one’s comprehension. This is just my theory, based on my own experience. Again, I have nothing but respect for someone who can study and master a language with the dedication you have described.

    Here are my thoughts on the new digital tools and dictionaries. First, while I consult Wenlin and the other dictionaries, I also use some very well-thumbed Chinese-Chinese dictionaries and references. True mastery of a language means thinking about it in its own terms. No argument there.

    But not having gone through the Chinese education system, and beginning my studies at a time when my brain was past its language-learning prime, I have often been thankful for English resources. You could call them a crutch. But I’m not sure I’d have been able to become a professional translator after four years of study just using Chinese references. Such books are indispensable to me now, but they would’ve been incomprehensible to me earlier.

    So, I agree that intensive study of classical Chinese would also improve my modern Chinese. But as I said in the interview, as much as I love the language, my goals are in a different area. To me, Chinese is a fascinating and useful tool. Mastery of the kind you are suggesting, while wonderful, would require me to spend so much time on the language that I would be unable to pursue studies in the fields I actually plan to work in.

  11. Rabelais Says: April 1, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    In many ways Peter’s immersion arguments don’t hold that much water anymore – what immersion can you get from living in China that you can’t get, say, from the internet (tv, newspapers, advertising, radio, forums, games, anything you think of) and your local Chinatown or university (where real life interaction with a Chinese person can be found – not that you need even that now we have QQ and the like). Remember Arthur Waley – he did a fine job of being a translator without ever setting foot in the country of his dreams. Perhaps it’s a good job too.

    On digital tools and dictionaries, as I think Brendan touched upon, I swear the instant look-up feature of modern tools creates a laziness in the learner that may not have existed as completely in the pre-digital age. I’m sure a lot of us would struggle to actually write out even a fraction of the characters we can recognise, because there is no incentive in remembering stroke order, radicals, and the like anymore, when the meaning and pronunciation pop up at the hover of a mouse.

    Will we ever see a Pelliot or a Karlgren again? It’s going to be interesting to find out.

  12. I very much agree with Peter’s point regarding “ambient information”. I also think that a feel for some of the many regional differences in both the spoken and written language is very important to the overall well-roundedness of a translator of modern Chinese.

  13. I think the point here is not that it’s impossible to become a good translator without living in (Greater) China, it’s that it’s easier to do if you’ve lived there. Sure, there are exceptions to this generalization. There are people with uncommon discipline and amazing talent.

    Most of the translators said something along these lines; Brendan’s, Joel’s and John B’s responses to question #2 are all very similar to Pete’s.

  14. Pete,

    You’ve made impressive progress in just 4 years. And as for being past your language-learning prime, Howard Goldblatt was 30 years old when he began studying Chinese.

    All this talk about how living in China makes one a better reader is simply wrongheaded. Fundamentally, one becomes a better reader by reading. Sure, you can pick up an interesting thing or two everyday by walking around, chatting with friends, etc. That said, the same can be accomplished by picking up a contemporary novel (or popular magazine) and reading that instead. In short, anything that you learn walking around Shanghai or Beijing can be found in literature. Read enough literature and you’ll encounter everything that a resident of Shanghai or Beijing encounters. In fact, I’d say that literature is actually better. Read a novel by Wang Anyi and you learn something about Shanghai. Read another by Mo Yan and you learn something about Shandong. Read Wang Zhenhe and you learn something about Taiwan. Moreover, with literature you can move about in time and space.

    Howard Goldblatt, one of the most respected translators working today, speaks (and reads) fantastic Chinese. And yet the man hasn’t lived in Asia for decades. In fact, he only ever spent – at best – 3 years in a Chinese-language environment back in the 1960s and early 70s. (Although he’s been married to two different Taiwanese women, the language used at home is English.) If you are correct in saying that living in China makes one a better translator, then explain how Howard Goldblatt does what he does. How does he live without the street signs and bus advertisements and tv commercials? The answer – in the end, none of those things are really very important. No street sign or tv commercial can hope to compare with extensive reading over a long period of time. And the idea that you must live in China in order to be close to Chinese people who can answer your questions ignores the fact that there are literate Chinese people everywhere these days.

    I don’t question that living and working in China helps your spoken Chinese. That makes perfect sense to me. Likewise, being in China probably makes it a lot easier to find translation work – something which, over time, makes one a better translator. Even so – and with all due respect – the idea that it’s easier to learn to read in China is absurd. A bookshelf full of good literature, a dictionary or two, a Chinese friend’s cell number, and a generous helping of self-discipline is far more important than a Shanghai address and cultural osmosis.

  15. I strongly disagree with Stinky’s last post:

    “…the idea that it’s easier to learn to read in China is absurd.”

    Not absurd at all. Take 2 people, one living in China (A), one living in Canada (B). They both love to read Chinese. They both are just as dedicated and work just as hard. They both have the same brain and ability to learn written Chinese.

    Now, whose reading skills are going to progress faster? (A) of course, no doubt about it. Why?

    Because when (A) is finished reading his Chinese material on the subway to work, he closes his book and walks into an office of Chinese people speaking Chinese. He hears words that he just read about, he sees characters that he just read, both reinforcing his reading. (B) goes to work and hears and sees English all day.

    (A) leaves work and reads his book on the subway again. He closes his book and meets his Chinese friend on the street. Walking on the street, (A) sees Chinese signage everywhere, he hears nothing but spoken Chinese, he hears Chinese music playing in the background of a bookstore with nothing but Chinese books, etc. etc. etc. (B) does the same in Canada, all English. Maybe (B) goes to the nearest Chinatown. He hears a mixture of Chinese and Cantonese…a bit confusing. He thinks he read about that word, but he’s not quite sure.

    While (A) is walking through a street market, he smells nothing but Chinese food…okay, maybe that’s a stretch for learning to read Chinese, but then again you never know….little connections! (B) smells westernized Chinese food with fortune cookies – again, not quite the same.

    (A) begins dating a Chinese woman. BAM, he has a personal, native tutor at his disposal 24/7. (B), his girlfriend is English and hates the Chinese language.

    Etc. etc.

    “the idea that it’s easier to learn to read in China is absurd.”

    Absurd? Not really.

  16. “Read enough literature and you’ll encounter everything that a resident of Shanghai or Beijing encounters. “

    That’s about the most wrong-headed thinking I have ever heard. If there were ever a place where there’s a shitload of input that never makes it into print, or even onto QQ, it’s China. (But, for the record, I don’t there’s an enormous amount of input that’s exclusively visual/oral in any place. You can fix that a little bit with movies, news, etc, but not everything.)

    The things you like about reading Mo Yan, the secrets of Shandong, are the things you get when you live there and observe and ask questions! Relying on Mo Yan to give you them will always leave you behind the pack.

    With literature you can move around in time and space. What about your feet, and going to visit old places or living through modernizations. !!

    Howard Goldblatt’s chinese and translation, while ‘good’, is not without fault. Whenever you get two translators, or people who speak good chinese, in a room its not long before that Goldblatt can get taken apart quite well.

    Actually, I think the one thing Goldblatt and say, Waley, lacked was the effect cultural osmosis. (Goldblatt was at least for a while in the thick of it.) It could just be a function of their writing style, or their theories of translation, but their work comes across as off. The write english and function in chinese primarily as receivers. Immersion and osmosis, background and feeback allow you to be more than a receiver: a producer. I never feel that Goldblatt or Waley were part of a language community. They were, ‘cheering from the sidelines’, which is not a role I think a translator has to take. In Waley’s time it was more understandable, but I think in 2009, to never really live among the language community you are translating from is not only silly, intellectually suspect, but also irresponsible. What they are often doing is pulling, not pushing. Example.

    The chinese executive assistant who has to deal chi-eng, eng-chi translation, translate emails both ways, talk to foreign clients in a foreign language, translate, talk to one’s one reps in chinese. When this person does translation, assuming they actually progressed to a certain point in their ability and understanding, they are not pulling the vague meaning from the text and translating it back into chinese. They are not reaching, they pushing they’re ability and understanding up, a little farther, to meet the text.

    There’s so many points above that I feel are so desperately in need of correction, that I don’t know where to start.

    About your IUP friend. I’ve met the type and I’ve met the chinese person who’s read more english books than I have and can’t speak a sentence correctly to save their life. I think you downplay the incredible importance of ‘slang’ and ‘modern usage.’ I can’t even post on languagehat because the other commenters are either too old or from countries that simply don’t share much american slang. If you are missing these sorts of things, you are missing giant, giant, relevant chunks of the language.

    Howard Goldblatt speaks better chinese than most foreigners because most foreigners who speak chinese speak horrible chinese.

    comprehensions does not equal mastery, and that’s the reason he can’t write that well. Chinese can be bluffed by comprehension, but it comes nowhere near the mastery that is required for production. English is a reader-centric langauge, Chinese is a writer-centric language. Production ability and mastery yield far more than ‘comprehension.’

    Crutches? You say the IUP fellow has given up crutches like Wenlin, in favor of what exactly, the crutches of calling people to explain things to him or consulting a chinese-chinese dictionary? This is ridiculous. There are no ‘scores’ of reference materials, there are a few dictionaries, all of notoriously shitty quality, most of chin-english ones are simply translations of the chin-chin ones. So, yes, you can call up a chinese friend and ask them for meaning, usage, shade, etc, (essentially consulting a useful dictionary because the actual dictionaries china produces are utter shit), or you can ‘guess’ from meaning. A synonym for, i don’t really know how this would translate. This creates troublesome situations where someone has an idea that is wrong. This is why people use dictionaries.

    And yes, I am here to pick a fight.

    Looking at chin-chin dictionaries is often a laughable idea. It’s similar to expecting an american to look something up in many english dictionaries. Unless it is a noun, and something they truly have no idea about, the dictionary is going to often be useless to the native speaker. Dictionaries are useful to native speakers who have an inkling of what a word means, but want someone’s comments and thoughts on that.

    When was the last time you saw a chinese person look something up in a dictionary? That’s right, because they don’t. You don’t get to this level as a foreign learner because your instincts aren’t right. You can do the native speaker approach, but that’s why they invented dictionaries! Because even native instincts will not always be right. So, if you look that up in the ‘crutch’ translation of the dictionary, or the friend who ‘knows what the thing means and can explain it better than a dictionary’, how is that not a crutch? What are you trying to say?

    Chinese and English are two different kinds of languages with two very different registers spreads. Mastering production and existing in a linguistic community are invaluable. It’s no surprise that you see the new breed having immersion experiences and putting out really masterful understanding, and the Wade-Giles era putting out very nice, very readable, often very cute or often very stale and stiff academic translations that are horribly off (ay caramba, shifu you’ll do anything for a laugh, c’mon!) and horribly foreign, (but not in a good way.)

    I’m done here.

  17. Not picking any fights here, but I would say that one of the benefits of living here is that constant immersion in the environment allows one to get a good sense of the gradations of meaning and tone that dictionaries – whether Chinese-Chinese or Chinese-English – don’t give. Reading and speaking are different but related skills, and require different work to hone them — though I’d argue that anybody relying on written Chinese to get a sense of the spoken language is going to end up, like Arthur Waley, in a bad way when it comes even to puns that a second-year student of spoken Chinese would get.

    For what it’s worth, I do use a number of Chinese-Chinese dictionaries, as I mentioned in my answer, but most of them are, regrettably, not available online. I have a copy of the Cihai as well, but have never, not even once, had cause to consult it for work purposes: the sad fact of the matter is that the majority of the stuff we get hired to translate – or at least the stuff I get hired to translate – is distinctly not literary. And for technical vocabulary, it’s much better to have a Chinese-English dictionary since it means there’s less chance of you bollixing up the translation by using nonstandard terminology because you were fudging it based on the Chinese.

    Also, without any intention of slagging Howard Goldblatt, who is an incredibly prolific translator and an extremely nice guy, I think Stinky’s impressions of relative spoken language ability are flat-out wrong: at the Suzhou course, there was a distinct and perceptible division between translators who had spent significant amounts of time studying or living in China and those who were based overseas. HG’s spoken Chinese is excellent, to be sure, but not at or even close to the level of certain of the translators there.

    That said, I will freely admit that the times I was most concentrated in my (academic) study of Chinese was when I was in the States — and this is when I began getting good at writing, and started studying Classical Chinese, and so on. But these were, as you’ve noted, skills that didn’t have much to do with spoken Chinese, and could be worked on in relative isolation.

  18. Hey Pete,

    Just curious if your second year teacher at SUNY Albany was Jim Hargett, by chance? He was my first year teacher at U of Colorado/Boulder in 1981; one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.


  19. Hi Caryn,

    Yes! Professor Hargett is a world-class scholar and a kind man. And I hear he plays a mean guitar.

  20. I’d like to add that I think living in the country where the target language of your translation work is spoken is also important. When I live in China, my English suffers. That can do interesting things to my writing, but often my translations end up sounding less idiomatic than I want them to.

    And living in a Chinese-speaking environment can be good for one’s–has been good for my–understanding of classical Chinese. Classical Chinese had a relationship to vernacular Chinese at the time, and it has a relationship to modern Mandarin. Understanding the ways in which all these languages are interconnected is, to me, an important part of translation.

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