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Career Adventures in Chinese Interpreting and Translation

By Rebecca Weiner | Published: August 6, 2018

Foreign languages are springboards, including to the careers that center on bilingualism: interpreting and translation. With globalization, the need keeps growing. Jobs are plentiful in “critical languages” like Chinese, and most pay pretty well. And unlike many other well-paid jobs, translation and interpretation are important work that, now more than ever, helps bring the world together.  

Rebecca poses with a lens brace
Interpreters end up in some interesting places . . . 
like on a factory tour. Do you know how to say 
"lens brace" in Chinese? 

Over 30+ years of speaking Chinese, I have supported discussions mundane and meaningful, among CEOs and artists, teachers, journalists and heads of state. My work has helped groups aiding China’s township and village elections, rural economic development, environmental protection, special education, healthcare and more. Once I brought a group of Sino-Tibetan drug abuse treatment experts to meet counterparts in the Navajo Nation. We shared a sweat-lodge ceremony with recovering Navajo addicts who were reconnecting with tradition as a road back to health, then discussed how connections with Tibetan tradition might aid addicts in Tibet. Before parting, a Navajo elder embraced our senior Tibetan, commented on their similar appearances and beliefs, and said: "look at us: we could be brothers. And now we are." It was a fine moment to help make happen.

Interpreting is oral, helping speakers communicate in real time, when and where meetings happen. So most interpreters travel a LOT. This can be great; in my 20s, averaging 6+ months/year on the road, I loved getting paid to travel and meet interesting people. By age 40, with a kid at home, I was less enthusiastic about the travel. By my 50s, normal brain aging also started wreaking havoc with the ultra-dense short-term memory demands of simultaneous interpretation. These intense travel and memory demands make interpreting somewhat a young person’s game.

Happily many find—as I did—that after years of excitement, interpreting offers easy exits: attending senior meetings often opens pathways more enticing than interpreting. In the 1990s, I accepted an upper-middle-management corporate position (despite little business experience) while interpreting for BellSouth’s China and global CEOs. Since then I have enjoyed occasional projects, but never returned to interpreting full-time.

The author's translation of Tang poetry
Translation is a quieter job, but also provides
more flexibility and a final product that lasts.

By contrast, I still enjoy regular sideline translation work. It’s lonelier than interpreting but more flexible. With a computer, an original document, dedication, and time, a bilingual can produce high quality translations in spare moments, learning on the way, rechecking as needed for quality. Translation also creates a written record, which feels more enduring than interpreting. I have translated scientific articles and legal opinions that are still referenced decades later.

Of course, every career has challenges. One inherent to this profession is how much hard work and creativity goes into … other people’s words. Witness the backhanded compliment I got from director Martin Scorsese, whom I met while interpreting for Chinese film star Jiang Wen. We shadowed for a day on the set of Age of Innocence. That evening Scorsese invited Jiang (and me) to a private dinner, coffee and drinks. What a privilege, helping those great screen talents exchange ideas for hours about their childhoods, families, artistic visions and dreams—and how exhausting!  Near midnight, Scorsese grinned: “hey, I know this crazy late-night place. Want to go?” 

Desperate for a break, I cleared throat and spoke as myself for the first time in hours: “Sorry, can I go to the bathroom first?” Both men jumped, apologized and waved me away. I got back minutes later, but the mood had changed and they called it a night. 

I regretted missing an after-hours bar visit with the maker of “After Hours,” but Scorsese’s next comment stung worse, even as it made me proud: “you did a great job tonight. Please don’t take this the wrong way, I mean well. The truth is, I forgot you were here.”

There it is—the job of an interpreter. Our best work becomes transparent, so language barriers fall away and speakers simply forget they aren’t talking to each other directly. And sadly, sooner or later many interpreters tire of working that hard to be invisible.

But whatever happens long-term, interpreting and translation are wonderful jobs for young people. What better way to get paid to strengthen language skills, see the world, meet new people and help worthwhile goals? Our fractured world needs more connections. Consider how much good you can do yourself and others helping make them.

About the Author

Rebecca Weiner is an author and entrepreneur who has also worked sideline for 30+ years as an interpreter and translator. Most of Rebecca's time these days goes to family and to managing her business interests. But she still loves getting paid to be forced to keep up her language skills, while keeping a toe in the worlds of global trade and cultural, academic and scientific exchange.

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