China’s interpretation market can be hard to understand
It can be hard for foreigners to find good and reasonably priced interpreters in China. The large number of interpretation agencies in China, which are run primarily by Chinese, can easily disorient anyone with little experience.
Peggy Choi, managing director of The Straits Network, a Hong Kong and Singaporebased knowledge network, often looks for interpreters in China. She said she finds the market opaque.
“It was not easy to find a good interpreter for various languages at a reasonable price at the last minute. It would be good to have a system that ties pricing to quality,” said Choi.
Yu Xiaowen, account manager of Beijing-based Sunshine Translation Co Ltd, said companies trying to be all things compromise quality.
“You can find hundreds of information of interpretation agencies online,” Yu said. “They would say that they deliver the highest quality of service in various industries in a range of languages. But trying to do everything is only going to compromise the quality. I believe that as the demand for interpretation services grows, the market will grow more segmented along the process. Then the agencies will become more professional and target more specific clients.”
Noelan Brewington-Janssen, program manager with the Shanghai office of ChinaSF, a San Francisco-based economic initiative run in partnership with the San Francisco Center for Economic Development, often looks for interpreters for his organization.
“As an American living in China, it’s not very easy to find a good database of interpreters in English,” said BrewingtonJanssen. “There is a lot of variation in the pricing, and most times you don’t really know why one company quotes such a different price. Also, none of the Chinese companies are transparent about how much of the fee they give to the interpreters and how much they keep for themselves.”
On one hand, foreigners are looking for qualified and reasonably priced interpretation. On the other hand, interpreters often don’t receive decent pay because agencies have an unreasonable pay split, particularly for students, who are a major source of part-time interpreters.
Daisy Qu, a recent graduate of the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation of Beijing Foreign Studies University, said she often got ridiculously low pay doing parttime interpretation jobs when she was in school.
Qu was paid 500 yuan ($78.21) per day on a job offer from an interpretation agency. For a similar meeting that she worked on through SeekPanda, a company founded by two US men that offers services to foreigners looking for interpreters in China, she was paid 2,500 yuan per day.
“We were students and therefore did not have much connection to customers. We had to rely on agencies to put what we’d learned into practice. Because of such a mismatch in the market, not many people in my department wanted to work as self-employed full-time interpreters after graduation. They’d rather work as in-house interpreters for companies or the government,” Qu said.
“Students are vulnerable in terms of price negotiation,” said Yu. “They are often employed for jobs that do not require a strong industrial background. Meanwhile, the agencies know that they probably will lose the clients, who may contact the interpreter directly the next time. Therefore, they believe they deserve the better part of the pay.”
The market itself also is changing, said Yi Wen, a freelance interpreter in Shanghai who runs his own company.
“I feel that the consecutive interpretation market is getting smaller as more Chinese speak better English,” Yi said. “Moreover, it is a loss for the interpretation agency when the customer and the interpreter get to know each other because they might circumvent the agency the next time.”
According to Yi, the high-level interpretation market, which is simultaneous interpretation, has been quite stable and transparent.
An interpretation agency, Yu said, “needs to service a main industry in order to be very good at it, just like an excellent interpreter needs to know where his or her strength is. Fighting price wars or making empty promises will only hurt the clients’ trust.
“China’s interpretation market has a lot of growth potential. But trying to cover all the fields in this market may just lead to the opposite results.”
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Nicole Zhang (center), an interpreter with SeekPanda, helps clients to communicate at a conference in July.