Translator Interview: John Biesnecker

John and Son

John Biesnecker has worked in Shanghai as a translator for several years, both as a salaried translator and as a freelance translator. He is a language-learning enthusiast, and writes a blog called Never Stop Moving. This is the fourth interview in a series entitled The Many Paths to Translation Work.

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

I took two semesters of Chinese at university, the year before I came moved to China, in classes full of Chinese American kids that already spoke the language. Upon moving to China I discovered that I had learned effectively nothing. 🙂 In 2004 I spent a semester at Jilin University, but mostly didn’t go to class because I was broke and had to work. Everything else has been self-taught.

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

Living in China has made massive input a lot more practical. I don’t think you have to live in China (or Taiwan, or any other Chinese-speaking place) to develop your Chinese skills to the point that you can do translation, but if you don’t you have to be a lot more disciplined. Personally, had I not been surrounded by the language every single day, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I just didn’t have the “Chinese acquisition drive” to do it in any other way, especially in the beginning.

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

I started working as a translator long before I was ready. 🙂 I started at the beginning of 2006, mostly out of desperation. My wife and I had just moved to Shanghai, and I was working at an English teaching job that I couldn’t stand. I decided that even if it meant setting up a fruit stand on the side of the road and earning a living that way I wasn’t going to keep teaching English, so I started sending out resumes. A friend of mine worked for a Taiwanese translation company downtown, and he helped me get an interview.

Looking back, I seriously don’t know why they hired me. I got really lucky, I think, and my friend put in a good word, I’m sure. I think that the best — and maybe only — way to get up to speed translating is to translate, with deadlines, and so getting this first chance was instrumental.

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

I think a lot of the difficulty in translation, beyond the initial point of understanding what you’re reading, comes from wrestling with your native language. I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty decent writer, but expressing someone else’s ideas and being true to the original while remaining smooth and eloquent is harder than it looks. Also, I found that in a lot of fields my English vocabulary wasn’t up to par. I remember specifically in the first couple months doing a long series of articles about banking and realizing that I knew very little about finance. I would go home and spend hours every night reading the Wall Street Journal online to brush up.

I wasn’t nearly as good then as I am now at researching — often via Google — and finding the proper translations for specialized vocabulary. It’s a skill unto itself.

Finally, my time estimation ability was sorely lacking, so I often got in over my head and worked overtime for the first few months. Eventually I was able to look at a piece and give a decent estimate of how long it would take, and slowly but surely those estimates began to actually reflect reality.

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

I’ve done some translations that were challenging because their subject area was far, far off the beaten path (Traditional Chinese medicine production, etc.), mostly because the agencies I worked for at the beginning would take any work that offered to pay, without much regard to whether or not the translators were actually capable of creating a decent translation.

Besides that, I would say the most challenging assignments I had were from Newsweek China, doing Chinese-English translation as part of their editorial process. The material was often pretty dense, the deadlines were really short, and the English was being professionally edited so there was pressure to not sound like a fool. It was a great learning experience, though.

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

My entire translation career, as it were, has been during or after these “recent technological advancements,” so they haven’t transformed what I do like they have for some people with longer tenures. Honestly, I have enormous respect for people that translated before computers and the Internet — I can’t imagine how frustrating running into unknown words would be if all I had was a set of paper dictionaries on my desk.

The only real newfangled thing that has come online since I started translating was Google Translate. It’s a good attempt, and it will no doubt get better, but the Chinese > English translator is pretty subpar, so I’ve never used it for work. I’m sure that will change in the coming years, though.

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

Working with Chinese translation agencies is a total mess, and I’m increasingly not doing it. The good part about the market in China is that more and more companies are recognizing the need to have decent translations of their material. The bad part is that more and more people are coming to China to study Chinese, both increasing the pools of people that can actually do a decent job, and of people that can hack their way through jobs for very little money.

I’m glad I’m not starting as a translator right now, because all of my work comes from contacts that I’ve built up. If I was going through agencies for everything it wouldn’t be much fun.

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

I really enjoy translating for magazines. Feature length articles are the right length to really get rolling, and I actually learn a lot from the translations. Business and finance topics, in particular, are fun to do, as are current events/newsy articles.

I hate translating really technical documents (i.e., things I don’t actually understand in English), and long series of tiny chunks of text. One of the worst jobs I ever had was translating the dialogue for a Chinese RPG. It was just tens of thousands of lines with absolutely no context. Nightmare.

If you have any projects for John, please visit his website for his contact info.


John Pasden

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


  1. Great interview, John. If you’d set up a fruit stand, I surely would’ve bought mangoes from you.

  2. Man, I hear you about translating big batches of context-free text. One of the worst jobs I ever had was doing a website localization for an e-commerce company: a massive Excel spreadsheet with like 9,000 items. Took me ages to get through and was entirely thankless. But at least it was a nice payday — or would have been, if they had paid me. Company went bankrupt and ceased to exist about ten minutes after I sent in the work.

  3. A common theme seems to be that they all hated teaching English in China. That is quite surprising to me. I would think that teaching would be a lot more fun than sitting at a desk translating stuff.

  4. @Paul: Teaching is usually more fun than translating, but teaching is not particularly intellectually challenging or rewarding.

  5. @Brendan: Getting paid is clearly one of the most problematic issue for freelance translators that work with agencies at the other side of the world. We can always do due diligence by checking translator network websites (where the community rates agencies), but obviously even this does not guarantees payment.

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