EastSouthWestNorth has translated an excellent story on the translation crisis in China that first appeared in Phoenix Weekly. It talks about the more than 1,000 foreign literary works that are translated and published in China each year (and we assume that number is still growing). The story laments over the “awfulness of the translations, the crudeness of the translators and the absence of critical reflection on what is happening”. It then looks into why translation quality has fallen and why China has such a great lack for good translators.
Much of the blame, as it turns out, falls in part on the shoulders of the short-sighted publishers that are out to seek quick profits and their unwillingness to pay their translators more:
Over the past twenty years, the salaries for most professions have increased by twenty fold. But the salary for translators has only doubled. In the early 1980’s, the basic fee for translation was 30 yuan per 1,000 words. At the moment, the basic fee for translation is only 60 yuan per 1,000 words.
To actually make a proper living then, translators are forced to rely on quantity (a familiar refrain across many industries here, it would seem). Shanghaiist knows this all too well, because in one of our many past lives, Chinese-English translations were a major source of our income. Fortunately for us, Chinese-English translations pay more than English-Chinese translations (but not much more). Oftentimes we were also asked to help proofread and edit translations that were done by native Chinese translators and then passed on to us. Needless to say, the translations were all crap (and hence returned by the client). Since the payment for proofreading was much, much lower than for translation, and editing the work of the Chinese translators proved too much of a fucking headache to be worth it at all, Shanghaiist would often reject the “proofreading” work and ask to redo the translation instead. The result: Higher eventual costs for the cheapo translation agencies that thought they could actually get away with Chinese translators for Chinese-English work.
Many late nights and white hairs later, and countless refusals by clients to pay more for QUALITY translations, we decided enough was enough, and it was time to reinvent ourselves and move on to greater things in life, such as blogging, but we digress. Of course, the day we decided to quit, China’s translation industry lost a kickass translator (*ahem*), but alas, nobody shed a single tear, and the industry continued to crank along.
But why do publishers give their translators such shitty pay, you ask? The devil, ladies and gentlemen, is all in the economics of Chinese publishing:
Jin Hao is the general manager of the Ten Thousand Languages Cultural Company which publishes the Famous New Ideas Books series. He made the following accounting for the reporter: To publish a translated work, the royalty is between USD 1,000 to USD 2,000, or around 10,000 yuan; the translation fee is over 10,000 yuan; the cover design and printing costs are around 60,000 yuan. Suppose the book is sold at 20 yuan with a print run of 10,000 copies. If every copy is sold, the total income is 200,000 yuan. The cost of royalties, translation and printing is 40% of the gross revenue. It must be pointed out that the publishing industry is in the doldrums right now. Many bookstores require that the books be provided at 50% to 60% of the listed price, and Internet bookstores even want just 40%. The profit for a translated book is therefore low, and only a book with sales of 7,000 to 8,000 copies can reap profits. The reality is that except for a few bestselling novels and financial management books, very few contemporary foreign books sell more than 10,000 copies. Jin Hao told the reporter that their company lost more than 2 million yuan in total in publishing the Famous New Ideas Books series.
The writer also asserts that China “once had excellent translators such as Fu Lei, Cao Ying, Wang Daogan and others” and that “since the 1990’s, there have not been enough successors in the ranks of translators… with such sterling reputations”. Allow us to add our two cents worth: The world is much more complex today than it was two or three decades ago. With new industries constantly being born, and new social phenomena that is changing the face of our society, new words and new concepts are being invented every single day, many of which can be totally foreign to your Chinese translator. For instance, there is currently no consensus on the Chinese word for “metrosexual”. Second example: the gay community in China has only just begun to step out of the closet, so your average Chinese translator will not know what on earth a “fag hag” or “dyke mike” is supposed to be, much less a “potato queen”. These are cultural concepts that just can’t be “translated”. Third case in point: China can be said to be a nation of first-generation car buyers, so your really clueless Chinese translator will take two hours to understand what a “designated drunk” is, and will need the space of three lines (instead of a word or two) to explain to the reader. We can give you an endless list of examples across a million industries and cultural contexts, but at the end of the day, no matter how fast Chinese society is evolving, the average Chinese translator will need to take another decade or so to be more similar in cultural outlook with her international counterpart.
Translation is all for the sake of helping the people of the world come together. It is about China understanding the world and the world coming to understand China. For the Chinese translation industry to move ahead, agencies and clients will need to realise that translation is really a profession in itself, and not just a job for anyone. Till the day they do, poor translators in China will be hiding away in their little dingy sweatshops hacking away on their keyboards for peanuts (did we forget to mention that international translation agencies are now outsourcing a huge chunk of their work to their Chinese counterparts?), and the quality of the translation that arrives in the client’s inbox will remain, at best, little better than what Google Translate can offer them.
EastSouthWestNorth: The translation crisis in China
Phoenix Weekly: 大陆翻译危局
Photo from xiaming: Are you going to trust this translation agency with your translations?