Translator Interview: Benjamin Ross

03 Apr 2009

Ben Ross

Benjamin Ross is a translator, interpreter, and adjunct ethnographer living in Chicago. Previously, he has lived in Fuzhou, China, where his blog became well known for his account of thirty days in a Fuzhou barber shop. This is the fifth interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.

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

I have never done any formal Chinese studying. Instead I studied French for 5 years in high school/college, which was a colossal waste of time due to both the limitations of learning a language in a classroom setting, and the dearth of opportunities to speak with native French speakers in Kansas.

Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” and this has always been the philosophy I have used for learning languages. If I had to say how I studied Chinese, I did it by conversing with old people in the park, traveling around China by train, chatting daily on QQ, learning songs for KTV, carrying around notebooks wherever I went, and asking an endless amount questions to any one of the 1.3 billion Chinese people who were within my immediate vicinity.

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

Living in China has been absolutely integral in preparing to become a translator in that it gave me both the desire and the necessity to master the Chinese language. To further expound on the original question, I would like to modify the question to read “How has living IN A SMALL TOWN in China helped prepare you to become a translator?” My first fifteen months in China were spent in Fuqing, a small town about an hour away from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province. I was one of only two Westerners in the entire town, and this more than anything fueled my desire to master Chinese. I honestly think that had I spent those first fifteen months in Beijing, Shanghai, or even Fuzhou, I probably wouldn’t have the appropriate skills to be a translator today.

But back to desire. The reason the desire is so important is that learning to read Chinese is not difficult per se. It’s just extremely time consuming. Living in Fuqing provided me with an environment where I could “study” several hours a day without actually studying, where everything I did on a daily basis (aside from teaching English) required the use of Chinese. Want to make a deposit at the bank? Need to learn how to say “deposit.” Want to order kung pao chicken in a restaurant? Need to know how to say “kung pao chicken.” Need to get to McDonalds? Have to tell the driver “Please take this starving laowai to McDonald’s so he can eat a Big Mac.” There were no English signs, no English menus, and no young English speaking employees eager to speak to me in my native tongue.

As for the reading skills necessary to translate, I’ve always maintained the key to mastering Chinese characters (the building blocks of reading) is learning 3 of them per day. At only 3 characters per day, that comes to roughly 1000 per year, which comes to 3000 in 3 years, roughly the amount one needs to be reasonably literate. Then of course, it’s just a matter of reading everything you can possibly get your hands on. That means reading hotel brochures while waiting in lobbies, the advertisements in elevators, the newspaper whenever it’s laying around. Basically, just integrating the Chinese language into all aspects of one’s life.

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

Originally, I started working as an interpreter. (For those not familiar with the parlance, an interpreter does oral translation, while a translator does written documents.) I moved back to the US in August 2007, and wanted to ensure my Chinese skills would not diminish once I was no longer living in China. My mother works as a child life coordinator at a hospital and mentioned to me how there is a growing demand for interpreters in the healthcare field, and that Mandarin Chinese is in relatively high demand. I looked on craigslist, and found a job as a part time interpreter in hospitals. While the majority of my work is still in interpretation, several of the clients I work for began asking me to do translation work as well.

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

Probably the most difficult challenge in translating is more of a practical one, and that’s getting enough work. Very few people (or at least none that I know of) do translating on a full time basis. Therefore, it either needs to be viewed as a supplement to an additional income, or else if one wants to do it full time, they need to be extremely active in building and retaining their client base.

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

From my experience, the most challenging aspect of both interpreting and translating is when one party is confused by the communication of the other party. In this situation, the default blame usual falls on the interpreter/translator. Here’s a perfect example. Earlier this year, I received an urgent call from an agency I translate for. They had a handwritten document which had apparently been written by a dying woman, and which needed immediate translation, (presumably for her children who couldn’t read Chinese, but as a translator this is the kind of thing you can not ethically inquire about).

The document was a single page, written in traditional characters, and like most handwritten Chinese, considerably more difficult to decipher than a printed document. The other difficulty with handwritten translation is that it renders all of my digi-tools useless. With this particular document there were two problems. Firstly, I could not read several of the traditional characters, since I learned Chinese in Mainland China, which uses simplified characters exclusively. If it had had been an electronic document, a single keystroke could translate traditional to simplified, but with a handwritten document, this is not an option. Secondly, even though I could make out a majority of the characters, I had no idea what this woman was trying to say in her letter. I assumed it was probably a limitation of my own Chinese skills, so I got on QQ, and sent the scanned letter to a Chinese friend whom I had often helped with her English. I asked her if she could read the document, type it up in simplified characters, and send it back to me as a Word document.

She looked it over for a few minutes before replying, “Well, firstly there are a few characters I can’t make out either, and secondly, this note doesn’t really make much sense. It looks like it was written by someone who was basically senile.”

Just to be absolutely sure, I sent the document to two other Chinese friends who both gave the same result. I contacted the agency and told them bluntly, “I can translate the document for you, but I am warning you, the Chinese doesn’t make much sense, and so when I translate it into English, it is just going to sound like bits and pieces as well.”

As an interpreter/translator you are taught that you must always remain completely transparent. This means that your interpretation/translation should never include any interjections or additions from the interpreter/translator. In other words, if the party you are interpreting for says something which does not make sense, you are trained to interpret back a response which also does not make sense. It is the responsibility of the other party, not the interpreter/translator, to decipher the meaning.

My agency was completely aware of this, and accordingly told me to go ahead and translate it to the best of my ability. When I had finally translated the document, the language came out looking like a drunken love letter written after pounding an entire bottle of Jack Daniels. A few days later, the agency contacted me and told me “The client is unhappy with the translation. They said it doesn’t make sense. They are going to hire somebody else to translate it, and are refusing to pay us.”

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

Well, firstly to properly answer this question, I’d have to cross out the word “recent.” Technology is an imperative tool to me as a translator, but all the technology I use has been available for years, so I’d hesitate to call it recent.

Here’s what I use.

Kingsoft Powerword. Whenever I am translating (and usually when I’m reading a Chinese document for work or pleasure) I have Kingsoft open. It’s a dictionary-translation program, originally designed for Chinese people studying English, however it works just as well from English to Chinese as it does Chinese to English. With a mouseover, Kingsoft enables me to translate an unfamiliar word, as well as find the pronunciation for a character which I haven’t previously encountered. The only problem with Kingsoft is that it is highly unstable, and I am currently seeking a version which won’t crash Windows Vista.

Google Translate. If I ever encounter a sentence which has me stumped, I type it into Google Translate. I am of the belief that a computer will never be capable of translating to the level of a real human, but what I like about Google Translate is that while its translations are nowhere near professional level, it usually helps me understand a sentence which might come off foggy at first. I can then go back to the original document and translate it properly into English.

QQ. This is my secret weapon. Firstly, QQ is an excellent way to improve one’s Chinese reading, typing, and vocabulary skills. The beauty of QQ is that you are essentially taking a pointless, mindless, yet extremely placating activity (chatting with strangers on the Internet) and turning it into an intensive Chinese reading/typing workout. But in terms of translation, QQ can be an invaluable way to obtain real-time translation help. I am a firm believer that as much as I (or any non-Chinese native speaker) studies the Chinese language, our reading skills will never be to the level of someone who was born and educated in China. There are those occasional phrases and idiosyncrasies which simply require the assistance of a native speaker to translate. As is probably the case for many Westerners who have been living in China for several years, I frequently aid Chinese friends (as well as even the occasional stranger) with editing and/or translation of their own works in English. In return, I have a veritable army of QQ friends, who are willing, at a moment’s notice, to help me out with any question I might have in regards to translating documents from Chinese into English. Whether it’s an idiom, a slang term not in the dictionary, or sometimes even an error in the syntax of the Chinese, any translator will need to seek the advice of a native speaker from time to time. QQ just makes this more feasible.

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

For many businesses, translating signs, documents, and other materials to English is more for show than it is to actually create a readable English document. While they could probably pay a native English speaker to do a proper translation, they’d rather just find a recent college grad, and get it done for cheap. It will be interesting to see if this changes in the future. The Beijing Olympics brought a barrage of proper English to the Chinese capital, but it’s a matter of time to see if this trend spreads throughout the country and through both private and governmental sectors.

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

As a hobby, my own personal interest/passion is in translating Chinese propaganda signs and public service announcements, both current and historical. Whether the message is political, environmental, or simply an encouragement to step closer to the urinal, propaganda signs are rarely translated into English, since they are generally targeted only at Chinese nationals. Before I could read Chinese, I would always wonder what was the meaning of the big red banner hanging from the rafters or the poster along the highway with young military men standing next to a bust of a Chinese leader. One true mark of accomplishment in my Chinese studies was when I began to start understanding the meaning of all the signage. Whenever I am in China, I try to make note (or take pictures) of interesting sings and messages, and translate them on my blog.

This may sound kooky, but there really isn’t anything I hate translating. Any time I translate a new document, there are new words, sentence patterns, and nuances of Chinese to pick up. Language learning is an endless process, and the chance to further my understanding is what I enjoy most about translating.

Ben not only maintains a blog, but also a website called How to Order Chinese Food Dot Com. Ben is open to translation projects.


John Pasden

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


  1. Very cool interview, Ben. I was especially interested in the story of the Jack Daniels last-will-and-testament.

    One small quibble: I’m not a big fan of propaganda posters. I didn’t like seeing Bush standing in front of the big “Jobs and Growth” signs, and I don’t like to read fifty meters of “Promote Scientific Outlook and Harmonious Society The Local Government Takes the Lead Powerful Nation and People” blah blah blah.

    Propaganda is an assault on a language. I know I’ve mentioned Orwell already in this series, but he did have some sharp ideas about language. He said that the terrible power of the goose-step is that it looks ridiculous, but you don’t dare laugh at it. In my mind, that’s the power of propganda– it’s nonsense that dilutes the language and crowds out useful communication, but no one dares to say so. Or no one can be bothered to say so. I’m not sure which is worse.

    “Public service propaganda” like “Don’t spit” or “Please speak Mandarin” is fine with me. But I bitterly oppose mindless slogans.

    Anyway, I got a lot out of your interview. Thanks.

  2. Propaganda I find fascinating, and one of the great pleasures of studying Chinese for me was being able to read the inane messages on various 大字报.

    QQ is indeed a great weapon for Chinese but my computer doesn’t like it. I’ve recently begun writing my old students e-mails in Chinese- this is a wonderful practice as well.

  3. @John

    Thanks so much for all of these interviews, I haven’t said much about them but have enjoyed every one of them. Great idea and I hope to see more of these in the future!!!

  4. Great interviews! One thing which surprises me is the speed at which your interviewees began to translate, most of them after 4 years. Very impressive.

  5. Little Cheese Says: April 6, 2009 at 10:19 am

    I wonder if there are any good female translators?

  6. @Tzm

    I have heard that from time to time as well, and I think what it comes down to is that it really doesn’t take much longer than 2 or 3 years to get your Chinese to a professional level (assuming you’re living in China). I say this because from my experience, most people either get their Chinese to this level in the first 2 or 3 years or they never make it there at all. Nobody who lives in China takes 5 years to learn Chinese. If you have the right attitude and right environment (the 2 most important factors) it simply doesn’t require more than 2 or 3 years to get your Chinese to a functional level.

    Of foreigners who spend a considerable amount of time (let’s say at least 3 years) in China, they usually separate clearly into one of two categories. Either they speak Chinese on a level high enough to function in society, or they speak Chinese basically the same as their first month in China. There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground, and it usually goes back to people’s a) environment and b) attitude.

  7. @Little Cheese – There are plenty of very good female translators — I agree that it would be nice to hear from them if John continues this series.

  8. Little Cheese,

    I only interviewed people I knew (which includes meeting them in person at least once). Originally one female translator was in the lineup, but the interview came at a bad time for her, and so she couldn’t participate this time.

  9. Lil’Cheese – 你是我的英雄! Lil’ Cheese 万岁万岁! Lil‘ Cheese 万岁!

  10. This interview was definitely my favourite, as I feel Benjamin and I are on the same page as translators. I applaud this comment in particular:

    This may sound kooky, but there really isn’t anything I hate translating. Any time I translate a new document, there are new words, sentence patterns, and nuances of Chinese to pick up. Language learning is an endless process, and the chance to further my understanding is what I enjoy most about translating.


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