How to Launch a Career as a Mandarin Translator in China

How to Launch a Career as a Mandarin Translator in China
Mar 27, 2024 By Trey Archer ,

So, you’ve fallen in love with the Chinese language and want to turn that love into a career. Now what? If you’re especially interested in the nuances of the written word, a career in translation could be a good shout. Here are some useful tips for launching a career as a Mandarin translator in China.

Mandarin translator in China

First step, get amazing at Mandarin!

It goes without saying that you’ll need to speak and read Mandarin fluently if you want to become a translator in China. Having a major or a Master's in Mandarin under your belt is a good start. If you came later to Mandarin and don’t have time to go back to school full time, you’ll probably need to demonstrate your fluency with the HSK test. Although many companies take HSK qualifications with a pinch of salt, acing Level 5 or 6 and a spoken interview in Mandarin should be enough to secure a chance to prove your skills.

You can almost definitely get low-paid translation jobs in China with a good level of Mandarin alone, but if you want to improve your translation-specific skills and move up in the industry, consider taking a translation course. Chinese universities all over the country offer one-to-one and group classes focusing on Mandarin translation.

Next, take your target language to the next level

The art of translating is a game of two halves. Now that your Chinese is up to speed, it’s time to work on your target language. This needs to be pretty much flawless — even better than your Mandarin. You need the skills to translate the source language literally but also to express the right meaning and tone in your target language. Essentially, you’re both a translator and an editor.

If you already have a background in writing or editing in your target language that will be a major bonus. If not, plenty of expat-focused magazines and websites in China are always looking for writers and editors. A little bit of professional writing experience and editorial feedback can go a long way towards sharpening your skills in your native language.

Where to find work

Like any job, you’ll need experience to excel as a translator. And like any job in China, a little bit of guanxi goes a long way. Whether you find your first translation job through a personal contact or the internet, be warned that it will most likely be low-paying and boring. Successful Chinese translator Brendan O’Kane told that his first translating jobs in China were updating a weekly IT newsletter and the script for a “faintly icky TV show.” At the start, he was working for “peanuts,” despite translating numerous texts a day and often pulling all-nighters. He admits that it was no fun initially, but says the grunt work gave him the experience he needed to progress in the industry to better-paying, more interesting jobs.

Tools of the trade

Even advanced translators will certainly need a dictionary, whether in book or digital form, for all those infuriating characters that can only be used in one specific circumstance. You’ll also need a plethora of translating tools. Tried and tested classics include Wenlin, which is very useful for literary texts; NCiku, which is a good resource for technical terms and English-Chinese translations; Adso, which is a life-saver for particularly torturous sentences; and Pleco, which is invaluable for almost everything, including idioms and sayings.

Lifestyle and pay

Much of the translation work you’re likely to pick up, at least when first starting out, will probably be freelance. Like many freelance jobs, the lifestyle and pay can fluctuate wildly. Some may be lucky enough to land well-paid daily assignments from large corporations, while others will find themselves picking up occasional scraps while working full-time jobs. Some professional translators in China are assigned large projects and paid a set rate per 1,000 words, while others will be paid per word of the source material. The amount you get paid for each project will depend on your level of experience, the client, the speed of turnaround and the nature of the text.

Ultimately, translating is a pretty tough job and you’re unlikely to become a millionaire doing it. The work is academically taxing and the subject matter can be dull. Even after years of experience, you’ll still be glued to a computer screen for most of the workday. If you truly love the language, enjoy writing and can handle the strenuous mental load it takes to decipher thousands of characters, however, it might be perfect for you.

Perhaps the ultimate goal for any translator is to work entirely on their own time and schedule while setting their own rates. I often meet foreign translators who have got to this level when I'm traveling in China. They can take their work anywhere as long as they have an internet connection and their laptop. It takes a while to get there, but, if and when you do, it can be a pretty cushy, and rewarding, gig.

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Keywords: Mandarin translator in China


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