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Found in Translation: How China’s most elite interpreters and translators are cultivated

03 May 2016 | By Wang Han | Global Times

  • Translation and Interpreting

    The graduate program run by SISU's Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation (GIIT) what is considered the highest standard in China.

  • Translation and Interpreting

    The graduate program run by SISU's Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation (GIIT) what is considered the highest standard in China.

  • UN Academic Imapct

    SISU joins the UNAC this year to enhance global partnerships with the United Nations.

  • SISU: UN MoU University

    SISU is the first MoU University of the United Nations. The 3rd UN MoU Universites Conference was hold at SISU in 2013.

  • SISU interns at UN

    Since 2005, SISU has been providing many international organizations with high-end interns every year.


eaching and learning language translation and interpretation is a relatively new phenomenon in China. It was not until 2007 that the Chinese Ministry of Education launched university Master's degree programs in translation and interpretation in order to meet the growing demand for professional Chinese language service providers.

But in the relatively short time that this new industry has existed in China, it has witnessed unexpectedly strong momentum. Statistics show that 206 higher education institutions have obtained approval to run the program named master of translation and interpretation (MTI).

Among these, the graduate program run by the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation (GIIT) of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) represents what is considered the highest standard in China. Notably, in 2005 GIIT was awarded the highest ranking by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) as the only Asian university among the 15 top professional conference interpreting schools in the world.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students with a command of English scramble to apply to MTI every year despite its high tuition and high-intensity training. To get a behind-the-scenes peek at this renowned institution, the Global Times recently interviewed some GIIT professors and students who are currently immersed in the program.

Devil's training

Founded in 2003, GIIT has three master level programs - Conference Interpretation (CI), Master of Interpreting (MI), and Master of Translation (MT), besides its MA and PhD programs in translation studies.

Liu Yinhanxiao from Jiangxi Province is a second-year student of the elite CI program. According to Liu, no more than 10 individuals per year are accepted into CI. "Only eight students from China were enrolled in 2014, and I was lucky to be one," said Liu.

Compared with other graduate programs in China, the cost of this interpreting program is relatively high, approximately 40,000 yuan (USD $6,180) for the first year and 60,000 yuan for the second year. Even among those who can afford it, Liu pointed out that not everyone graduates.

She explained that after the first year, CI students must pass a qualifying exam in order to enroll in the second year simultaneous interpretation course. Before graduation, CI students are also required to take a graduation exam, which contains six subjects with international jury members from the UN, EU, AIIC and etc.

"If we fail in any one subject, we cannot receive our professional diploma," Liu said.

Under such pressure, CI students are among the school's most highly disciplined and hardworking. According to Liu, she and her classmates invest every waking moment to learning and practicing their interpreting skills. Playing computer games and catnaps, sights often seen in the average Chinese dorm room, are unheard of in the CI program.

"We have four interpreting courses every week, and each lasts for three hours," said Liu. "Apart from our class hours, my classmates and I spend most of our time listening, reading and practicing."

Yang Tingting from Sichuan Province, who had three years work experience as an English teacher before enrolling in CI, echoes Liu's comments.

"I usually get up around 6:30 am, then come to my classroom and stay in my (listening) booth until 10 pm," said Yang. "Listening to English news broadcasts and reading the latest national and global news have become my daily routine. I also spend time listening to recordings of my previous interpretations to find out my weaknesses. Sounds boring, right? But that is my life."

Yang stressed that every student in the CI program genuinely loves interpreting and strives to be a qualified interpreter; as otherwise they would not be willing to spend two years and more than 100,000 yuan on the program.

In terms of what makes this interpreting program the most prestigious in China, Han Tengjia, a second-year student from Anhui Province, said their teachers are among the best.

Han told the Global Times that their school's CI teachers are the most active and widely recognized interpreters in China, which gives students the opportunity to learn first-hand from them. Han added that their simultaneous interpretation teachers have rich interpreting experience for the United Nations (UN).

Internship opportunities at international organizations such as the UN and the European Union (EU) are also attractive points of this program. "In fact, I just came back from Brussels one month ago," said Han.

International platform

In March, senior students of the CI program interned at two large international organizations for 10 days. Some were allocated to the UN Office in Geneva, while others went to EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Liu Yazhuo, a graduate student from Henan Province, was assigned for the EU group. She told the Global Times that each day she and a couple of other students were required to attend several different meetings for simultaneous interpreting. "Simultaneous interpreters in formal occasions usually work in a small team of two to three persons, and each person takes turns to translate for around 15 minutes," said Liu Yazhuo.

As for how she felt about the experience, Liu Yazhuo said interpreting tasks at the EU were far more challenging and more in-depth than that in a classroom.

"My first three days there, the topics discussed, such as banking unions and carbon trading systems, were completely unfamiliar to me. So I was struggling with relevant background knowledge and terminologies," said Liu Yazhuo. "But as I attended more meetings, I became more familiar with their topics and it felt less challenging."

She pointed out that inadequate knowledge of specific cultures also made her interpreting more difficult.

"While knowledge about certain topics might be common sense for people from that specific culture, interpreters from other countries might have no sense at all," said Liu Yazhuo. "For example, when a speaker from a very small European country introduced new policies of his country, my mind went blank, because I had never even heard of this country and therefore had no background knowledge to support my translation."

Han agrees on this point, saying that during St. Patrick's Day, which fell on their visit, one European delegate began his speech with the remark "Today I specifically wear a green tie for Irish delegates."

"Thanks to some casual chatting with the EU staff, I happened to get some background information on this Irish holiday before the meeting. But for Chinese interpreters who have never been to Ireland, they might be confused about the remark."

Likewise, students interning at the UN office in Geneva also met some unexpected challenges. According to Yang, some delegates from NGOs tended to speak very fast.

"Each delegate seemed to have much to say, but under a time limit, they had to squeeze a seven-minute speech into just three minutes. As a result, they spoke at an extremely fast speed, which made our simultaneous interpreting task very demanding," she said.

Another graduate student, Yin Shimeng from Hunan Province, pointed out that interpreting tasks at the UN are more unpredictable than what they practiced in the classroom. "While our teachers would choose interpreting materials based on our current level, speakers at the UN meetings rarely considered our abilities. We have no control over a speaker's accent, speech rate or content."

As for how internship benefited them personally, each student took something different away from the experience. Han said that the EU enabled him to know how interpreters from different languages and cultures work together. Liu Yinhanxiao said she used to think that working at international organizations like the UN or the EU was a distant dream, but now she feels quite confident about meeting their hiring requirements.

Mission impossible

Postgraduate students of the MT (Master of Translation) program also work closely with the UN. Recently some MT students helped UN's Department of Public Information (DPI) complete an urgent translation assignment of candidates' vision statements for this year's UN Secretary-General Election into Chinese.

Gu Qianwen, the second-year graduate student from Jiangsu Province was the team leader and coordinator of this project. According to Gu, 18 graduates participated in the translation and proofreading of 18,310 English words, which they completed within three days. "I saw an email marked 'urgent' sent from a UN staff when I checked my inbox at 8 am on April 12," said Gu.

"Attached to the email were eight profiles, and we were required to translate the first three profiles before 8 pm that same day, and another three before 8 pm the next day, and the other two before 8 pm on April 14." Gu added that when she opened the profiles, she was shocked by the word count, as each source text was more than 2,000 words, meaning that they had to complete around 15,000 words within less than 72 hours.

To handle the heavy load, Gu and her partner called on 14 other MT students to join the assignment. "Each person was assigned around 1,000 words," said Gu. "Since most of us still needed to attend our regular daytime classes, we had to optimize all our free time."

"At 8:30 pm our UN coordinator urged us to immediately send the translations to him, which would be used for the UN Secretary-General candidates' interviews. Since it was a live broadcasting, they could not give us extra time. Only at that moment did we know what the mission really was," said Gu.

Under such enormous pressure, Gu and her peers had to stop their proofreading and email everything to the coordinator. "Just 20 minutes later, at 9 pm, one of the candidates was announcing his vision on live TV - the vision we had just translated," said Gu.

Though their translation experience on the first day was frantic, their work on the second day went much smoother, except for one unexpected interlude.

At around 8 pm on April 13, their coordinator told them there would be a new candidate, which would increase their workload on the third day, requiring Gu to recruit two more members.

Fortunately, they successfully finished the third day's translation and proofreading before the deadline. According to Li Mengqi, the experience was so tense that her hands started to sweat as the deadline approached.

Asked about the payment and reward for this mission, Zhang Ailing, Dean of GIIT, told the Global Times that based on the agreement signed with the UN, the UN provided opportunities for students to practice. "But I have asked them to keep a record of the word count everyone has contributed so that GIIT can reward them in other ways, as it is an honor for both the students and the school," Zhang said.

"It won't be hard for graduates of GIIT to start a career as interpreters or translators after graduation. What really counts is the experience they gained from this program," Zhang told the Global Times, adding that the students must still focus on improving their skills rather than resting on their laurels so that they can stay ahead of the curve in this extremely competitive field.


Press Contact

SISU News Center, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Tel : +86 (21) 3537 2378

Email :

Address :550 Dalian Road (W), Shanghai 200083, China

Further Reading