The Future of China Sits Right on the Tip of Its Tongue

China All the way to New York I can feel the distance getting close

Fans of Tori Amos will remember these lyrics from "China," a song on her 1992 album, Little Earthquakes. Nearly 20 years later, China no longer seems so distant to many countries throughout the world. Instead, it's become an extremely active participant in economies of all sizes.

Consider these facts:

  • China made up 83 percent of North Korea's US $4.2 billion of international commerce in 2010, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
  • Bilateral trade volume between China and Pakistan is expected to reach US $15 billion within the next five years.
  • The Kenya Investment Authority reports that 18 Chinese companies have established a presence in Nairobi in the past two years, including Foton Motors, which is building an assembly plant there.
  • The United Arab Emirates recorded US $4.45 billion in exports to China in 2010, with exports going into the UAE from China pegged at US $21.4 billion in the same year.

However, there's one large barrier still standing between China and the rest of the world.


For economies to participate in global trade and for companies to sell their goods and services in other markets, translation is critical. Yet, when was the last time you met someone who interprets between Urdu and Mandarin, or converts written information from Simplified Chinese to Kiswahili? They are few and far between -- but their services are needed to enable those billions of dollars mentioned above to change hands.

A study published yesterday by Common Sense Advisory shows that the demand for language services is booming, and the market will reach US $31.438 billion in 2011. However, the same study pointed out that while Asia is growing in importance, there's a lack of human language talent to go around -- especially in language pairs involving Chinese.

People are starting to get concerned. Two weeks ago, the International Permanent Conference of University Institutes of Translators and Interpreters (CIUTI) met in Beijing to discuss, among other things, the lack of China's qualified linguistic resources. The conference highlighted the fact that translation and interpreting are critical to China's future economic development. Yet, a survey from the Translators Association of China revealed that 67.7 percent of businesses surveyed believe that the Chinese translation industry is lacking in trained professionals.

That same week, during a keynote address on the other side of the world at the Association of Language Companies conference in Las Vegas, a similar question came up. One of the participants asked whether the translators and interpreters who work across the globe are prepared to handle the challenges it faces. The answer? "Absolutely not."

What's the fastest way for China to remove the linguistic roadblock to economic development? First, find people who already speak two languages. Approximately two-thirds of the world's population is bilingual. Multilingualism is not unusual -- monolingualism is less common. Yet, instead of finding people who already speak two languages fluently, governments often focus their energies (and funds) on language education. Strong policies in support of language learning are an absolute must for any nation's global competitiveness. However, language education is not a viable short-term solution to address today's shortage of translators and interpreters.

Second, train them in the skills of translation and interpreting. Not every person who knows two languages can be an interpreter or translator. Bilinguals consistently fail translation and interpreting skills tests, largely due to insufficient levels of proficiency or a lack of training and education. While university programs for translation and interpreting exist in most countries throughout the world, most of them focus on literary translation and conference interpreting only. While admirable professions, these are actually two of the smallest sectors of the market at large. The demand for these two niches pales in comparison to the demand for services like technical translation and medical interpreting.

Third, compensate them well. A report commissioned for last year's North American Summit on Interpreting showed that while the vast majority of freelance interpreters hold college degrees and more than a third hold graduate degrees, their average annual compensation was only around US $33,000. Translators are not typically highly paid either. Very little full-time work is available, contributing to the misconception that translation isn't a true profession but rather some sort of "side job." This creates a chicken-and-egg situation for universities. Unable to lure students onto a career path that pays so poorly, academic institutions cannot fund their well-intentioned programs.

China is not alone. Most countries -- including the United States -- are failing at each of these three steps. Only the European Union has taken any true initiative on making savvy investments in translation and interpreting education in recent years. Even so, universities need prodding to keep their programs alive, as Marco Benedetti, Director-General of Interpretation, recently made clear.

When will nations realize that building a language infrastructure enables economic growth? Until they do, desperate but commonplace measures -- like translating Chinese documents into English only to re-translate them into Arabic or Korean -- will continue to slow down growth and cost more money than necessary.

Language in general -- and translation in particular -- will determine the course of China's economic future, and whether it's truly "getting close" -- as Tori Amos sang two decades ago -- or "getting closed."