There aren't too many streetcars inside a computer. That's why an English-to-Chinese translation of "the widespread application of largescale integrated circuits" caused some problems when it came out as "a great example of the widely used streetcar."
Pitfalls like these have tripped up more than a few translators as trade between China and the United States continues to grow.
When the ancient -- and recently simplified -- language of the world's most populous country meets a language in which new words are continually added to describe technical and scientific advancements, people are needed who can make sense of the changes on both sides. In the US, this job is being done by a growing number of translation services.
Some of these services have more than a dozen translator operating out of modern office buildings. Others are simply one person working on a free-lance basis in a kitchen. They are busy translating business letters, brochures, proposals, contracts, and even complex manuals for sophisticated machinery and equipment. Some of the firms also will typeset and print the documents.
"A lot of these firms have been cropping up, especially in the last coupld of years," said Stephen O. Huff, who works in a special marketing department of International Harvester. His department deals exclusively with countries that have planned economies.
Like many other companies that do frequent business in China, Harvester can do much of its simpler translating work inhouse, says Mr. Huff, who speaks and reads Chinese. "If it's a letter or some small-scale project, I can do that myself," he noted.
But for preparing brochures or technical literature, Harvester uses an outside firm.
Not all companies have felt a great need to hire translating services. At Ingersoll-Ran, for instance, "we generally send out most things in English," company spokesman Timothy McKenna said. "Just about all contrancts are written and signed in English, and if someone needs a Chinese translation, they [the Chinese] will usually find someone to translate it."
But the majority of US companies that do a regular business in China are sending out their work for translation.
One of the largest firms receiving this kind of work is Chinatrans, the translation service affiliated with the Washington-based National Council for US-China trade. With 14 full-time translators, Chinatrans has done work for some 1,000 companies since US business began discussing trade with the Chinese government in 1973, said Li May Phipps, Chinatrans's president.
In addition to translating, Chinatrns typesets and prints corporate documents , prepares audiovisual material, prints business cards in English and Chinese, and provides interpreters for visiting Chinese officials and for Americans travelling to China.
Similar services are provided by Agnew Tech-Tran Inc., of Woodland Hills, Calif. The company has been doing Chinese translation since 1973, "But things really got going in 1977," says Irene Agnew, its president. "There was very little going on before that." In 1977, President Carter opened full diplomatic relations with China, a move that permitted businesses much wider latitude in Chinese trading than they had before then.
The first rush of contacts and business deals that kept services like hers busy seems to be over. The Chinese government has cut the pace of ordering American equipment and even canceled some orders, Mrs. Agnew notes. "It is getting slow now."
When business is slow, the translators can occupy some of their spare time keeping up to date on the lastest changes in both languages. This is particularly important in technical and scientific fields. This problem seems to turn up most often when translating English into Chinese, says James Mathias, executive secretary of the Chinese English Translation Assistance Group, an organization that prepares glossaries, dictionaries, and reference tools for translators.
"Just because a person is Chinse and can speak English doesn't mean he can translate," he contends. A company that needs something translated into Chinese should ask if the translator has any experience in its specialty. A chemical company, for instance, might ask of the person had done any work in this area before and check references.
He also belives that, in most cases, it is better to have a native-speaking Chinese person translating English into Chinese and an English-speaking person translating Chinese into English. Thereby the translator will have an easier time understanding the nuances of language in the final product. "The translator should be translating into his own native tongue."
Mr. Mathias is not sure how many translation services there are, because they include full-service companies, universities (including professors and students who free-lance), and private individuals who work in their home. In addition to looking into references, a company that wants to check a translator's work could send a sample to Mr. Mathias at Chinese English Translation Assistance Group, Box 400, Kensington, Md. 20795. Mr. Mathias's firm does not do translations.
The first question that should be asked by any executive who plans to have translation work done, experts say, is whether the translating service uses the "simplified Chinese" the People's Republic of China has been adopting since 1949 . The much older Chinese language uses a more complex style and much more complicated characters. While most Chinese people would have little trouble understanding the older characters, they prefer the simpler version.
And for a company that is serious about maintaining good relations with mainland China, there is an even better reason to avoid using the older characters: They are still used on Taiwan.