Are translators really so expensive? Thoughts on English using.

A couple of years ago a Chinese friend who works for a large Chinese state-owned company called to ask if I could look at several pages of English that she’d translated for her superiors. I asked her to send it over, gave it a quick once-over, and sent it back. Basic marketing materials, nothing too complicated. Several weeks later I was in Beijing, and met up with my friend. Over lunch she handed me a copy of the annual report for her employer – again, a major state-owned company – and instructed me to turn to the introduction where, to my horror, I found the English-language passages that she’d asked me to check. “You had me check text for the annual report?” I asked.

“My boss asked me if I had any English-speaking friends who could help me.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t nearly so rare a situation as one might guess, and I’ve long wondered – why? That is, why do Chinese organizations with international aspirations (or, at a minimum, affectations) consistently skimp on English translations? Are they cheap? Or, perhaps – as a friend recently suggested – they believe that Chinese is hard, and English is easy (and thus easily outsourced to the secretaries and their English-speaking friends)? Perhaps they believe that only Chinese are capable of translating Chinese thoughts? Look at this way: is there any chance that a major publicly-held US company like, say, Dupont, would trust the Chinese passages in its annual report (no idea if they have any) to a secretary and her Chinese friends?

Anyway, my reason for this digression is an astonishing little volume that I found in a Shanghai bookshop over the weekend. Prepared and published by the people bringing us Expo 2010, China’s latest and greatest effort to prove to the world that it’s achieved – well, I don’t know what. But whatever the Expo is supposed to prove, the title of this officially issued handbook (ISBN# 978-7-80186-899-2) strikes me as contrary evidence:

Expo_English 001

Best as I can tell, the book was written to prepare an army of Expo volunteers to handle the expected rush of English-speaking visitors.

Just to be clear: my issue with the book isn’t the English/Chinglish translations (and believe me, I’ve got no business making fun of the English spoken by native Chinese speakers). But, instead, how those translations clearly didn’t benefit from a second-look by a native speaker fluent in Western culture – and commonsense. For example, this passage from a translated, sample dialogue concerning the Swiss pavilion’s gauzy exterior:

Visitor B: What’s the red skin of the pavilion? Just like a “veil”.

Volunteer: Oh, that’s biological resin, extracted from the fermented soybean fibers, and then attached to the stainless steel mesh structure.

Visitor A: It sounds attractive. We’ll go the queue area. Thanks!

[Click images below for enlarged scans of the printed dialogues]

p1 001p2 001

Obviously, the English in this passage is pretty good. It doesn’t qualify as Chinglish. But that’s not the problem: as English, it’s fine, but as language it’s awful. . And so, again, I ask: why didn’t a native speaker get called in to soften this a bit? Didn’t the secretaries have some foreign friends (… or maybe they did …)? I’m dumbfounded.

[Reason for hope: according to Shanghai Daily, native speakers have been recruited to contribute to the ten-volume Shanghai English Language Usage Standards in advance  of Expo 2010.]


  1. well, i gotta say that I loved the fact that until about a week ago Shanghai was full of Expo signs with the unforgettable tag line: Better City, Beeter Lufe.

  2. I think there’s something to the idea that some large Chinese organizations just don’t value the idea of clear communications. The idea of PR and corporate image in China is relatively new after all. Even events like the Olympics and Expo are treated as if their glory is pretty much self evident except to those foreigners who need patient slow explanations.

  3. If you get a native english speaker to do translating, then the question became is how good is his Chinese.

  4. I have discussed this issue countless times with large Korean and Chinese companies and the reasons I usually get speak less to money than you would think. The explanations often center around someone trying to hang on their turf and telling the higher-ups (whose English is not so good) that everything is fine. There is an attitude of “why should we pay a lot for outsiders when I am already paying you and you speak English, or is your English really not so good.” I hate to do a self-serving plug (actually I don’t), but I think this is related to the post I did, entitled, “Your Chinese-American VP Don’t Know Diddley ‘Bout China Law And I Have Friggin Had It” here:

  5. I agree that this is all too common of a problem, but don’t think it’s unique to China. It’s a pretty universal problem for the reasons ChinaLaw describes. While something may reach the point of legibility, achieving authenticity across language and cultural barriers is a much higher bar that should be taken more seriously than it is.

  6. Fascinating. It ties in with my personal experience – most of my chinese friends speak atrocious English but any corrections are a hot-button issue.

    I had a discussion on this topic with a good enough friend to not explode, and the outcome was that it was a matter of standards. The natural assumption from the Chinese side is that Grammar and full determinism are not really that essential – of course it’s nicer to have all tenses and numerii to match up, but “nobody really does that”; I was also informed that that person had it on good authority that dropping words from sentences if their meaning could be inferred was perfectly legal. I tried to argue, but the guy in question claimed that he had asked many english speakers and that my opinion that you couldn’t just leave out words was a statistical outlier.

  7. I will be taking this book and rewriting the English to read as it should. Much will be posted regarding this book. I only wish that I could read Chinese so that I could translate it both verbatim and correctly. I simply cannot get enough of it. Thanks for the copy!

  8. well,judging from my expenrience by checking friends’ English private paper or confifdential company files, the main barrier does not lie in the language itself, but rather how different the way people think and structure sentences in Chinese and English, which reflect the whole logic thinking and mindsent of different nations and cultures

  9. Feng and others – My point isn’t that better translators are needed, but that a native eye/proof is necessary to perfect a translation. For this kind of work, a proper translation requires speakers of both Chinese. Obviously, an all-foreign team would be prone to mistakes as well – though its likely that the grammar would be better.

  10. I think the tourists will be able to derive useful information from the responses given to them from this hacked-together manual. The bigger problem will be that the questions posed to the expo volunteers won’t resemble the ones in the dialogues. There are many ways to phrase the same question, and odds are the volunteers will have a hard time understanding when the queries deviate from what they’ve memorized.

  11. This is such a basic thing, and so easy to get right… yet very few do. It isn’t just Chinese companies doing it, either. Years ago in Shanghai, I worked for a British company, a major player in it’s industry (it has since expanded into several others) and the best they would offer me to spruce up their English (nevermind translate) was about the same as an ESL teacher might have made… teaching toddlers 10 hours a week in Guizhou. I would say it didn’t matter, but they were producing press releases and company documents for consumption by potential clients, trade show attendees, posting on their ambitious website… ack.

    Translation in any area pays crap in China. Chinese authors who might do nicely abroad if their work was well translated? They go wanting, and then the hacks who do get the jobs are often connected or passionless muppets who wring any nuance out of the text.

    The Obama Town Hall thing is a perfect example. Instead of rounding up a bunch of sharp students who spoke mellifluous, idiomatic English, they got… well, everyone saw the bunch they presented.

    Perhaps having a country run by engineers and techicians is part of the problem; if there were more literary lovers in the halls of power, it might be different.


  12. Oh, and Dan above (China Law Blog) hits the nail on the head with his comment. There are WAY toooooo many people who lie about their English ability and cannot afford to have a hired hand show them up.

  13. Well, you introduce errors by misquoting. That way the text looks even worse than it is. It sais “area” on the scanned document.

  14. Ed – You are quite right: I dropped the second ‘a’ from ‘area’ and that does make things sound worse. I’ve corrected it. That noted, my point in quoting that passage wasn’t the bad grammar or spellings, but the bad, culturally tone-deaf translation (“biological resin, extracted from the fermented soybean fibers”).

  15. Translators are poorly paid in China although they are in great need today. That’s really confusing to me, because it’s really hard to be a good translator. Considering the effort one makes, translation should be priced far higher. But the problem is that, English education in China is even poorer – even many English majors in college are not in good command of the language, especially in terms of idiomatic uses. Maybe that’s the reason why translators are paid low?
    Anyway, the truth is, people who speak and write English very well usually don’t work as translators and many translators in China are not very good. Of course the ideal translator should be good at both languages, but boy, it’s too hard to find a few of them. That’s why you see so many poor translations in China.
    The best Chinese translators are in college – those professors of English. Here’s the article on Shanghai Daily where Mr. Lu Gusun, a famous English professor of Fudan University, discusses translations for “the slogan for EXPO volunteers” (

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