Translating, Lantern Festival

When I was having a hard time with my job search a few months back, I briefly considered working as a translator. I even wrote to one company and got the application packet back, which required several qualifying translations. I figured it might be a little boring, but at least I’d be learning more Chinese all day long at work, right?

Fortunately I came to my senses. However good (and perhaps necessary) it is for my language development, I hate translation. Almost always. That satori was bestowed upon me in college Japanese classes by some old chaps named Natsume Soseki, Shiga Naoya, and Honda Katsuichi (Murakami Haruki being the major exception). Ugh.

But this whole translation thing has returned. When my new employers found out that my Chinese is actually pretty decent and includes reading and writing ability, they found a special job for me. You see, the company makes educational series to teach children English. Each book in each series is accompanied by an extensive teacher guide with tips on how to teach vocabulary, how to get more senses involved in the learning process, what games to use, what “homewhork” to give, etc. Obviously, since virtually all kindergarten and primary school teachers in China are Chinese, the teacher guide is 95% Chinese. However, some schools have foreigners helping teach their English classes. The problem is that the regular Chinese teachers barely know enough English to teach the material in the books, much less to explain to the foreigners how to help teach it or what games to use. The solution? Provide English versions of those teacher guides. That’s where I come in.

OK, so I am learning some vocabulary translating this stuff. The books were written for teachers, not kids. But this is a lot of material to translate! I think it’s going to take a long, long time. I welcome interruptions.

The first major interruption is next Monday. I help the Chinese teachers teach a special class on the Lantern Festival. The Chinese Lantern Festival (元宵节 – yuan xiao jie) marks the fifteenth and final day of the Spring Festival (AKA Chinese New Year). It’s traditionally celebrated by hanging a bunch of lanterns and eating some sweet rice-dough dumplings called 汤圆 (tang yuan).

The Lantern Festival was actually today. I had my tang yuan. has a brief article on it. It also has a fairly easy to read article in Chinese which explains the festival in depth. [It seems like there’s nothing but griping about the Chinese news media — and most of the complaints are certainly legit — but I think deserves some credit. It has some good stuff, despite its expected bias. The Chinese lesson on Hangzhou made me smile, and some of these autumn pictures in Huizhou are truly amazing.]

So anyway, the long vacation is officially over, so now it’s back to slaving away. Hmmm, I wonder if I should expect 5-year-olds to be able to learn the word “lantern” in just 20 minutes…


John Pasden

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


  1. What’s a satori? Japanese word? May your translations be blessed with new ideas, interesting things, and new words for your vocabulary. Keeping the long range goal in mind may help you through the ‘now.’

  2. Don’t forget to add in little puns and jokes that only the English teacher reading the text will get! It’s your licence to be anti-serious!

  3. John, man, it’s good to hear you’re enjoying Tang Yuan. Heidi says ‘we have to eat tang yuan’ a lot and though I really enjoy them (great texture all together, cooling sweetness with the neutralizing sticky rice), I thought I’d overdose if I followed the Chinese Spring Festival traditional frequency of eating Tang Yuan.

    Anyhow, it’s been a constant daily battle at work – good though because everything worked on in the family business is promoting a better future – I’ll post photos of the container that came in today. Savage. Peace.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: February 8, 2004 at 1:33 am

    Really fantastic pics of Huizhou. Man, what romance!

    Chinese New Year came and went in America. I was barely aware of it, despite working pretty close to large Chinese populations. It’s funny (sad?), but in America, beyond eating Chinese food and watching Chinese movies, I’m not really involved in Chinese culture. I don’t see the point, and everytime I drive through cities with large Chinese populations, I always feel pretty weird inside. So many Chinese in America seem fixated on the past and try to recreate China in America (i.e., a Chinatown), but this is an impossible goal. Celebrating Chinese New Year in China was spectacular and life-affirming, but once in America, why bother?

  5. Pics of Huizhou are really wonderful.
    I always argue that if you study a foreign language, you should be familiar with the culture of the native speakers.

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