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 These courses got me even more excited to learn Chinese, so that I could read historical documents, interview people, and do research.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 蝉 — 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.