Translating for the masses


Translation, literary translation in particular, is a task far more rewarding than it is lucrative. Get a group of film and book translators together and the conversation will inevitably be punctuated by complaints about poor rates, unreasonable deadlines, and boneheaded editorial decisions.

Why do people do it? In 2009, fashion and lifestyle magazine Trading Up (优品) spoke to Sun Zhongxu (孙仲旭), who has translated Nineteen Eighty-Four and Catcher in the Rye (among other works), about the business of literary translation:

Sun Zhongxu’s average translation output does not exceed 1,000 characters a day, and amounts to around 25,000 words a month. The translator Fu Lei said, “I don’t start to act until I’ve read a book ten times,” but Sun finds this hard to do. Today’s publishing houses want to put out books as fast as possible, but beyond the time needed to read a book ten times over, would a translator who had read it that many times still like the book? Sun enjoys reading, and he usually reads for a purpose: to add to his knowledge bank. Translating a book requires reading other related books.

Sun believes that the most important quality for a good literary translator is passion, and after that, absorption and self-restraint. His favorite translators, which include Dong Leshan, Xiao Qian, and Ba Jin, he likes for how they chose works to translate, and the precision with which they crafted their language.

Sun believes that compared to translators of earlier generations, translators today are very well off in terms of information – conditions exist for more accurate translation – but they are still far behind their predecessors’ professional spirit and command of Chinese and foreign languages.

Sun feels that while many works get translated every year, they are very uneven, and good works and good translators are relatively rare. Translation quality is not what it once was, and translators do not get the respect they deserve. But Sun does note that naturally, “This cannot be separated from today’s diversification of information sources and shrinking readership.”

Sun does not trust any translation software now available, particularly for literary translation. “Literary language is subtle, and the translation must be repeatedly polished; there is a strong flavor to manual labor that software can match.” But he thinks that it is a good thing that translation teams have cropped up on the Internet – you can find decent translations in lots of areas. Asked if he feels any pressure, he immediately replied, “I feel no pressure at all. Actually, I feel fortunate to live in the Internet era. I keep a blog and use Douban, so it’s not hard for readers to find me, and I communicate with them pretty frequently, I take their suggestions, and we help each other out. I can learn things from readers, correct a few errors, and improve my translations a little bit.”

Sun does not really want to become a full-time translator. “Mainly because translation fees are so low. For a professional translator, the input-output ratio is negligible. It’s hard to make a living purely off of manuscript fees, particularly if you have a family to feed.”

A thousand-word book review can reportedly bring in between 200 and 500 yuan, but a translation of a novel gets only 50-70 yuan per thousand characters, and that is not paid until the translation is completed. This makes it hard for many translators to live off of their work.

Like Sun, many people pursue translation purely out of passion and love. They feel that despite its inadequacies, translation “is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest undertakings in the general concerns of the world” (Goethe).

Trading Up also spoke to Zhao Guohua (赵国华), a now-retired translator who worked for decades on mainstream films like Victory, The Fugitive, True Lies, and Notting Hill:

But Old Zhao was more eager to talk about stories of when he was Young Zhao. Once he graduated from the Foreign Trade English Department of the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade (entering class of ’68), he was not assigned to a foreign trade company but was inserted into the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio. The studio, apart from the director and a few senior comrades, was basically staffed by students of Russian, so Zhao naturally became the subject of special attention. The first film he translated was the British edition of Jane Eyre.

During the Cultural Revolution, those Eight Model Operas were practically all there was, so being able translate Jane Eyre as an “internal reference film” naturally excited Young Zhao and the others. A film generally contained ten to twelve reels, which were divided up among them, and they did their translation separately. Zhao used the translations of the novel from the 30s and 40s as a reference, but the language in those days had a heavy western flavor. Zhao did his best to use colloquial speech. After turning in his work to be polished up by the senior comrades, it was shown again, and the feeling turned out to be the same as watching the original edition. “I loved that work.” And so Zhao was hooked.

Early on, with conditions limited, many films were only able to be shown once in the original because, as the master, the quality would suffer with multiple screenings. In those days, because tasks for the year were few, when a movie came down, everyone would work up a draft translation. Zhao would work from eight in the morning until two-thirty in the afternoon translating a single reel. Time was unhurried.

Zhao said that it was a little like they were writing Song poetry, in which several characters were predetermined and could not be messed with. “The Studio’s translation was all-encompassing. It was responsible not only for the textual translation but for the mouth shaping as well. A phrase might only have enough movement in the actor’s lips to fit five words, so we couldn’t put up six. Sometimes the dubbers would tell me, Mr. Zhao, here are two characters in a ‘fu-yu’ shape, and I’d be very excited, because there was a lot I had to say, but those two characters could not be dashed off into a mouth shape like a scrap of doggerel. Every character had its use. There was nothing useless.”

Zhao also described how the practice has changed over the years:

The Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio now contracts the translation work for most of its films to outside translators, who are far less careful than Zhao and his colleagues. The mouth shape issue is left up to the director and dubbing actors to worry about.

“They’ve been afraid of bootlegs ever since big films started getting imported in large numbers, so translation time has been growing ever shorter. It used to be we had a certain amount of time guaranteed, but now there’s only five or six days, from eight or nine in the morning until two or three at night. At first, we thought that we’d just have to charge through, but later on we found that it was like that for all movies. To translate a movie, you could only sleep three or four hours a night, and delivering a first draft was like an illness that your body couldn’t take. In the 80s and 90s, it was 10 yuan for every thousand characters, so a film with a moderate amount of dialogue would be around 1,500 yuan, or 1,000 yuan at the bottom end and 1,700 at the top. Around the year 2000, a script was around 800 to 1,000 yuan. It’s contracted out now for basically 800 yuan per film, or around 80 yuan a reel (a film usually has between 10 and 12 reels).” To Zhao, translation is no longer the same enjoyable, mentally-challenging pursuit for which he could lie awake until two or three at night pondering the translation of a particular word. That world no longer exists.

So in this new world, how do you make money doing this? The simple answer – volume – introduces problems of its own: publish too prolifically, and you run the risk of harming your reputation as a careful translator who turns out quality work.

Even the mere appearance of hackwork can cast a shadow over a professional translator. Yu Shi (于是), a successful translator of commercial fiction, mentioned her hectic schedule in a late-2009 blog post: “I’m working non-stop, and new books will be coming out regularly over the next few months. I’m satisfied, of course, but I also feel a little tired. The past few years I’ve done practically nothing but work.”

The post was made ahead of the release of the Chinese version of Stephen King’s Duma Key. One commenter criticized her rate of publication: “Books translated in two or three months, and all that concern over annoyances. They’re likely to be rubbish.”

In reply, Yu composed a lengthy post explaining the publication process, why she chooses to translate commercial fiction, and her reasons for staying with a profession that is so financially unrewarding:

Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, and Why I Translate

by Yu Shi

First, an answer to a comment on the previous entry:

1) None of my books was churned out in two or three months’ time. No churning out took place whatsoever. The cycle of translated books is not set according to the rhythm of the translator. There are many more procedures to go through once a manuscript is translated and submitted: review, editing, and deliberation on the part of the publisher….deciding a date of publication, as I’m sure you all can imagine, must also take into account the two major annual domestic book expos. So the fact that several of my translations are being released over the course of a few months does not mean that I cooked them up at all possible speed. The Dark Tower, for example, sat there for two or three years before coming out, while The Lottery was the last to be translated and was published first. One slow and one quick, a different so obvious, yet it still appears as if I translated a million characters in a single year…

2) Read (慌城孤读) also came out recently. This is a coincidence, but it is also inevitable. Yet it is the first collection of my writing in three years, a collection of book and film criticism from the last five years, most of which were published as magazine and newspaper columns. It is not something I simply whipped up in the time I wasn’t translating. And during the publication process it did indeed encounter some problems; briefly, the encroachment on literary language by the language of so-called “fast consumer media” unbridled my own feel for language. I have given this much thought.

3) On my Sina blog, I basically post only the results of my work. I no longer make posts about my personal life or reactions to books. The reason is simple: I have another place to write my personal thoughts, and I don’t need to copy them umpteen times across the net. If you think it’s too “commercial” here (I’ve never made this a major website or a celebrity blog, so there’s really nothing commercial to speak of), you are welcome to visit me at home or simply wait for my novels and essays.

To explain the pace of translation, I will now make an announcement: in October, I took just forty days to do a first-draft translation of the first half of Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol. Now I have begun the integration and editing of the document. Rushed, to be sure, but as everyone knows, the book was released across the world on September 16. I received the book on the 7th, and the publisher wants to release a Chinese translation in the beginning of December.

This is the first time that I have worked with someone else to complete a book. Although the Dark Tower was a single unit jointly translated by seven to ten people, at least each person had a separate volume to translate and there was no time limit. So The Lost Symbol is basically a first in my short translation history, in both translation format and time-frame.

Translating popular fiction really scratches an itch. And with a book that drops so many quotations and references, translation has been a form of self-study. But I have to say that in action scenes, psychology, and characterization, he is not Stephen King’s equal. Of course, that is not Dan Brown’s selling point. I have always believed that translating this type of popular novel is for readers who cannot read the original, so speed has its benefits, and in addition, a translation done by a responsible Chinese translator will at least be better than a truly crappy, unedited online version.* It’s no exaggeration to say that translating against this kind of deadline means going without food or sleep. That’s how I spent my October. No Golden Week, no vacation, no watching movies – just work.

I’ve never had the opportunity to say why, when I was writing fiction eight or ten years ago, I suddenly turned to translation. Even today, now that translation is more or less a settled thing, I get the rare person abusing me on my blog. So let’s talk about that….

First, so as not to neglect my English, of course. I graduated from the department of foreign languages, but I have not worked in education, nor did I go for grad school. And that old foundation would be wasted if it lay fallow for several years. At first it was for the sake of English that I agreed to translate children’s books. And later on after that, I met an editor who told me that what book translation needs most is not English spoken like an Englishman, but Chinese spoken well. This remark influenced me greatly. If not for that bit of advice, I would probably not have translated book after book.

Second, I only wanted to translate best-sellers at first, particularly thrillers and horror novels because….it’s quite simple: I find enjoyment in reading them which, for a translator, is a good, even happy, thing. An even more important reason is that in my own writing, dialogue and plot have always been a weakness, so I really wanted a make-up education, and translation is a good method, more effective than reading.

However, as time went on I did not stay constrained in a single genre. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima is undoubtedly an exception, but it is the translation I have worked hardest on to date, and it encouraged me to try more literary works in other styles.

Third, remuneration for translations is miniscule (I make mention of a worldwide comparison in the next issue of Newriting, which you can read if you’re interested*) – there’s no comparison with the time, energy, and even physical effort involved. Yet from another standpoint, it has become my major habit for the past few years. A lifestyle. At a time when it seems impossible to go on, translation allows me to forget all my troubles and embed myself into the lines of the text, caring nothing for anything else. Translation lets me exhaust my energy and no longer pine for unnecessary entertainment or sentiment. After life’s enormous changes, I believe that it was translation as opposed to creative writing that helped stabilize me to gradually start an ordered life. Thus when people are confused as to why I would be content to do all of this translation, my answer is simple: it takes the place of practically all of my entertainment and social activity, and has helped me make it through the work, emotion, and life of the past few years. It is a medicine. It has basically cured me, and – it has not made me abandon creative writing.


  1. One commenter complains about this attack on online translations and points out the quality of crowd-sourced Harry Potter translations. Yu Shi replies that she’s complaining about some of the Dan Brown translations, but says, “I’m talking of a phenomenon, not an individual case.” She also voices her respect for the care that some volunteer subtitlers take with their translations, and also complains that she’s had to fight with editors at mainstream publishers over “demands to make certain contemporary terms fit in line with the standards of the National Language Committee.”
  2. The December, 2009 issue of Newriting magazine (鲤•逃避) is devoted to translation and includes a piece by Yu Shi describing her trip to Canada, where she spent three weeks at The Banff Center working with Kim Echlin on a translation of The Disappeared.
Links and Sources
This entry was posted in Books, Translation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.