The picture when world leaders get together for the latest international summit is a familiar one. They shake hands, smile for the cameras and settle down for another session of top-level diplomacy and negotiation. However, look a bit closer and, somewhere in the background, you will also see the interpreters whose mastery of language and speed of thought will be tested to the limit in the following few hours.
It is a challenging role and one with which Jessica Yeung, assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature of the Faculty of Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University, can immediately identify. Recognised for both her academic and commercial work in the field of translation and interpretation, Dr Yeung believes that her own success is the result of training combined with an instinctive feel for language.
She still finds simultaneous interpretation to be the ultimate test. "What makes it challenging and exciting is that it is really a form of crisis management," she says. "During the process, anything can happen and, unlike with translations, you can't change or correct what you have already interpreted." No reference tools are available and no time is allowed to polish a phrase or rethink a sentence.
"You sometimes hate yourself when you realise minor mistakes made during an interpretation," says Dr Yeung, "but you can never give up. No matter what, you have to survive to the end!"
You must be fully aware of any contexts and specific references that may come up
Dr Yeung's earliest career ambition was to become a lawyer, but she feels that fate took a hand. Her passion for language and literature came to the fore and, while still at university studying translation and interpretation, she also regularly contributed articles to local newspapers. Upon graduation, she began work as a freelance translator and interpreter and undertook projects for companies and personal contacts. "In the field of translation, it is certainly true that you need a good network," says Dr Yeung. "However, the quality of your work always comes first. That is the main thing to help you build a reputation and a good network of contacts will follow on from there."
It soon became clear that the ability to translate opened many doors. Offers arrived to work as a teacher and in the arts. In particular, the Hong Kong Museum of Art was looking for a research assistant responsible for Chinese ceramics and Dr Yeung had just the right skills. "Research is very important for a professional translator because you don't just translate words, but must also convey the full picture. Therefore, the ability to conduct detailed background research, especially for niche translators, is very important."
Dr Yeung points out that this, together with language proficiency and cultural understanding, is one of the three essentials in translation studies. "A language and its culture are inseparable," she explains, "so you must be fully aware of any contexts and specific references that may come up."
Opting to further her academic interest in different cultures, Dr Yeung completed a Master's degree in comparative literature, which later led to studying for a PhD in Beijing opera at Middlesex University in the UK. "For my thesis, I dealt with a methodology called vertical translation, which is all about using the pattern and model of one era and applying it to another place and time. Horizontal translation is simply going from one language to another. My objective was to understand translation and interpretation in a macro environment instead of a micro one."
Now working full time for the Baptist University, Dr Yeung still finds time to write as a freelance art critic and is one of the few bilingual writers able to produce parallel versions in English and Chinese from one interview. She also serves as editor of the bulletin of the Hong Kong Translation Society, which allows her to keep in touch with news and developments within the business translation sector.
Her advice to young translators is to be hard-working and responsible. Skills and experience are best developed through practice and having the attitude that even the smallest projects should be done whole-heartedly.
"I feel lucky to have chosen this path," Dr Yeung admits. "The work is tough and the environment in a university can be intense, but it is also very rewarding. The chance to help students learn and to overcome problems makes this the best job possible."
The translation business in Hong Kong has always been competitive and the opening of the China market has seen the appearance of many firms offering low-priced services to local companies.
In Dr Yeung's view, things will stabilise and translators and interpreters should remember that their most powerful tool is language excellence. This can give them an advantage either in working between English and Chinese or for translating written texts using the different forms of Chinese characters found in Hong Kong and the mainland.
Dr Yeung also cautions that it is important to recognise change and to keep oneself up-to-date with developments in culture and grammar.