The Many Paths to Translation Work

I succumbed to the lure of translation work just as I was about to start grad school in 2005. Although I had long avoided “real translation work,” I figured if my Chinese was good enough to get into grad school in China, then I should be able to handle a few translation jobs. The truth is, even after 4+ years of living in China studying the language, I was terrified of putting my language skills to such a tangible, transparent trial, subject to judgment and criticism. Well… all the more reason to give it a shot, right?

So I did. I tried translation for a while, and it went smoothly enough, but I realized I hated it. Most of the jobs I got made me feel like a machine. (Perhaps this was because I expected the kind of work I was doing to be replaced by a Google service in the near future, my hours of mental anguish reduced to the click of a button.) Still, there were things I enjoyed translating… bad subtitles, maybe, or an interesting name. But those are the kinds of translations I could only do strictly for fun.

These days I rarely stray too far from translation, because my academic work at ChinesePod is inherently tied to translation for pedagogical purposes. It really is a whole new game, and one whose challenges I find rewarding. Fortunately, translation nowadays is accomplished with a slew of digital tools, ranging from online dictionaries and databases to desktop reference tools (I’m looking at you, Wenlin!). It seems like the translator’s biggest headache these days is non-digital source text.

Despite all the technological advances, the issues a translator faces are, at their core, very human, and so human minds are obviously our best weapon for this task. What’s not obvious is where these translators are coming from. Proper translation from Chinese to English requires a native speaker of English, but the translators I meet aren’t typically the graduates of some kind of translation academy, and the translators out there now precede the new wave of China-focused graduates. They’re a mixed lot with completely different backgrounds, and they share a peculiar passion for translation that I certainly was never able to muster.

Translator Interview Series

This is why I did a series of interviews with translators in China that I know personally. I asked what I was curious about, and received a surprisingly diverse set of answers. Over the next five days I’ll be publishing one new interview every day. As I publish new interviews, the links will appear below, making this page an index for the series.

The interview lineup:

1. Brendan O’Kane ( writer, freelance translator)
2. Peter Braden (ChinesePod translator and host)
3. Joel Martinsen ( contributor/translator)
4. John Biesnecker (blogger, freelance translator, Qingxi Labs founder)
5. Ben Ross (barber shop anthropologist, translator/interpreter)
6. Megan Shank (blogger and freelance translator and journalist)

Specifically, I ask them about what kind of training/preparation they had to become translators, the role of technology in their trade, and the challenges and joys that translation work brings. Whether you aspire to become a translator, or you just have an interest in language, be sure to catch what these guys have to say on the topic.

[Apr. 8 Update: An interview with Megan Shank, originally planned for this interview, has been added to the lineup.]

John Pasden

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


  1. I never set out to be a translator. Heck, I never set out to learn Chinese for that matter. I just got interested in Chinese medicine and one thing lead to another. Next month I will actually have a book coming out. Well, it is not my book, I just translated it.

    It has been an interesting journey, and now I know why so many books on Chinese medicine read in a Chinglishy way. Getting Chinese thinking into western thinking will be a complete failure if you attempt to go word by word. But, the other side of that coin is staying true to what the author has written.

    Yes, I suspect google will some day get us close, and I suppose it is that I don’t like to think I be replaced by a machine, but there is a way that humans can understand and process context that I am not sure a machine can learn. That being said, I am immensely grateful for all the online resources that help to make my translation work much easier. I have tremendous respect for those who did this work before the advent of word processors and electronic dictionaries.

    While translation work can be gritty, it also gives me an appreciation for how different cultures use their language to express experience and meaning.

  2. So is this a definite endorsement for Wenlin? I’m at a level where I can understand most of what goes on during an intermediate Chinesepod lesson but I must listen extremely carefully to upper-intermediate to catch up. Is this some software that can help me progress?

    • Mike White Says: November 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm

      I find Wenlin indispensable and use it for many hours every day. I think it is offered on a 30-day money-back trial.If so, nothing to lose.

  3. I love Ben Ross!!!

  4. Looking forward to the rest of the interviews.

  5. Hi Tex,

    I’d say Wenlin is a great purchase. It gives a lot of handy etymological info on characters. It’s also good for finding all the compounds that can be formed with a character, as opposed to just those that begin with the character.

    And Brendan, what a great interview. You spotlighted some excellent translation tools. Thanks, also, for sharing your insights on literary translation. This is the field that requires the highest level of proficiency in both languages.

  6. Wenlin is a great resource. If you are mobile (as most of us are) then the product from Pleco is essential.

  7. And for us iPhone fans, you can download this application via the AppStore :

    … it’s basically a nice application using MDBG open-source EN/CN dictionary. Very useful.


  8. I’ve looked at Wenlin before – the interface seems, frankly, clunky and ancient. Is the quality of the dictionary what sells it? For $200, it must be pretty great.

  9. Coljac,

    The interface might be old-fashioned but I wouldn’t describe it as clunky; what’s wonderful about Wenlin is its ability to open new windows at will depending on what the user wants to look at. The only comparable “chain-like” experience I can think of online is looking at successive Wikipedia articles.

    The English to Chinese dictionary isn’t very good but if you want to understand the structure of Chinese characters, then Wenlin is essential. I doubt you’d regret buying it.

  10. Gleaves Says: April 2, 2009 at 2:21 am

    Excellent series of interviews thus far. I find it especially interesting to hear how people managed to get their Chinese to such a high level.

  11. MatthewTan Says: April 10, 2009 at 1:29 am

    Excellent blog!

    Just curious…how do they pay translators in China? By number of words? Say how much per 100 Chinese characters or English words.

    How about interpreters?

    Your replies very much appreciated.

  12. @MatthewTan — It depends very much on the job. I usually charge a per-character rate for Chinese-English translation, but will sometimes charge a flat rate based on character count and likelihood of necessary edits if the client is changing the document. (And also, sometimes, between you and me, based on how much I’m likely to enjoy translating it.)

  13. Thanks for posting these fantastic and informative interviews. I’ve been working as a translator for the past 3 years, albeit on a part-time basis, and enjoyed reading about the translators’ very diverse backgrounds.

    I think I have a lot to learn from these folks!

  14. 谢谢大家! For someone hoping to get involved in translating and interpreting it’s been awesome. Thanks again!

  15. I too stumbled on this profession coincidentally, but have stuck with it cause I love the freedom it gives, not traveling while working for the past seven years. Sometimes it can be quite interesting, most of the time not. I’ve been translating for the past 20+ years and love the freedom of taking my job anywhere. The best way I found to enter this industry is by approaching as many translation agencies as possible: But you need to do an excellent job, so start slow and gain lots of practice before taking on work from too many customers.

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