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. 

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.