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The Translation Industry in China: Current Development and Potential for International Cooperation

 Huang Youyi & Huang Changqi

Translators Association of China


1. Opportunities and Challenges of China’s Translation Industry

The enormous opportunities offered by the translation industry in China are as obvious as the challenges it faces. One very easy way to understand the situation is to visit China or read things published or printed in English or any other foreign languages. The result will be equally informative and entertaining.

1.1 The Translation Industry in China during the Past Few Decades

Having said that, we would like to give you a brief introduction to the development of the translation industry in China, to serve as a background.

Up till the late 1970s, under the old economic mechanism, translation, among others, was a controlled sector. Most government departments, institutions, research organizations and state-owned enterprises had their own translation sections with in-house translators. That is to say, both the demand and the supply came from the same entity, and there was little translation market to speak of. Translators were found in various fields and were largely behind the scene, except for a few prominent literary and diplomatic translators. And there were no organization who spoke on behalf of the translators.

With China’s program of opening to the outside world and the institutionalization of the market economy that began in the 1980s, demands for translation services increased gradually, which led to the commercialization of translation services. Some of the translation sections of state-owned institutions and enterprises started to provide services to outside clients in addition to their own institutions, and independent translation companies emerged. It was not until the late 1990s that a large number of market-oriented translation service companies, including a number of localization companies, made their appearance. According to one media report, there were 109 companies registered as translation companies in Beijing alone prior to 1998 (Ref. 1). The translation market then, however, was essentially unregulated, featuring price competition rather than quality assurance. It was worth noting that the first translators’ association – Translators Association of China (TAC) was also established during this time in 1982, but it was largely an academic society, engaged in promoting scholarly exchanges among translators and interpreters.

Entering the 21st century, the translation sector in China, as in the rest of the world, is experiencing a boom, with globalization and internationalization becoming a daily occurrence. Big corporations and even government departments start to outsource translation work, and professional translation and localization companies have increased by the thousands. By 2002, there were more than 800 registered translation companies in Beijing alone, and the total number of translation companies in the country was estimated to be more than 3,000 (ref. 2). Some large translation companies might have a staff of several hundred while most others tended to be small. Some companies were simply a one-man shop. The need for standardization and regulation also becomes more and more imminent. In 2003, TAC established a Translation Service Committee, which initiated, among others, the first series of national standards on the translation industry in China. Then in 2004, on its Fifth National Council Meeting, TAC declared itself to be both an academic society and a trade association. This signified that the vacuum in the coordination and standardization within the translation industry was filled. A number of localization companies also joined LISA, the international standardization association for the localization business. Although the translation industry in China is still in its initial stage of development with many problems, great efforts are being made to gradually solve the problems.

1.2 Opportunities for China’s Translation Industry

A growing market

The global translation sector is witnessing a “golden age” of development. The Allied Business Intelligence study estimates that the language translation industry will be an $11.5 billion business by 2007 (ref. 3). Common Sense Advisory, another U.S. based research and consulting firm specializing in the on- and off-line operations driving business globalization, internationalization, translation, and localization, estimates the size of the worldwide translation and localization services market at US$ 8.8 billion and projects a compound average growth rate of 7.5 percent per year for the next five years. (ref. 4).

China, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, has also witnessed an unparalleled growth in its translation sector. With increasing economic, cultural, scientific communications on the international level, especially China’s entry into the WTO, and the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, translation output in China is expected to be counted in billions of Yuan. One estimate is that the Chinese translation output in 2005 was around 20 billion Yuan (2.5 billion US Dollars) (ref. 5).

Take the Olympic Games to be held in 2008 for example. According to an official from the Beijing Olympics Committee, during the 14 days of the Olympic Games, more than 100 professional translators will be hired to translate, among others, some 7,000 news articles and a great number of speeches, and some 150 professional interpreters will be employed to serve the many official press conferences and the award ceremonies involving 40 languages. This is just a minor part of the translation needs during the Games. Hundreds of delegations and tens of thousands of foreign visitors will generate a huge translation market.

Rapid development of the information technology

The rapid development of the information technology presents another big boost to the translation industry. First comes the Internet. China's Internet users reached 123 million on June 30, 2006, growing 19.4 percent from the same period last year, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (ref. 6). The popular use of the Internet has greatly expanded the realms of the translation industry beyond geographical constraints. Distance learning translation programs have emerged and translation companies which provide services based on the Internet are on the rise.

Then come translation tools such as automatic translation software, computer-aided translation software, electronic dictionaries, and translation project management systems. Kingsoft PowerWord, a famous Chinese-English electronic dictionary, is now widely used by translators and foreign-language learners. Trados, SDLX and a local brand Yaxin CAT have been accepted by many large corporations and some translation agencies. Translation management tools have also been introduced and tested by various users.

These tools have greatly transformed the traditional translation service practice featuring small-scale operation, high cost and low efficiency. They help to reduce redundant work, streamline work process, establish quality control system, and eventually help to increase the productivity of both the translator and the agency. A notable development is the emergence of a number of localization companies in China in the late 1990s. They represent a totally new approach to translation service from traditional translation companies

1.3 Challenges Facing the Chinese Translation Industry

It is nice to talk about the great progress and huge opportunities for the translation industry, but we at the same time must recognize the tremendous problems and challenges. Among the challenges, the following are most prominent:

The Professional nature of translation is not properly understood and acknowledged.

It’s a simple truth that translation should be done by professional translators, just as financial statements should be prepared by professional accountants. But we translators have to fight very hard to convince the public and the client of this truth. The misconception that anyone who speaks two languages can do translation still prevails in China. It thus opens the door for unqualified people to enter the translation market and deliver poor translation products. It also leads to low recognition and low payment to professional translators. The sad thing for translators is that when people discover wrong translations, they invariably pinpoint their fingers at the individual translators who have done the particular translation job, not aware that the root cause lies with the ignorance of the need for professionalism on the part, first and foremost, of administers or those who have failed to give out translation jobs to the professional translator.

Another misconception is that translation is a mechanical work involving simply the replacement of one language with another. A document can take weeks or even months to prepare, but the translator is often given only a few days to translate. The difficulties involved in the creative translation process are hardly understood by the client and the general public, and translators seldom see their names appear on the product they produce. To many people, to hire a translator to do a job, no matter how difficult it is, is simply like getting a taxi in the street, waving at it, riding in it, then having had enjoyed its service, paying it and sending it off. In the case of hiring a translator, it is even easier since tipping is not needed. To be sure, translators should provide services as convenient, timely and reliable as taxies, but to place translators at the beck and call will not help the cultivation of professionalism in the industry. As a result, professional translators can hardly feel the pride in their profession, and are often disheartened. What suffers is the professional pride and quality.

The supply of professional translators is far short of demand.

China News Weekly estimates that some 400 million Chinese are studying English now, but the fact is that both translation agencies and the clients are complaining about the lack of qualified translators. This is mainly because translation has long been regarded as a minor part of language learning, and professional training for translators has not been given due attention.

Statistics from the Ministry of Personnel of the central government show that there are more than 60,000 translators with professional titles, but they are mostly in-house translators with government departments, public institutions and big state-owned enterprises. The number of people who actually practice translation or interpretation is estimated (very conservatively) to be at around 500,000, most of whom are part-time translators who hold a regular job elsewhere. Being part-time translators, they lack both professional skills and professional ethics, especially when they are doing it on an occasional or temporal basis.

The shortage of qualified translators is especially true in the translation from Chinese into foreign languages. Take publishing for example. Each year, Chinese publishers translate several thousand foreign books into Chinese, but only very few Chinese books are translated into foreign languages. Foreign copyright purchase is roughly 10 times that of Chinese copyright sales. This is partly because there are not enough qualified Chinese to foreign language translators.

We understand that the international translation community advocates translation into one’s mother tongue. At the XVII FIT World Congress held in Tampere, Finland in August 2005, there was one session entitled “Translating from One’s Native Language into a Foreign Language – a Wrong Choice.” I made a comment there. I said that this notion may be correct in the European context. The French people can easily find enough British translators with excellent French to translate French books into English, and vice versa. But where can we find enough native English, French or Spanish translators who can translate Chinese books into English, French or Spanish on a regular basis? With the increasing demand for translating from Chinese into other languages, we Chinese translators have to do most of the job ourselves. For us, this is not a wrong choice, but the only choice. And the problem is not entirely our own making. There are simply not enough people outside China who have mastered adequate Chinese to be proficient translators. We hope that with more and more overseas people starting to learn Chinese, we will be able to shift this task to more qualified native translators.

The translation industry is still in its infancy and needs regulation.

As mentioned before, China’s translation market is huge, and the players are numerous. But quantity does not automatically transfer into quality, and quite the contrary, it often means lawlessness and chaos. As a new service industry, the translation industry in China is still in its infancy. The market is largely in an open free market, with little coordination and guidance from a central source. Some examples: professional training is still very limited, and the professional level of the workforce is not up to standard; translation companies vary greatly in scale, management and price, since there is no stringent entry requirements in place; quality appraisal and monitoring systems are not yet established, and poor translations can be found just about everywhere; standardization efforts in the industry is far from comprehensive; professional ethics and self-discipline are not given due attention; information exchange within the sector is not smooth; the pay rate fluctuates greatly from region to region, from case to case. A lot needs to be done to establish the industry as a mature one.

2. To Face the Challenges – Efforts to Put the Industry on Track

There is no government department in China which is responsible for translation affairs. So when the industry is craving for guidance and regulation, the Translators Association of China (TAC), the only association for translators and interpreters at the national level, has responded to the call. At its Fifth National Council Meeting held in November 2004, TAC revised its constitution and officially proclaimed that it was a “non-profit academic and trade association,” thus extending its function from pure academic field to the regulation of the industry as a whole.

In order to help the Chinese translation industry to develop in a sustainable and healthy manner, TAC has done or plans to do the following:

2.1 Conduct a Comprehensive Survey on the Translation Industry

As translation is not regarded as an independent profession in national statistics in China, it’s hard to find any authoritative statistical figures about the size of the market. Most figures are estimates rather than actual survey results. TAC has always wanted to do a comprehensive survey of the industry to better understand the size and structure of the industry and make strategic plans accordingly. But the huge cost and efforts involved prevented us from doing so in the past few years.

This year, we finally start to put this on the agenda. Members of TAC’s Translation Service Committee are now working on a proposal to relevant government departments to obtain funding for the project. It is scheduled to be completed within two years after it has obtained enough funding to kick off the project. We hope to share with you at least some of the results of the investigation at the XVIII FIT World Congress to be held in Shanghai in 2008. This will be a fundamental infrastructure project that will ignite strategic thinking for the industry’s future.

We know that Canada, Japan and Taiwan have done such surveys and would like to exchange views with them and learn from their experiences.

2.2 Facilitate the Institutionalization of Entry Requirements for the Translation Profession

When the door is open for everyone, it will be hard to tell who is good and who is not. In order to regulate the translation market, we must implement entry requirements for both individual translators and translation companies (publishing houses, training institutes and technological firms related to translation have their respective entry requirements already, and will not be discussed here).

Starting form the 1980s, individual translators have been assessed through the Appraisal System for Translators (including interpreters) (AST), which ranked translators as assistant translators, translators, associate finalizers and finalizers. This system represents government recognition of the professional nature of translation. But the system was designed mainly for full time translators working in government departments, public institutions, research organizations or state-owned enterprises, and did not work for freelance or part-time translators. As a result, only 60,000 translators had been granted the above professional titles by 2005, while more than 500,000 people were actually doing translation on a regular basis. What’s more, it is not an entry requirement as such, but rather an assessment for someone already in the translation workforce. Besides, it tends to emphasize on seniority rather than capability, and involves too many human factors in the appraisal process, which is conducted by appraisal committees in almost every province or government ministry. To say one thing, the standard of appraisal maintained by these committees varied a great deal. Therefore, the system has long been subjected to criticism.

TAC then made a proposal to the Ministry of Personnel in the late 1990s, asking for a national certification scheme based on examination, a common practice for many other professions such as accountants and lawyers. In 2003, the Ministry of Personnel finally decided to gradually replace the old appraisal system with CATTI (China Aptitude Test for Translators and Interpreters). CATTI emphasizes the practical skills of the translator, and is open to anyone who has an interest without discrimination based on academic background or current profession. By using a more scientific and objective approach to assess the ability of translators, CATTI helps to ward off unqualified translators and ensure the interests of the qualified ones.

CATTI is designed to classify translators and interpreters into four levels. Tests of the two lower levels have been conducted in seven languages (English, Japanese, French, Spanish, Arabic, German and Russian). From November 2003 to June 2006, more than 26,000 people took part in the test and about 20 percent of them passed. And the growing trend is that increasingly more people are interested in the test. Currently, the old appraisal system and the new certification system are both in operation, but the latter will soon replace the former and serve as the entry requirement for translators. CATTI certificate holders are qualified to become TAC members.

For translation companies, there is no entry requirement at the moment, but TAC has done some work towards the establishment of entry requirement. In 2003, TAC’s Translation Service Committee worked with China’s standardization authorities to draft the nation’s first standard on translation services entitled Specification for Translation Service – Part 1: Translation. The standard specifies, among other things, what makes a qualified T&I service agency. In 2005, the second standard, Target Text Quality Requirements for Translation Services was also released, and more standards are on the way. These standards provide the basis for making judgments on a translation service provider as well as the translation product. But the standards are voluntary ones, and are not legally binding on service providers.

So the next step is to lobby relevant government authorities to employ administrative means to make the standards entry requirements for translation companies. TAC has contacted officials from the State Administration for Industry and Commerce and will follow up with talks with more senior leadership. At the meantime, TAC is promoting the standards among its members and other relevant parties. In September 2006, TAC organized a training session on implementing the national standards. More than 50 general managers of translation companies attended the two-day training. With more and more companies accepting and abiding by the standards, the translation market can be expected to become gradually mature.

2.3 Promote Training for the T&I Professionals

TAC has long been a strong proponent for establishing translation as an independent discipline. TAC’s Translation Theory and Translation Teaching Committee has drawn professors from translation schools and departments within universities as well as veteran professionals. The Committee has organized quite a number of national-scale seminars, among them are the National Seminar on Practical Translation and the National Doctoral Forum on Translation Studies. These activities have inspired strategic thinking for the development of translation teaching and training.

With the constant advocacy of the Committee, progress has been made steadily: in 1994, the first translation school was established at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and four more have been established since then. A number of universities are offering master’s degree programs on translation and interpretation. In 2004, Shanghai International Studies University was granted, by the Ministry of Education, the right to confer doctor’s degree on translation and interpretation. The most encouraging progress was that in March this year, the Ministry of Education announced that bachelor’s degree on translation and interpretation would be granted for the first time in three universities as a pilot program. These developments demonstrate that translation has gradually become an educational discipline in its own right.

Apart from university degree programs, there are also a large number of training programs run by private training institutions, many of which are associated with CATTI and other local certification programs. A number of them are run by TAC’s local member associations. It is estimated that more than 100 training institutions throughout the country are offering training programs preparing the candidates to take CATTI. Interpreting programs are quite popular as well due to the temptation of the high-paying career of interpreting. These programs focus exclusively on practical skills, and help to prepare students to become professional translators and interpreters. Some of the training institutes have joined TAC as corporate members, and TAC has organized some seminars for them to exchange information and ideas. It is TAC’s responsibility to help them grow bigger and stronger.

While the demand for qualified translators and qualified training programs is huge, the supply of qualified teachers is far short of demand. In order to train qualified teachers, TAC has organized a series of summer symposiums on translation and interpretation teaching since 1997. The summer symposiums have drawn thousands of participants from among university teachers of translation and interpretation and have gained widespread recognition. TAC also encourages the exchange of teaching methodology through its journal and its website.

2.4 Work out a Mechanism of Supervision and Appraisal

Standards and regulations, once enacted, need to be implemented through an effective mechanism of supervision and appraisal. TAC plans to set up a translation appraisal committee, which will work with relevant government departments to provide assessment on translation quality as well as training institutions and translation companies. The committee will also provide information and legal support to protect the rights and interests of translators and translation entities. We believe that the appraisal system will help raise quality awareness and build a reasonably tiered competition environment for the translation sector.

It is worth noting that the ISO 9001 system has also been introduced to the Chinese translation sector to appraise relevant institutions and enterprises. But due to the complicated process of obtaining ISO 9001 certification and the expensive cost, only less than 10 translation companies in China are ISO certified. Perhaps there is a need to establish a more effective system designed specifically for the Chinese context, at least as a transitional means before a large number of full-fledged translation companies come to the scene.

2.5 Facilitate the Exchange of Information and Sharing of Resources

The exchange and sharing of information is vital to the healthy development of an industry. There are several channels to facilitate information exchange in the translation sector:


This traditional means of information exchange is still very effective, especially in the dissemination of systematic knowledge. TAC and its members publish more than 10 journals related to translation. Chinese Translators Journal, a bimonthly journal of TAC, enjoys high reputation in the sector. TAC also publishes a bi-monthly newsletter for its members which is heavy on news and information.


Thanks to their instant dissemination and unlimited space, websites have become an increasing popular platform for information sharing and exchange. Translation websites are mostly run by translation service companies, localization companies and training institutes. They not only introduce their own business, but also provide industry news and sometimes language learning functions.

TAC set up a simple website in 2000 which did not attract much attention in the translation circle. Then in 2004, TAC redesigned it and changed it completely. The new website now features more than 20 columns, with updates every week. It provides industry news both at home and abroad. It has been regarded as an official source and its articles are widely quoted and reposted on other websites. Some of TAC’s local member associations also have their own websites and share information with TAC.


The most intensive exchange of information and ideas is the direct communication through meetings, seminars, conferences like this one. TAC, its member associations and its committees organize a great number of activities for their members and other interested parties. TAC has run more than 100 national seminars since its birth in 1982. TAC’s committees on science and technology translation and on ethnic languages translation hold a conference every other year to discuss issues of common concern. TAC’s Translation Service Committee organizes a translation management seminar each year, where translation companies and other relevant parties gather together to share information and ideas. In May this year, TAC organized the first “China International Forum on the Translation Industry” in Shanghai. The forum drew more than 200 participants in the translation service, training, publishing and technology fields from China and 11 other countries and regions. The forum was deemed a success as it provided a platform to discuss some strategic issues of the industry.

TAC not only helps to facilitate information exchange within the industry, but also tries to communicate the industry’s concerns to relevant government authorities and the general public through the media. TAC has maintained very good relationship with major national and local media, and TAC’s events are widely reported. For example, the first China Translation Achievements Exhibition in 2004 was reported by almost all the major national newspapers and websites, and a few TV stations, with more than 160 news articles and over 200 photos.

3. Potential for International Cooperation

The Chinese translation sector is still young and immature in general, many players are domestically oriented, with little contact with their counterparts in other countries. This is both an advantage and disadvantage for international cooperation in this field. On the dark side, a market without adequate regulation is a risky market, and it takes time and efforts to find a qualified partner in the field. On the bright side, the developing market leaves a lot of room for foreign players to step in. I will share with you some of the opportunities we have observed for international cooperation in the following three fields:

3.1 Translation Training

As I have mentioned before, translation training is far behind market demand in China. What are lacking on the programs of most of the translation schools and department are courses on translation of special subjects (e.g., legal and medical documents), terminology management, translation project management and translation technology. According to our knowledge, only the School of Interpretation and Translation, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, a very pragmatic-oriented institution of higher learning, offers legal and commercial translation courses. Universities in Hong Kong do a better job in this regard, and provide a much richer program including special subject course and translation management courses. There is much room for international cooperation in the above-mentioned fields and TAC is open to such proposals.

In fact, there have been some successful cooperative programs between Chinese and foreign institutions. The aforementioned summer symposium was a cooperative program between TAC and the Graduate School of Translation and Interpreting, Monterey Institute of International Studies. The University of International Business and Economics went into a partnership with the European Commission's Directorate General for Interpretation in 2001, and established a joint training project for international conference interpreters in Beijing, namely, the Sino-EU Interpreter Training Center.

3.2 Translation and Localization Services

As more and more companies plan to enter or are entering China, the demand for translations into Chinese is growing rapidly. A lot of foreign translation companies are looking for Chinese partners to work on a project basis. With the Internet, cross-border trade in this form can be easily managed; the problem is how to find trustworthy partners. TAC has received many emails from foreign organizations or translation companies, asking us to introduce credible translation or interpretation agencies in China as potential partners. With more and more service companies joining TAC as members, we will be able to make better referrals.

China’s localization sector is comparatively speaking quite internationalized, considering the fact that it is just a dozen years old. It started at almost the same time with the world’s localization business in the early 1990s, and has made some notable achievements, especially in the field of software localization. While facing strong competition from giant international players such as Bowne Global Solutions, Lion Bridge and SDL, domestic localization companies still have plenty room to develop since the market is big enough to support all of them. Investment in this business is quite lucrative, although the risk is also high. Cooperation with Chinese localization businesses on multilingual projects is also a possibility.

3.3 Translation and Publishing

In the field of publishing, an industrial sector that needs a lot of translators, the shortage of qualified translators, in particular those who can translate from Chinese into other languages, is especially salient. According to the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), copyright purchases are 10 times bigger than copyright sales, but the 10 percent copyright sales means a huge amount of translation job from Chinese into foreign languages. Shortage of capital is one reason, but the key is the lack of qualified translators from Chinese into other languages. So many Chinese publishers hope to work with an international partner who, instead of buying ready books, will help with language editing and polishing of the manuscripts to make them more acceptable to foreign readers. Of course, there is cost issues involved, but this model will have its space, as most countries have budget to have their classics translated into other languages. At the Beijing International Book Fair in early September, for example, the Chinese government released a list of classical books to be translated and published in other languages, and promised to provide financial subsides from a recently established fund. Domestic and foreign publishers can then work together to have them published in a foreign language.

Finally, as many of you may already know, TAC will be the host organization for the 2008 FIT World Congress in Shanghai. We welcome you to visit China and see by yourselves, talk with Chinese translators in person, and to contribute to the growing and maturity of the Chinese translation market.


1. Jixian, He: “A Journey to Go beyond the Translation Circle”, in http://www.tac-online.org.cn/fyhy/txt/2005-06/26/content_79936.htm.

2. Jixian, He: “A Journey to Go beyond the Translation Circle”, in http://www.tac-online.org.cn/fyhy/txt/2005-06/26/content_79936.htm.

3. Allied Business Intelligence, Inc.: “Language Translation, Localization and Globalization: World Market Forecasts, Industry Drivers and eSolutions”, USA, 2002.

4. Renato Beninatto & Donald A. DePalma, Ranking of Top 20 Translation Companies, in http://www.commonsenseadvisory.com/members/res_cgi.php/050701_QT_top_20.php.

5. Ren, Yi, 2003. “The Translation Economy – in the Formation of an Industry”, in http://www.qianlong.com/, December 10, 2003.

6. China Internet Information Center, “The 18th Statistical Report of the Development of the Internet in China”, July 2006.

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