Vancouver Chinese and English Certified Translator and Interpreter
An interview with a Certified Translator and Interpreter in Vancouver
At Vancouver-based translation company LingoStar, we help our clients find a professional interpreter or translator who will fit their exact needs. For 14 years, Lenka de Graafova, LingoStar’s Managing Director, has been working with Wenhui Zhong, a certified translator (Chinese/English) and interpreter (Mandarin/English and Cantonese/English), based in Vancouver. Wenhui has worked as a Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese interpreter at all levels of Canadian governmental departments and agencies as well as companies in the legal, financial, medical, IT, media and gas industries, to name but a few.
With this Star Story interview, we aspire to allow our readers to see how it all works behind the scenes of the interpreting profession. In this case, we introduce you to Chinese interpreting specifically.
What does it take to become an interpreter? How do you handle the stress of interpreting and fatigue? What is the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese interpreting? Wenhui has kindly accepted to share his experience with us!
Check out our interview!
You are a Chinese translator and a professional interpreter in both Mandarin and Cantonese. These are two varieties of spoken Chinese that are actually very distinct. Can you explain how you became fluent and professional in both?
I grew up in the city of Guangzhou, also known as Canton in southern China. It’s the traditional place where immigrants leave to go to other parts of the world like Southeast Asia and North America. When people talked about Chinese immigrants about 50 years ago, they were actually talking about Cantonese speaking immigrants. However, Cantonese is only one of 8 major dialects in China. After the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, Mandarin was chosen as the national language in the spoken form. But I have to be careful of what to tell people. Chinese in the written form is called Chinese and not Mandarin or Cantonese.
When I grew up, I spoke Cantonese in daily life and learned Mandarin at school. Nowadays, young people are less fluent in Cantonese because of social media and easy mobility across provinces. In the past, China was very isolated. If you were born in one place, you pretty much ended up living there all your life. Now, people go to different places, and Mandarin is dominant. That weakens the dialects in China. This is why the quality of their Cantonese is not so high nowadays.
Simultaneous interpretation requires active listening at the highest level. Could you give us an example from your experience where you demonstrated the ability to concentrate for an extended period of time?
Active listening means anticipation. You do your homework beforehand, to reduce the amount of new information you get during the interpreting session. Sometimes, the interpreter is so good at anticipation that he will turn out to be a better presenter than the actual speaker. I have seen this a lot in Chinese interpreting at official functions. Interpreters actually correct the speakers’ minor mistakes.
Active listening and anticipation help you get ahead of the speaker. I will give an example that comes from personal experience. The Chinese premier was giving a talk, and he mentioned trade deficit Japan had with China. In the speech, it was unclear whether China was in the surplus or the deficit and the audience might not pay close attention to such details. Nevertheless, the interpreter for the premier actually corrected it, and nobody noticed. If you have the general knowledge that China is in the surplus and Japan in the deficit, you know that if the premier says something wrong, you can correct it, as it must have been a slip of the tongue.
How can an interpreter prevent fatigue during a long interpretation assignment?
Anticipation is one thing, but if you want to go further, you have to go through a process of constant balance. Your mind is split between listening and speaking at the same time. There is a scientific study showing that a person is not doing both things at the same time but is actually switching back and forth. It is happening so fast that it looks as if you are doing two things at the same time. A person in a simultaneous interpretation situation will be listening, organizing, analyzing and speaking at the same time.
In interpreter training, two interesting words are often mentioned. One is décalage (the gap between the moment the speaker starts the sentence and the moment the interpreter starts interpreting). It can be long or short. When a décalage is longer, it’s more demanding for your mental capacity because you’re still listening and then starting to speak. But the advantage of a bigger décalage is a better overall picture of the sentence. Indeed, English and Chinese have different sentence structures. The disadvantage is that if it’s so long you might forget the actual sentence!
“A person in a simultaneous interpretation situation will be listening, organizing, analyzing and speaking at the same time. “
Interpreters are always subconsciously or consciously gauging what kind of décalage they want to allow themselves. However, if you don’t want to “lose” things, you can use another metaphor called “cutting salami”. If the person is speaking, then the sausage comes out, meaning you process (cut) it, and interpret it in your language. If you cut this salami more frequently, then you process it quickly and your mental workload is lighter. The biggest challenge with this method is the numbers. To be specific, the Chinese numbers and the English numbers have different expressions for units over 10,000. So ten thousand is actually one “wan” in Chinese.
In order to feel fit during any interpretation job, I also practice meditation to ease my mind. I just sit there and ignore everything else, and it helps fight fatigue.
Lastly, it also helps a lot if clients give reference materials beforehand so I can prepare myself and study up on any specific terminology.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering becoming a Chinese translator and an interpreter and wants to improve his/her skills?
There is one low-tech skill that is often used, even for experienced interpreters. It’s called shadowing. It consists of listening to someone speak and repeating it in the same language. Of course, in the beginning, it’s very easy because you just repeat what you hear. Again, using the word décalage, you very slowly try to increase the time between what you hear and what you repeat. There’s no need to rush, because you will be disappointed! You also have to record yourself, because if you don’t, you will usually feel “oh I did pretty well”, but when you listen to your recording, you will think “oh I missed this… and that”.
Nowadays it is very tough to become an interpreter. It takes a long time of financial sacrifice as well as developing your reputation and a solid customer base. It’s tougher now than when I started years ago. New technologies are threatening to replace your work. Software applications are claiming to do similar things. Whereas in the past, you could be doing things that translation machines could not do, today, Google Translate can achieve more than 50% accuracy. Nowadays, technologies are everywhere, so people learn fast. I’m very confident people’s language competence can be increased very easily. However, just a passable level is not enough for professional interpretation.
Is that your only “secret” technique?
I have another method that I use now that I did not have the opportunity to use when I was learning English. It’s watching DVDs with subtitles. For now, I’ve seen all the Oscar-nominated movies to practice interpreting techniques. You have to choose a movie that resembles the language environment you will come across in your work. Once you are aware of these things, your language competence will be at a different level.
From my own experience, I consider myself a generalist. Somebody who is knowledgeable about everything but not specialized. I have been a teacher, a journalist and I worked for the BBC as a radio producer. I had to deal with language and translation because the BBC has English as the main resource for the news content and it also produces programs in different languages. That experience gave me some insights into how to process and package information in a very concise way.
Do you think the interpretation training is different in China than in the rest of the world? If so, to what extent?
At the top level, interpreter training in China is the same as in the rest of the world. But if you listen to the Chinese to English interpreters coming from China and their interpreting at a press conference, the English that comes out is a better version of the actual Chinese words and expressions.
However, the interpreter should not go too far so as to polish and present the speaker in a more positive light than the speaker actually is. In China, part of the interpreter’s job seems to present the leader in a positive light and in widely accessible English.
Let’s take the example of the coronavirus outbreak in China in 2020. A Chinese mayor was interviewed and was asked: “What do you suggest we do?” The mayor answered literally: “We should unify our thoughts…” This is a very typical, official and rigid phrase that does not mean anything. What he meant is that we should work on consensus. Yet, the interpreter said: “We should stay calm and fight the virus together”.
“At the top level, interpreter training in China is the same as in the rest of the world.”
Another example is when a high-ranking official from China visited Vancouver. I was the interpreter to our premier. The Chinese official brought his personal interpreter and we had to work together. So, when his boss spoke, he interpreted it and when either the Lieutenant Governor or the BC premier spoke, I interpreted. We divided the work. However, I could see how the Chinese interpreting training is geared towards representing the leader in a positive light, and in a formal English register.
The problem is when you don’t adjust the English, then you get a very rigid translation such as the above mentioned phrase “unify our thoughts”. Some can argue it’s a distortion and that they’re going off the track, but you can also argue that the Chinese to English interpreter is just making it accessible to the English listeners.
Is the level of education for interpreters different in China?
China is a big country so it varies a lot. During my career, I have marked exam papers of Chinese associate members of professional associations of translators and interpreters in Canada. Associate members are not fully certified. They have to take the exam to get certified. I think people don’t have the same level of translation and interpreting experience. However, if you want to be a professional, then you have to accept the professional standard may be different from what you think the standard is. Sometimes, people come back to argue with the examiners and we have to find a third person to give another opinion, as it takes two markers to agree to pass or fail you. It does not happen a lot, but it’s surprising to see that a few associate members are so determined that they were right in their translation exam.
However, I have also seen really good Chinese translations during the examinations. Chinese translators who are aspiring to become certified translators in Canada come from a very hierarchical place. In China, there are elite universities with graduates who started at a much higher level than most people and thus graduated at a higher level than the majority. Others come from universities with a lower translation standard.
In conclusion, it partly depends on which university they studied at. At the same time, I also come across very good Chinese interpreters and translators who have not necessarily been trained in the language arts. In Toronto, at York University, for example, there are some young and smart people getting very good training in Chinese interpretation.
Do clients give you feedback once the interpretation is over? In your opinion, can they recognize a good interpreter compared to someone who just speaks the language?
Usually, they don’t give us feedback unless we ask. However, most of the time, you can tell. It’s good practice to encourage them not only to tell me if I did a good job, which may or may not be out of courtesy, but to tell my agent or the translation agency I work for. It is important to give feedback, whether it’s positive or not, to encourage the service provider to also give feedback to the interpreter.
Regarding the quality of an interpreter, I use the terms professional versus amateur. It’s reasonable for a client to question a Chinese interpreter’s professional level and to compare the cost. In the mass market, a client weighs cost over quality. That is, the priority is cost. If a client is looking for a more economical interpreting option, then I recommend finding someone with lower interpreting fees but who still meets their requirements.
Pricing oneself on the market is a challenging task, do you have any advice to give?
For my part, I am pricing myself out of the mass market. I use words that might not be politically correct. I say “mass-market” versus “niche market”. If you work in an area where a lot of other people can also contribute, then your real value is not as good as if you worked in an area that has more challenges and therefore gives you a feeling of higher achievement. Customers are capable of seeing your value.
Generally, business people are very smart; they will decide whether they want to hire the best Chinese interpreter or not. Sometimes I tell my clients that what I’m about to say will sound like self-promotion. But if quality is important to them, I will be happy to give more detailed answers to that line of questioning; but if the actual cost is more important to them, I can recommend some of my colleagues who charge lower rates. If they’re questioning my ability, it’s easy to find my professional background and experience by doing a simple search online. I have references, a LinkedIn profile, and years-long experience. All this background information will help clients decide which Chinese Mandarin interpreter they want to hire for their needs and budget. Sometimes, people don’t necessarily need the best.
You Can Count On Us!
With this interview, we hope to have aroused your curiosity about the work of a Certified Translator and Interpreter. From this interview, we can conclude that the profession of interpreter and translator is one that requires a highly valuable educational background, training, and experience. Above all, it necessitates ongoing training to keep pace with the challenges affecting Canada and the world. Fortunately, Mr. Zhong has provided us with great advice that you can put into practice immediately if you are considering becoming a language expert!
Here at LingoStar, we work with a large number of highly qualified and experienced English-Chinese and Chinese-English translators and interpreters. If you or your business requires interpretation for an upcoming event, LingoStar is here for you!
Our certified Simplified and Traditional Chinese translators can also provide official translations. They have many years of experience and can provide valid documents accepted by all Canadian governing authorities.
If you want to learn more about how translators and interpreters become certified in Canada and the US, we invite you to read our previous interview with Certified Translator Angela Fairbank. Find it here: https://lingo-star.com/star-stories/
For more information, contact us by calling 604-629-8420 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also request a free quote via our website https://lingo-star.com/get-free-quote/. Feel free to follow us on Facebook. We look forward to hearing from you.
This interview was conducted by Lenka de Graafova, the CEO of LingoStar, with the assistance of Assistant Project Manager Estelle Hercot. It is part of a series of interviews about interesting people living in Vancouver. Let us know what you think about this article through our Facebook page LingoStar Translations.