Why then, would you allow a Chinese to translate your legal contracts or bank documents, simply because he or she has a degree in English?

This element of specialized training is completely absent from education programs in China and Taiwan.

Westerners, particularly Americans, tend to value life experience. Over the period of a lifetime, the average American may have five careers, but how many jobs? My careers included: teacher, translator, investment banker, and writer. I can’t even count how many jobs I had before I started my careers: fast food, department store, bicycle repair, telemarketing center, loading dock, amusement park, sailor, soldier, stripper, singing telegrams, boxer, construction… Maybe I have had more than most people, but the list of most Americans will include more than just their careers. And these life experiences give us a broader understanding of subjects and documents which we may wind up translating.

The majority of Asian students will go from grade school, where they only study and don’t play sports or have outside experience, to university, where they will do the same, and then on to a career job. Their education and life experience is extremely myopic. In China, the problem is exacerbated by communism and the government’s ban on foreign media and influence. In Taiwan, the same problem exists because it is a small, island nation which tends to be more inward looking than outward.

The problem of Asian translation is compounded by the nature of the Confucian education system employed in both countries. Students are taught to memorize, not to think. They are taught that there is only one correct answer for any given question, and that they obtain this answer from their teacher, who knows everything and is never wrong. On an exam, the student who most closely regurgitates the information and opinions fed him by the teacher, will score the highest marks.

Obviously, translation is a fluid, growing, living, breathing craft which is as much art as science. There are countless ways to skin the cat, and a good translator will explore them all.

In America, students are expected to begin doing their own research and writing reports in elementary school. The complexity, length and requirements for these reports become progressively more difficult throughout the education process. In college, it is not uncommon to have several papers due each month or certainly each semester.

In China and Taiwan, many students will graduate high school having written as few as two papers. At university the same may be true.

Translators, of course, have to be able to research and look for answers in creative ways. They must not be afraid of the library and must be masters of the internet.

In the States and Europe, the idea is to expose the student to a lot of different subjects and ideas in school. Hopefully the student will find some subjects which interests him and he will go research them on his own. Students are encouraged to read for enjoyment. In China and Taiwan, students would never consider reading or researching anything apart from testable material. They also don’t usually develop the habit of reading for enjoyment because their course work in elementary and high school is too demanding.

In the face of all of these factors, it becomes obvious why menus are often unintelligible, and why street signs and billboards often make no sense at all. The overall level of translation is extremely low, because it is being done by people with no education and training, and no life experience.

So, on the Chinese side, achieving academic fluency and competency in translation seems nearly impossible. On my side, trying to learn Chinese and get certified as a translator, I have to put my program together myself, because existing programs won’t even come close to fulfilling my needs.

I am studying with a private tutor and putting in at least five hours per day of practicing characters. This is good, but it leaves me no time for listening, which is maybe okay, because I haven’t figured out how to get listening practice. I have applied for an MA in linguistics, in Taiwan, which, although taught in English, requires me to attend Chinese classes, and to study a foreign language; in my case, German, which will be taught in a Chinese medium. Parallel to this, I am enrolling in a distance learning course in Chinese translation from the University of South Africa (where nelson Mandela also earned his law degree by distance learning). I am looking into Taiwanese government examinations for Chinese fluency, as well as translation. Obviously, I have a strong background in finance, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and insurance from my work and studies on Wall Street (Diplomas from New York institute of Finance and The American College of Financial Planning). But, I will need to enroll in Finance classes taught in Chinese, in order to learn the specialized vocabulary. It will be some time before I am ready to do this.

I think that in the world, there must be very few highly competent Chinese translators, the bulk of whom were trained at universities in developed countries: Germany, USA,Australia, UK, and other European countries — compared to say, German translation, where there are thousands of qualified translators produced in countless countries around the world, each year.

I know that when I left Germersheim I still couldn’t have passed the PNDS, let alone the Vorediplom.

I really want to get through this, and reinvent myself as a Chinese translator, but I am really afraid. I am afraid of the hard work. I am afraid of having to create my own path, but mostly, I am afraid of repeating my mistakes of the past.