Translation and its Discontents

No, this is not a cheap attempt to market Gregory Rabassa's book titled If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Discontents: A Memoir.  I did that two weeks ago elsewhere and achieved zero success, so I won't even bother to do it here.  Rather, this post about the facts of life on translation from me.  It would seem that I have some qualifications as I am an accredited expert witness in the U.S. federal court system.  I characterize my comments as the facts of life, because my viewpoints are cynical and realistic, and devoid of all theory and wishful thinking that your professors might have suggested while you were in school.  But after I explain them to you, you will realize that they are brutally and honestly true.

Theory:  The best translator is the person who has received the best training in the source and target languages, and shown to have those requisite skills through rigorous testing.  This is the reason why people invest in training courses in order to get the requisite diplomas that signal their skills.

But I regret to say that this is not what happens in real life.  At least, my personal experience did not indicate that this was the case.

Fact: The EastSouthWestNorth blogger can translate long articles in Chinese into English almost immediately after the original articles appear.  That is supposed to astonish people who can read the Chinese original but found that they can only give a synopsis because it would take too much time to translate the full article.  Here are some examples of what appeared on this blog: Let Freedom Ring by Jiao Guobiao, Serve The People - Chapter 6 by Yan Lianke, A Communications Student in Beijing, Q&A about Huaxi/Huankantou, and so on.  All of these posts took less than a day for this blogger to translate.  This is nothing for him.

Fact: The blogger does not have the formal qualifications of an official Chinese-English translator.  He owns no diploma in translation from any major university.  His formal Chinese-language training stopped midway in the fifth year of an English-language secondary school (namely, La Salle College) in Hong Kong.  In other words, he did not even graduate from high school there.  However, he knew much more than his formal education would suggest through his own efforts afterwards, but that is not reflected in any diploma.  The blogger has a doctorate from an American university, but his major is statistics.  He never took any formal course about the English language past secondary school in Hong Kong/Australia.

So how did the blogger become a translator, much less an accredited expert in the United States?

In 1985, the blogger was living in New York City.  He had received his doctorate in statistics.  He was working in the media research industry and he was concerned mostly about television and radio ratings.  One day, his aunt telephoned him out of the blue.  She was working within the New York City court system as a Chinese interpreter/translator.  She was being pressed to recommend people who knew Chinese and English to assist in criminal investigations at the city, state and federal levels.  She knew that this nephew can speak some Chinese and English, and so she reached out to him half-heartedly.

Around 1985 in New York City, several major cases related to Chinese triad gangss broke open around the same time.  The investigations had been going on for a several years, using both undercover police officers as well as informers, who made many secret recordings of their conversations with members of the United Bamboo gang from Taiwan and the Ghost Shadows, Flying Dragons and Tung On gangs in New York City's Chinatown.  The investigators had to maintain absolute secrecy, so all those recordings were locked away until the day that they were able to make arrests of the dozens of suspects.  Immediately after the arrests, the government had to produce the evidence for the subsequent trials.  All they had were taped conversations in Chinese (either Cantonese, Shanghainese or putonghua), which could not be presented as evidence because the judges, lawyers or jury members could not understand them.  Immediately, the government was faced with the huge problem of transcribing thousands of hours of taped conversation from Chinese into English.  So they sent out the call to get as many people as possible.  That was how my aunt recruited me.  Not that I was anxious to do anything like that, but I did it as a favor to my dear aunt.

Next, you need to put yourself in the place of the team of prosecutors.  They had several dozens of interpreters/translators working to transcribe those tapes for them.  They doled out the copies of different tapes to different people, and they got the transcripts back in a stream.  They did not know Chinese themselves and therefore cannot personally judge the accuracy and competence of the work.  But they realized that timeliness and accuracy were crucial to their project.  How shall they decide whom to trust?

The prosecutors knew the case details as provided by the undercover police officers, the informers and the supervisors.  So they picked up the transcripts from the various interpreters/translators and evaluated them on two important points:

(1) Was the English passable?  Indeed, if a transcript did not read smoothly in English, they will never convince the judges or lawyers that this was a fair and accurate transcription.

(2) Did the details in the transcript match the overall outline of the case?  If the transcript presented a wildly different scenario or cast of characters, then the interpreter/translator was probably imagining something that was not said.  Did the details for a particular day match the reports from the police officers?  If the transcript is divergent, then all the work from that person is suspect.  It was important that the prosecutors should never tell the interpreters/translators directly what was supposedly to be happening, because that might prejudice their work.  The interpreters/translators were supposed to produce fair and accurate transcripts based upon their knowledge of the target and source languages as native or learned speakers. 

These criteria immediately eliminated those people who may understand the Chinese language perfectly but who cannot express themselves well in English, as well as those native English speakers who did not understand colloquial Chinese (namely, Cantonese, putonghua and Shanghainese) well enough.  It also eliminated people who didn't understand the cases themselves.  These were organized crime and racketeering cases, and the gangsters used a lot of underworld slang.  Certainly, my sister and my aunt could not have understood much of what those people were saying, whereas a Chinese male like me with friends in the lower echelons of Hong Kong and Taiwan could understand that kind of talk.  For example, there was an American with a doctorate in Chinese literature, but he had no idea how triad gangsters talk.  Besides, I had also looked up all the public media information about those cases (note: that was not prejudicial because it was public information).

Within weeks, the prosecutors reviewed the works of the several dozens of interpreters/translators that they had called in and decided that I was one of their 'best.'  Let me be precise about what that meant and did not meant.  It did not mean that I was the person who produced the most accurate transcription under whatever criteria.  It did not mean that I knew either Chinese or English better than anyone else.  It only meant that I was the person who was able to do these things for them: (1) produce transcripts in a timely manner; (2) my English-language transcripts were comprehensible to judges and lawyers; (3) my transcripts were largely coherent and consistent with the overall theses about the cases.  As a result, my reputation grew.

For the next seven years, I found myself doing translation work for various American government agencies in addition to my regular day job in media research.  By my count, I had worked on more than 100 criminal cases for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Naturalization Services, Internal Revenue Service, Customs Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Alcohol, various city, state and federal attorney's offices as well as private attorneys.  I did not advertise myself to anyone and I did not ask for those assignments, but they came to me by professional referrals.  When prosecutors got assigned a Chinese-language case, they asked their colleagues and were told that I was the best.  

Since I have performed thousands and thousands of hours of work in interpreting, translating and transcription from Chinese into English, it is easy and mindless for me today to translate those long Chinese-language essays for my blog.  I just set up the original Chinese essay on one side of the computer screen and I start banging on the keyboard on the word processor on the other side of the screen, and it is as if I am just re-typing.  But just remember: I don't guarantee that I get all the details right, but I will get the overall point across in a coherent and consistent way in very quick time.  That was and is something that I can do well.

You can find an instance of my prior work for the U.S. government in the article Chinese Costra Nostra (in Adobe pdf format) that appeared in Penthouse magazine in 1997.  In retrospect, even the English rendition was not smooth, but it was passable and certainly approved by the undercover police officers and the prosecutor; it was also enough for convicting the defendants.

Of course, I am telling you something that is perfectly sensible.

You may think that you know Chinese and English well, but please imagine that you are handed an Iranian case file one of these days and you know nothing about the Farsi language.  What will you do about the 'translated' documents that are passed in front of you?  You would go through the same evaluation process to decide which interpreter/translator you could trust: (1) it better make sense in English; (2) it better be self-consistent over time; and (3) it better mesh with your overall understanding about what has been going based upon all the information coming to you.

For all those people who think that obtaining a diploma in translation is everything, please think again!  It is also about the presentation of yourself in the target language and your consistent and coherent understanding of the situation.  

I should also add a couple more attributes.  In most of my cases, my work was never challenged.  I have had to appear in court to testify in only five cases out of the more than 100 that I had worked on, and that was how I got accredited as an expert witness (and once I am accredited in the first case, I will retain my status forever!).  The prosecutors liked me because my professional experience as a media researcher had steeled me against public abuse and made me imperturbable under cross examination.  My sister or my aunt might have wilted under the persistent badgering by the lawyers, but it was just another day at the office for me.

I also knew to answer the question exactly but not more.  For example, I was once asked by a defense lawyer during cross-examination whether I had been shown a transcript prepared by the Drug Enforcement Agency before I did my own transcript.  The thesis was that the DEA prejudiced me (as an independent professional transcriber) about the case.  My answer was NO -- nothing was ever shown to me.  The defense lawyer rephrased the question in a number of ways and my answer was always NO.  He firmly believed that this was standard DEA operational procedure.  Eventually, the judge lost patience and told the defense lawyer that it was obvious that the witness was saying NO and that the cross-examination should move on to another area.  I was then excused by the defense lawyer because he was getting nothing out of me.

What was really going on?  At the time, the DEA did not have an internal staff which can do translation, so I was their 'internal' translator as well as their expert witness.  There was no conflict of interest, because I worked as an outside consultant at the standard hourly rate and my services were available to any government agency, private attorney or whoever.  I was truthfully saying that nobody showed me a transcript, because I would have been the person to prepare the initial transcript as well as the expert witness who made the final court-ready transcript.  I was not obliged to enlighten the defense lawyer about this arrangement, as I was only required to provide direct answers to his questions.  Every word that I spoke was truthful, as I swore to do so before I sat down in the witness box.  The defense lawyer made the wrong assumption about the mode of operation, and therefore did not get anywhere.  This was the rule of law, and I am sure that the Article 45 Concern Group barristers in Hong Kong would totally agree with me.  Pardon me for the cynicism, but this is how it is.

The general moral lesson is this: Do not believe what your professors tell you about the value of your academic qualifications.  Rather, you should analyze the situation from the point of the other side, and deduce what they must necessarily be looking for; and then your path should be clear.  Please remember that you can only get this kind of brutally honest advice from a personal blog and never from mainstream media, which would like to convince you that you live in an idyllic world of perfection in which those law and journalism school fantasies hold!