Translator Interview: Brendan O'Kane

Sinosplice has an interview with our very own Brendan O'Kane, in which he discusses his background, literary interests and the realities of working as a freelance translator in China. The interview offers practical advice for early-career translators and students of Chinese, and includes a useful summary of print and online dictionaries and Chinese reference materials. I liked the following quotes:

"Chinese-as-a-second-language teaching materials [...] don't really do much to prepare students for dealing with Chinese as a living language. (When asked my opinion of Chinese textbooks, I tend to rate them from 'bad' to 'less bad.') Once you get past a certain level, language environment is the real make-or-break factor."

"Chengyu, while nice, tend to be much less visible to a Chinese reader than they would be to a foreign reader of Chinese, so there's no real excuse for rendering something like 每个字贵如金玉 into chinoiserie like 'every word was as precious as gold or jade' when the text is just using a bog-standard set phrase that would pass unnoticed in Chinese. Knowing what to delete and what to add, what to soft-pedal and what to amplify in a translation is important, and the only way you can really know is by having a sense of what people are actually saying — and that comes from long-term immersion in the environment."


# 1.   

I forgot to mention that this is one of a series of 6 interviews ("The Many Paths to Translation Work") with China-based translators and interpreters. Here are blurbs from two of the interviews:

Joel Martinsen (

"Some subtitling jobs have been pretty challenging. Particularly in documentaries, it can be very difficult to find a way to convey the meaning and tone of dialogue within the constraints of the screen — there’s a hard limit of the amount of information that can be conveyed [...] It’s a long process that sometimes involves multiple viewings together with the director. I think I end up doing more revisions of subtitles than of any other work."

Peter Braden (ChinesePod):

"The other big problem was learning to deal with empty verbiage. We always assume that language is intended to convey meaning. But Orwell explains that modern language is used at least as much to conceal and deceive as to illuminate. When you’re just reading, you can skip over that stuff. But how do we translate a paragraph of banalities and platitudes that never meant much in the first place? It’s tempting to try to put some meaning in there, but in the end you just need to accept that 1) the fact that the writing is there is more important than what it says, and 2) what they don’t say is often more important than what they say."

Cindy M. Carter, June 16, 2009, 11:19p.m.

# 2.   

I once made a set of Chinese language teaching materials based on the script of 'Bianji Bu de Gushi' starring Ge You. The students called a meeting to complain that it was too difficult. I was only trying to make things real ...

Rachel Henson, July 8, 2009, 9:50a.m.


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