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December 10, 2010

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Literally lost in translation

CHINA'S growing appetite for Western fiction means plenty of work for translators. But pay is low and professional translators are scarce, so a lot is lost in translation. Yao Min-G turns the page.

China's passion for foreign pulp fiction of all kinds is getting to be big business, but not for the translators, most of them amateur teams cobbling books together - fast.

A lot is lost in translation.

For most it's a part-time labor of love, or just pocket money, since pay is low and late in coming.

Middle school math teacher Jerry Xu was recently paid 13,230 (US$1,984), 15 months after he finished translation for an American thriller (he declines to name it). American thrillers and Japanese detective stories are especially popular.

The pre-tax rate for Xu's translation from English to Chinese is 80 yuan per 1,000 words, around 12,000 yuan for an entire book ranging from 150 to 300 pages. Xu, 34, spends two to three months on each book.

He is one of many non-professional translators hired by Chinese publishers. Most amateurs have no background in English or literature, unlike professional translators who are often professors or graduates in comparative literature or English literature.

Many of them are white collars who speak English at work or have overseas experience. Publishers estimate more than half the foreign works, including nonfiction, are translated by these part-timers. Some well-known works are "Three Cups of Tea" (nonfiction), "The Exorcist" and "Paprika."

Others are "The Bad Seed," "Fallen Angels," "The Final Detail," "Just One Look," "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," "The Facebook Effect" and "The House on Mango Street."

Because translation rates are low, few good professional translators are available.

The average rate is 40-150 yuan per 1,000 words and translators are not paid until publication, which in some cases can be years.

A good translator can easily make twice as much translating business papers for companies or working in an international enterprise.

"I can make a whole lot more in the same amount of time by holding small tutorial sessions or translating papers for joint ventures and foreign enterprises," Xu tells Shanghai Daily.

"But I have a greater sense of satisfaction by translating thrillers - I have seen too many dreadfully translated mystery stories."

Xu, like other amateur translators, declined to be further identified and specify translated works, possibly because they don't want better-paying employers to know they work at such low rates.

In the past three to five years popular foreign fiction increasingly has been translated into Chinese, especially thrillers.

But the quality varies greatly, depending on publishers and translators. It's not unusual to see characters and place names translated differently in different chapters by different translators working on the same book.

A notorious case of bad translation into Chinese is "The Da Vinci Code," which was cobbled together when the book became a best seller.

British writer Tash Aw, an ethic Malaysian living in London, says there's a lot of room for improvement.

"I feel the level of translation of literary works is still not very high, which surprises me, because China is full of amazing linguists," says Aw, who grew up in Taiwan. His first book, "The Harmony Silk Factory" was published in 2005.

"You always have more than one translator in a project, to save time and money. So when the editor is careless, silly mistakes appear," says Sammy Liu, a 36-year-old senior editor from a Zhejiang-based private publishing house.

Liu, a graduate of Western literature from Nanjing University, is also a professionally trained translator who gets a lot of work from publishers. She usually organizes a group of three to five students, English majors or overseas Chinese, and gives several chapters to each.

"The publishers are aware of this and sometimes they complain about the quality - it's not that great. But what can you do? With such a cheap rate (55 yuan for 1,000 words), it is impossible to find satisfactory translators," Liu explains.

"But that's because of economics. Publishers spend most of their money to purchase right to novels."

Many translations of classics appeared before 1992, when China joined the Universal Copyright Convention.

There was a blank period in translated works, especially pop fiction, after China joined the convention and publishers had to decide how to deal with higher costs, says Zhang Jiren, a 33-year-old editor from Shanghai Translation Publishing House.

For a long time, professionally trained translators didn't have much to do, apart from textbooks and specialized nonfiction. Most classic fiction already had been professionally translated into Chinese and publishers shied away from contemporary works because of the cost of purchasing copyright.

These translators, graduates in translation or Western literature, mostly went on to become business professionals, some highly paid as "gold collars."

Then, increased exposure to foreign culture, dramas and films generated reader interest. Lack of good translations was recognized as a problem and many publishers first used translations by Hong Kong or Taiwan publishers. This was expensive and complicated.

They finally seized onto amateurs who are fans of mysteries and thrillers.

Zhang found his first part-time translator through the Internet. The IT consultant translated "The Exorcist." He has gone on to regularly post excerpts from works online.

"The quality of this man's translation reached publication standard," says Zhang. "Many amateurs like him can do it very well, though they weren't English majors."

"As loyal fans of these kinds of novels, they are often more familiar with the structure, wording and terms of a certain genre than those who have better English skills but lack passion about the books," Zhang says.


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