Translator Interview: Joel Martinsen


Joel Martinsen is a well-respected regular contributor to, where his frequent translations are a staple. Joel spends a ton of time immersed in Chinese texts, and according to Brendan, “he never forgets anything he ever reads.” This is the third interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.

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

My high school offered Chinese as a foreign language, which turned out to be somewhat less effective than other high school language programs because all levels were tossed together in one class. I took Chinese as my foreign language in college, reaching a third-year level, and then came to China after graduation. After three years living in Jilin, I enrolled in a graduate program in the modern literature department of Beijing Normal University, where I left after three years without actually completing a degree.

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

Access to books and other materials, particularly print journalism, was one of the great benefits of living in China. Being able to take a short walk and pick up an interesting used book from a street vendor or the latest issue of a news magazine probably got me to read more at a time when slogging through classics or being bored to tears by children’s fables would have driven me to put down the books in favor of something less helpful to my language learning. And the sentimental, overacted TV dramas that play at all hours are a great way to get a sense for how
colloquial language is actually put to use. Most of this is probably available on the Internet these days, though. It was after I started doing translation work that other advantages became apparent. The community of translators in Beijing has helped me find work, tackle sticky problems, and figure out standard rates and typical client expectations so that I’m not underselling my efforts too badly. This is doable over the Internet too, but it would require more motivation than I possess. It’s great to be able to call someone up a native-speaker friend with a translation issue and then meet face to face to hash it out in a conversation that could go on for several confusing rounds over email. For some work, such as film subtitling, living in China (or at least being able to fly over for the
duration of the job) is essential.

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

I started translating on my own because I was running across interesting Chinese-language texts that I wanted to share with other people in English. At the time, I was attending classes at Beijing Normal University and was doing little writing in English, so my first translation efforts were painfully unreadable. I kept on doing it as a hobby, translating reviews of Chinese science fiction for a personal blog and later contributing pieces on Chinese media to Danwei, until someone offered me money to translate business articles.

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

I hadn’t taken any formal courses in translation theory or practice, so starting out (and to a lesser extent, today) I was dogged by the feeling that I was making unfounded assumptions and violating certain basic principles — “doing it wrong,” basically. And I was, sometimes. I was totally unprepared for the business end of translation as well. I started out freelancing, which requires having a network to find jobs, and that’s tough to build from nothing, especially if you’re relying on translation to pay all of your bills.

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

Some subtitling jobs have been pretty challenging. Particularly in documentaries, it can be very difficult to find a way to convey the meaning and tone of dialogue within the constraints of the screen — there’s a hard limit of the amount of information that can be conveyed within the set line-length and frame rate. And because of your familiarity with the text, it can be hard to judge whether an average audience member is going to be able to comprehend what you’ve written. It’s a long process that sometimes involves multiple viewings together with the director. I think I end up doing more revisions of subtitles than of any other work.

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

Online dictionaries, particularly ones that have examples, are enormously helpful. Search engines have improved substantially in the past few years, both in the scope of what they index and in how they measure relevance, which has made it much easier to look up problem terms and phrases in other contexts to gain a better idea of some of the circumstances in which they are used. Online archives of texts have made it easier to access the source of quotations (and in some circumstances, to find canonical translations). One frustrating problem is the paywall that scholarly archives like JSTOR throw up to non-institutional users, but even the very fact that results turn up in web searches is often useful on its own.

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

I don’t do much freelancing anymore so it’s hard for me to say. I expect the field to expand over the long-term: the need for translation to English will continue to grow, and clients are becoming more conscious of the impression that texts translated by machine or by former English majors have on their target audience. This season may be a little tight though, with all of the economic uncertainty.

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

I enjoy translating writing that has a good sense of natural language. Many of the scripts I translate tend to be in the early stages of production, with producers who are still seeking funding and anticipate several more rounds of revisions before the shoot even begins. So it’s a gratifying to be handed a script where the dialogue flows naturally and the scene descriptions do their job without calling attention to themselves, or an article whose author is clear about what the text is supposed to convey and achieves it clearly and concisely. Wrestling with a tough, demanding text can be incredibly rewarding once the job is finished, but I enjoy myself much more during the actual translation process when I’m working on something graceful and well-crafted.

Joel’s translation work these days is limited to journalism, blogs, film work, and the occasional fiction excerpt. He’s not looking for additional projects right now, but you can find his translations on


John Pasden

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


  1. I like how all these guys have been diverse in their fields. And knowing one of your next interviews personally I know that it’s going to stay that way.

  2. Hey, John — you forgot to mention that Joel is a robot from the future, sent back in time with a mission to make everybody else look bad.

    Nice interview.

  3. Good stuff. I have been a long-time admirer of Joel’s work on Danwei.

    My favorite post was about the photo of the “dishes dumplings museum,” which still makes me giggle like a school girl.

  4. I agree that Joel’s work for Danwei is very good. Though I haven’t compared his translations to the Chinese originals, his English prose is both smooth and elegant. Unlike many others, Joel don’t make Chinese sound inappropriately odd or inscrutable. Perhaps he should consider applying his skills to something more substantial – like a favorite contemporary novel or two. The differences between good journalistic writing and fiction are considerable – i.e., voice and register, humor and irony, etc. I learned to speak and read English when I was in my late teens, and it took me years to really appreciate good English language literature. Even now, I often still need a bit of help. (I remember reading Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” for the first time and being completely confounded by it. And I recently tried reading some short stories by William Faulkner. My ego will never be the same.)

    I wish we knew more about Joel’s experience as a foreign graduate student at Beishida. Why did he leave after 3 years without finishing? How is his written Chinese?

    • Who knew that 8 years later, Marinsen would take this kind of comment to heart and have already translated a famous Chinese novel and be about to finish his second?

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