I had my first introduction to translation studies at the University of Mainz, Department of Applied Linguistics, in Germersheim, Germany. The full diploma program there was a six year course of study, with a major in either translation or interpreting. Students chose a three language combination, and also had a minor, such as law, business (economics), or medicine, which would be the specialty area of translation.
I stayed in Germersheim for four years, studying a combination of English, German, and Spanish. We were encouraged to study abroad for our foreign languages, so I attended a German translation school in Spain and a business school in Costa Rica to improve my Spanish. During my third year, I began to get well-paying work as a teacher and translator, working for some of the largest corporations in Germany, and eventually broke off my studies in order to earn money.
I already had BA from the States and had already acquired my teaching diploma and post graduate diplomas in business, so, I thought I had enough education, and could just concentrate on the GREEN.
Looking back, I realize I was a bit arrogant at the time, thinking that because I was already earning money, I must be qualified, and I needed neither a certificate or a diploma to prove my ability. Secretly, I even made fun of my friends who continued their studies, thinking they were suckers, because I could earn so much money while they continued to study.
Obviously, today, I regret this decision. I realize now that I needed more education to be a competent translator. Correcting the wrongs of the past is part of my motivation for embarking on a course of study to get certified as a Chinese translator. Partially, I am also motivated by the money. I read that competent translators could earn $150 a page and simultaneous interpreters could earn $400 USD per hour.
My friend Frank is the most successful translator I know, and he has become a major role model for me. Frank, who is also from New York, and I studied together at Germersheim, but he chose to finish his degree, in spite of already having an MA from the States. Today, he is a highly compensated translator for a major bank in Switzerland.
Back at Germersheim, his language combination was English, German, and Russian. He was the first student, in the history of the university, to achieve a perfect score on the German into Russian translation exam. Roughly nearly all of the other students who sat the exam and failed were native speakers of either German or Russian.
For me, it was not his perfect score, but the incredible discipline that he displayed, which impresses and inspires me.
To pass that exam, he locked himself away in his apartment and did nothing but translate newspapers backwards and forwards in three directions, for months.
Frank’s girlfriend demanded that he learn French, so he cold meet her parents. Frank learned French in one month, by memorizing three thousand vocabulary words from a dictionary. He went to Switzerland to meet her family, and when he returned to Germany, he obtained a job, teaching French to Germans.
I am using Frank as my model for Chinese study. I am working full time, but I manage to put in about five hours per day, in addition to my Chinese classes. It still seems like a spit in the ocean, compared to how much Chinese there is out there for me to learn. Chinese children also spend five hours per day writing characters, and it takes them more than ten years to learn.
Part of the reason why I am so driven in this pursuit of perfect Chinese is to make up for the mistakes I made with German. I remember Frank telling me at the time that reading novels at a rate of two and a half per week, and doing professional translations and talking to my German wife, was not the same as doing actual academic study. He was right. I missed out on a lot of German and made a lot of mistakes in translation. Also, I failed the American Translators Association translation certification exam.
Knowing what I know now, I have decided that in Germany, I had reached an incredibly high degree of interpersonal communication fluency, which few foreigners ever achieve. But this differs dramatically from academic fluency, and is completely different than translation competency.
For Chinese, my goal is to reach that same level of academic fluency and translation ability that Frank and other graduates of Germerheim have. But it is such a difficult task, not only because Chinese is a hard language, but because the standards are so low.
To study at Germersheim, it is more or less suggested that you have near native fluency in your target language, before you start. Then you study six years to be a translator.
Most foreigners will never, ever reach that level of fluency in Chinese. Chinese who study English their whole lives, and then complete a BA, will never have the level of fluency Germans have on their first day of University.
On both sides of the Chinese linguistic fence, foreigners who can say “hello my name is” in Chinese, who can sort of hold a conversation, if they do all the talking, and the topic doesn’t drift far away from family and food, would be considered fluent.
In Germersheim, interpreting and translating are two separate majors. In most of Asia, translators and interpreters come from identical backgrounds, with little or no specialized training in interpreting. In Thailand, for example, the first ever interpreting program just opened this fall. It is a nine month certification course.
In the whole of Taiwan there is only one university, Fu Jen Catholic University, which offers an interpreting program. Fu Jen is also the only university offering an MA in translation. In Mainland China there are only three programs, most of which are less than five years old.
In a recent study done by the Translation Association on the Mainland, the first of its kind, of the many people putting themselves out as translators, 2,400 of them responded to a questionnaire. The association determined that 80% of the people working as translators on the Mainland are graduates with a degree in English, not translation. Obviously, in Germersheim, majoring in a language was completely separate from majoring in translation.
In Germersheim, we were encouraged to study abroad. Of course for us foreigners, Germersheim meant years and years of studying abroad. The overwhelming majority of these “translators” in China have never been abroad, much less studied there.
In completing the program at Germersheim, you chose a specialization field, such as business, and you study the equivalent of a US major in that field.
In your home country, in your native tongue, you would never take a legal contract or complicated tax document to some random person because he is a native speaker. You would call a lawyer or call an accountant because they would have the specialized training to understand that document.