21 Jan /20

Meet Li – the Chinese Translator Who’s Still Ahead of AI

Meet Li. The Chinese Translator Who’s Still Ahead of AI - EVS Translations
Meet Li – the Chinese Translator Who’s Still Ahead of AI – EVS Translations

Trying to catch my colleague Li Meng on the phone is difficult. I know he’ll be up to his eye balls juggling translation projects. I don’t make myself popular with the project managers as I ask to squeeze in a 10-minute call with him, but I know it’s worth sharing his experiences. I get the message that he’s free, so I pick up the phone and test out my rusty Chinese: “er…ni hao!” Li laughs nervously and politely replies “ni hao”.

Germany’s reputation in China

Li moved to Germany from China in 2015, where he joined the translation team at EVS Translations to become its first in-house Chinese translator. “It was a big culture shock. I was a bit overwhelmed” he explains, as he recalls the move from Asia. Li grew up in Shangdong province in a small city south west of Beijing. This is the hometown of Confucius and of the historical Meng family, part of China’s aristocracy. Li giggles as he tells me this. “Yeah, the Meng family are my ancestors”. (Funnily enough, Li, Kikuchi is a Samurai name, so we’re in good company.)

Studying German may seem like an unusual choice for a Chinese person but Germany’s economic prowess, as well as its automotive companies, has a strong reputation in China. “English is popular in China, but German is also seen as a language which can lead to good prospects. When I was growing up, the Germans sold a lot more cars to Chinese people than the Chinese manufacturers. We like BMW. Siemens is well-respected, too”. After 30 years in China, studying both English and German at university, he made his move to Berlin.

Working life in Germany and China

For people who have worked between Asia and Europe, there is often a steep learning curve involved as you try to integrate with your workmates. New and unknown etiquette or behavior, which is understood at the subconscious level, demands adaptability and often a lot of patience. “The Germans are more direct than the Chinese who prefer to…how do you say…’beat around the bush’” Li remarks. “But in China there is a very clear hierarchy within companies. You abide by the instructions of your leaders and you keep a distance. That’s not really the case in Germany and it suits my character. I’m not used to this idea of hierarchy. It’s pedantic”. He’s comfortable in his German way of life and to go home now would no doubt result in reverse culture shock.

Translation and the onset of machine intelligence

When I ask Li how many words he has translated this year he replies “oh my god, I have to calculate. Er…let me ask the project managers and I’ll get back to you…”. I quickly insist that he doesn’t need to go to those lengths, but his diligent response was very kind. “It must be in the hundreds of thousands, right?” I ask, and he ponders this thought for a moment. It’s difficult for him to put a figure on it, but it’s undoubtedly huge. Some of these jobs are highly confidential; for law firms with tight deadlines. But a Swedish client came onboard this year and he’s enjoying the new challenge. “Translation is a creative job”, he explains earnestly. “You have to recreate and rewrite the content in a different way. It’s not word-for-word. That’s like AI.” “So, you’re not worried about losing your job to a machine?” I ask, intrigued. “Maybe in 200 or 300 year’s time”, he laughs. “It can improve efficiency. If you have a large database of very technical terms, this reduces research time. But cultural factors which can only be experienced by humans make the difference between human and AI-driven translations. My job is safe for a long time yet!”

And with that, the phone rings and it’s back to focusing on work that’s coming in. It was almost Christmas time when we spoke, so Li was looking forward to celebrating with his family in Germany. Though the country is thousands of miles from China, his language remains with him every day.

Lucy Kikuchi from our marketing department interviewed Li for our blog.

If your business requires Chinese<>English translations, contact our team today. They can advise you on timeframes and approaches, and our in-house Chinese translators will be ready to get straight to work on your project.

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