Be-On Communications


Instead of a generic list of Frequently Asked Questions, these FAQs are what I have personally been asked of as a professional translator and interpreter. I share my answers here to allow users of language services understand the perspectives of professional language service providers, in the hope of better collaborations between us.



Q: Simplified Chinese vs. Traditional Chinese; Mandarin vs. Cantonese – what are they and what should a client know about them?



A: This seems to be the most frequently asked question, ever, of a specialized English-Chinese translation service. Various kinds of misconceptions and myths exist about this unique phenomena. Some clients, quite ironically even seasoned LSPs (language service providers), often equates Simplified Chinese with Mandarin and Traditional Chinese with Cantonese. Thus we often get requests to translate something into Mandarin and/or into Cantonese. For an untrained eye, there’s nothing strange about this statement. But if you know the Chinese language a bit deeper, you can tell how wrong they are.

To help non-Chinese speaking clients better understand this linguistic phenomena without being too technical, here’s my take of the issue:

The Chinese language evolves in such a unique way that there is a disconnect between its various spoken dialects and its writing system. While many different dialects are spoken in China, some being mutually unintelligible, as in the case between Mandarin and Cantonese, there is only one Chinese writing system, called characters, not alphabets. When we talk about Traditional or Simplified Chinese, we are talking about the variants of the Chinese writing system. This system transcends differences in pronunciation and unifies the culture as a whole. The so-called “Pinyin” (developed in Mainland) is only a modern day Romanized tool to help pronounce Mandarin, not a reformed Chinese writing system in itself. Mandarin refers to the spoken dialect being used as official language in both Mainland China and Taiwan. Cantonese is the spoken Chinese dialect used as official language in Hong Kong and Macao. But when it comes to writing system, Hong Kong/Macao and Taiwan use Traditional Chinese, while Mainland China, as well as Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore and many places in Indonesia use Simplified Chinese. The table below is a summary to help map your target markets:

Markets Spoken Written
Mainland China Mandarin Simplified Chinese
Taiwan Mandarin Traditional Chinese
Hong Kong; Macao Cantonese Traditional Chinese
Malaysia; Singapore; Indonesia Mandarin; Cantonese; Hakka; Hokkienese, etc. Simplified Chinese


So if you have content to be translated into Chinese, I hope this chart can help you clarify which script you’d need to use.




Q: Do you do free test translations?



A: No. However I do understand language service users, when they use a translator for the first time, would like a way to find out how good that translator is. And doing a small free text translation, as many Language Service Providers (LSPs – or as we freelance translators call “agencies”) do, is one of the most commonly used way. Yet, there are more than one way to find out the caliber of a translator. Certification by professional bodies (as in my own case), references by other clients are some other typical ways that are equally effective. To accept or not to accept free test translation assignments is a personal choice of freelance translators. In my own case, I have been certified by two professional bodies: The American Translators Association, and the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario. My affiliation with these organizations requires not just to pay dues, but also to regularly update on professional development through Continue Education activities, in order to remain on good standing. These investments of time and efforts, in my opinion, already assures that language services users work with real professionals with good standards. If a language service user is still not fully sure of the quality, I, and many similar professionals, would love to provide references to contact independently; or to do a small paid job in order to minimum the first time user’s risk.




Q: Consecutive vs. Simultaneous Interpretation, which one do I use and what are their costs?



A: For first time clients, it’s often hard to tell the differences of these services and how to use them. Several things to consider if you are planning an event, a conference, or even just a meeting or tour:

In a nutshell, consecutive interpretation is an interpreting mode in which the speaker and interpreter take turns: when the speaker talks, the interpreter waits and takes notes; after a few sentences or making a point, the speaker pauses for the interpreter to deliver what’s just said into the target language. Simultaneous interpretation, on the contrary, is an interpreting mode in which the speaker does NOT wait for the interpreter. S/he just talks in the normal way s/he would and the interpreter talks in the target language almost in real time. I say “almost” as there must be a few seconds of delay because the interpreter works by listening for the first few seconds, delivers into the target language, while SIMULTANEOUSLY listening to the current sentences being spoken. As the speaker and interpreter talk “at the same time”, they must be placed in separate spaces to avoid cross interference. The interpreters must work from an enclosed booth, where they listen in the speech from earphones while talk into microphones, and the audience use wireless receivers and earphones to listen to the language of their choice. This requires specialized equipment and on-site technicians to handle the audio console, radio transmission, etc. The cost of simultaneous interpretation is much higher than consecutive because of such equipment and technical requirements. In addition to equipment, simultaneous interpreting calls for at least two interpreters in the booth, because as the interpreter’s brain multi-tasks in such high speed, his/her focus span cannot go much longer. There must be at least two partners working in small shifts of 15-20 minutes each to keep the interpretation sharp all the time through. And when one of the interpreters is “taking a break”, s/he is actually still listening, and occasionally providing support to her/his partner with notes or suggestions. Here's an interesting video that summerizes how interpreters work. 

Most of the time only conferences large enough warrants this service. However, simultaneous interpretation doesn’t take away speech time, a tremendous advantage for conferences with tightly packed agendas, or for interactive panel discussions. We occasionally also do “whisper interpretation” where we sit behind/beside the VIP client and “whisper” the speech to their ears. This mode of simultaneous interpreting is even more challenging as we must overcome noise, make our delivery heard, while trying not to disturb the surrounding audience.

These are all the factors you should consider when planning and budgeting an event. Even though prevailing market “perception” tends to think simultaneous interpreting is “harder” than consecutive, as the speakers don’t wait for the interpreters, real professional interpreters know these are two forms of interpreting that require different skills: simultaneous interpreting calls for lightening quick thinking to transform between the source and target languages in almost real time (of course there’s always a few seconds delay), with minimum loss of information; while consecutive interpreting requires meticulous note taking, ability to capture the structure of much larger passages with minimum loss of information. Though a consecutive interpreter has the “luxury” of speaker’s wait time, the interpreter must stand in the spotlight to face audience staring alongside of the speaker. For a professional interpreter, the “stress level” of these different forms of interpreting is quite the same, just in different ways. However as personal “feel”, some interpreters find simultaneous interpreting more “stressful” than consecutive, while some find vice versa. It’s just personal preference. For me, I’m equally comfortable with both.




Q: How do you ensure confidentiality of client information?



A: Some clients require signing of formal Confidentiality Agreement, which we gladly sign and abide by once an engagement is confirmed. With or without a formal Confidentiality Agreement, we as professionals always take confidentiality as our top obligation to our clients. For a certified translator like me, keeping client information confidential is one of the key professional ethics we must observe as it is clearly stipulated in the Code of Ethics in both Associations I’m affiliated with. I never share any client information with any third party without clear consent. I take measures to ensure all data are kept in strictly password protected media, be it my own computer or cloud services such as remote data backup plans. In addition, I always require my collaborators to maintain the same strict confidentiality when we work together on any client projects. This said, we would always appreciate that the client could provide us with materials in advance for us to prepare when it comes to interpreting for conferences and meetings.




Q: I can use Google Translate for free. Why should I use a professional translator?



A: The question I’d like to ask back is: if an airline tells passengers that their aircrafts have auto-pilot and they are cutting out human pilots to save you cost, would you get on board?

Indeed there are many Machine Translation (MT) programs and apps available for free. And there are many more being developed that are going to flood the market. Each might claim the magic ability to transcend language barrier like a modern day babel tower. However, as professionals, we all know that there has yet been any single Machine Translation program that can reach real human level of style, nuance and appropriateness. Many tests have proved that MT has not and will not replace human translation and interpretation. There are many hacks you can find online (like YouTube) where people Google translate some famous movie passages into a foreign language and then Google translate them back, then performed by professional actors. It’s hilarious and horrifying at the same time. I’m not saying MTs have no merits at all. In fact, we professional translators use MTs to help us reach higher efficiency, consistency and accuracy in our work. Many of today’s Translation Environment Tools (TnTs) – Computer Assisted Translation tools not to be confused with Machine Translation – do have MT engines embedded in their package as an option to assist human translator’s work. And that’s what MT, or any translation tools are all about – assisting. They are meant to help human translation rather than replace it. Professional human translators are equipped with years of experience, cultural exposure, social backgrounds and industry know-how, which MTs don’t have. What MTs provide is algorithmic and statistic result, which might give the reader a “gist” of the content but never the final publishing quality product. And here's where professional translators come in, as they know where and when to intervene to make sure the final translation is appropriate in tone, nuance, even grammar. If a non-professional translator uses the MT, s/he must be cautious that it’s highly risky to use mere machine translated results at par value, especially for legal and contractual purposes. In such complex cases, human translator must preside the whole process to make sure all linguistic exceptions, cultural undertones, grammatical structures, even punctuation, are properly taken care of. This is like flying a large passenger jet: though all modern day aircrafts are equipped with auto-pilot system, no one would leave it fly itself without human pilots at the control.

All this is NOT to say that Machine Translation is the enemy of human translation. We human translators actually use a lot of technology to help our professional work, and we care a lot about the development of many technologies that could potentially make our work even more efficient, more accessible to language service users. One expert of such technological advances is actually also a professional translator. Jost Zetsche publishes a tech newsletter especially for professional translators and he is one of the go to persons in the world to provide insight and advice to the global language industry.





Q: I have Chinese speaking employees. Why should I use a professional translator/interpreter?



A: This comes to the issue of how to best use professional translation services while leverage on your in-house language capabilities. Many assume that when a person speaks another language, s/he can also translate. Nothing could be more wrong. I’ve personally witnessed many horror situations where fully bilingual persons, professionals in their own fields, failed badly as translators/interpreters. They not only embarrassed themselves but also often even messed up the whole meeting. The most common cause is that, though being bilingual, these persons learn and practice their profession mostly monolingually. They master the terminology and jargon mostly just in one language. So often what meeting participants hear is a hodgepodge of source and target languages, leaving the terminology untranslated, yet these are exactly what need to be translated/interpreted. What professional translators/interpreters do is to master both sets of terminologies and jargon and the proper way to map between them. And that’s why it’s important for professional translators/interpreters to specialize in certain fields in addition to master both source and target languages.

This does not mean that in-house bilinguals have no value. Where they are most valuable is to provide context: they are the professionals of that particular field and are the insiders of that company. They know a lot of the things much deeper and a lot of the backgrounds that an external translation professional might not know. So in-house bilinguals can be and should be a great asset to ensure success of a translation/interpretation project, not being the translator/interpreter themselves as this reduces productivity of their own work, but to provide guidance and oversight. What a professional translator/interpreter really appreciates is that the client might assign an internal bilingual person to coordinate the project, to help answer questions the translators/interpreters might have, to provide them with resources to ensure project success. This internal bilingual person brings to the project professional perspective and insights, and an extra pair of eyes/ears to make sure the final translation/interpretation is appropriate for the context. This way your translation/interpretation project would be the most efficient and productive.