The business of language

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2007, 12:00am

HONG KONG IS an important financial hub in the region, and hundreds of foreign companies use the city as a strategic base to enter the booming mainland market.

Throughout the year, thousands of businesspeople from around the world converge on Hong Kong to attend international conferences and seminars.

Many come to explore business opportunities here and in the mainland, and because much of their business talk is conducted in Cantonese and Putonghua, these international firms need the help of language service companies for translation and simultaneous interpretation (SI) services.

The specific need for translation or SI services depends on the client. International conferences hosted by Chinese or foreign companies usually require SI services. Translation services, on the other hand, are required by most foreign companies that target consumers in Hong Kong and the mainland with printed marketing materials.

Foreign companies that are new to the market usually depend on word-of-mouth recommendations when in need of language services. Only a few turn to the internet or the Yellow Pages.

'Translation services are becoming a core business for many firms as international companies continue to expand into China to do business,' according to Yeung Mei-wah, director and deputy general manager at Yao Shun Language Services.

English and Chinese editing is the second-most-needed service.

The peak seasons for international conferences and seminars in Hong Kong are between March and July and October and November.

Last year saw a few hundred conferences and seminars hosted in Hong Kong. These events covered a wide range of industries, from finance and technology to medicine and agriculture.

It is not easy for language service companies to plan ahead, because the number of confirmed participants coming to Hong Kong for conferences and seminars can vary and change even at the last minute.

Most of these companies provide SI services only on request and usually on a per-project basis.

'It is not uncommon to have SI freelancers in the conference and seminar marketplace - some people like to be free to choose clients,' said Louisa Lei Man-yi, public relations officer at Quadra Technics ICS.

There are permanent positions for simultaneous interpreters in government departments, units and language service companies, but not all of these units or firms have budgets for such specialised staff.

Although there are relatively few language service companies in Hong Kong, the business is considered competitive.

'No company would pay a higher rate if the work given is all equal, compared with other language service companies,' Ms Yeung said.

'Having said that, the work quality has to be maintained at a high standard at all times, or clients would not return. We are very careful about whom we choose for the job.'

Language service companies usually prefer to employ someone with a translation or linguistic background, someone academically trained or with relevant work experience.

Better still would be someone with credentials from the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) in Australia, or the Association Internationale des Interpretes de Conference (AIIC) in Switzerland.

NAATI is an Australian government-owned company established to maintain standards for interpreting and translation, and AIIC is a worldwide association for conference interpreters, bringing together more than 2,600 professional conference interpreters in 80 countries.

'At the least, we expect the candidate to be a degree holder with a major in language studies or translation,' Ms Lei said. 'Having such an academic background definitely helps the person to work more efficiently, and relevant experience is even better.'

Applicants usually answer a written test for the company to demonstrate initial skills in this type of work.

If the test results are unsatisfactory, the candidate's chances of clinching the job are slim, regardless of his/her relevant previous training.

But on-the-job training may be expected once the candidate has signed up with the company.

Translators and interpreters must often handle work that is outside their area of expertise.

This could be a challenge at first, but with application, hard work and persistence the candidate will pick up the industrial language of each trade relatively quickly.

One way for an interpreter or translator to keep his/her hand in is to have a finger on the pulse of community, national, regional and international news and events.

That way they would be familiar with the right resources and know where to go whenever a language challenge arises.

'Unless it's a highly specialised topic that requires specialised knowledge, seasoned translators or interpreters should have no problem finding the resources to tackle a language problem,' Ms Yeung said.


Translation assistant


Senior translator

Translation manager



The organic decomposition of the original document into sensible segments


The organic reconstruction of such segments into dynamic equivalents to produce the target document

Translation memory

A database in the form of a software program designed to aid human translators in textual consistency

Static translation

A form of translation in which the translation process will not start until the original text is finalised

Dynamic translation

A form of translation in which the translation process must start before the original document is finalised and ongoing amendments are needed in line with any revisions to the original text