In The Middle

Interpreting is like getting a little window onto the story of someone’s life. You never know the ending though. Or the beginning for that matter.

No posts for a while, I’ve been rather busy. I’ve been working quite a lot, and my exams are over, which essentially means that I’m no longer a student! So instead of a post with some substance, I’ll leave you with the little triplet I composed a few days ago, above.


Ten Thousand

English: a hundred thousand
Chinese: 十万 (literally ‘ten wan‘)

In English, we have ten, a hundred, and a thousand. If we want to go up another power of ten, we don’t have a separate word for it, so we say ‘ten thousand’. With me so far?

But in Chinese (and in other East Asian languages) we do have another word. So instead of ‘ten thousand’ we have ‘one wan‘. Ok, not so complicated.

How about a hundred thousand then? Look above, and you’ll see it is ten wan. The next number up? We have a new word in English: A million. In Chinese, a hundred wan. Ten million? A thousand wan. A hundred million? A new word in Chinese: one yi. And the rest:

A billion: ten yi.
Ten billion: A hundred yi.
A hundred billion: A thousand yi.
A trillion: One zhao.

Like I said, other East Asian languages have the same counting system.

Try this on an East Asian friend. Ask them how much an average car costs in their country, and watch them scratch their head. The reason for their confusion isn’t that they don’t know the answer, it’s because they are trying to translate ‘one thousand wan‘ (or some other large number) into English. (‘So how many zeroes in ten yi?’ Let’s see, ten has one zero, a hundred has two, a thousand, three…)

This makes interpreting particularly hard. When an English speaker says ‘millions upon millions of people around the world who need our help’ how should you interpret it? Because literally interpreting it would result in ‘there are hundred wan upon hundred wan of people who need our help’ which doesn’t have the same ring to it, I think you’ll agree.

Interpreting Practice: IMF Annual Meeting

Some speeches from the IMF / World Bank meeting, recently held in Tokyo. One speaker is a French Woman, the other a Chinese man, both speeches are in English though. I hope this kind of thing doesn’t continue, we interpreters will be out work of it does…

Can Banks Regain Public Trust?

Before you try interpreting this speech, let me tell you a story.

Imagine you’re going out for a night on the town. You take your wallet and your keys off the dresser table as you leave the door. You look in your wallet and notice you have quite a lot of cash in there. You don’t want to carry too much, what if something happens? You have a good idea of how much you’re going to spend, but what if you need to get a taxi home? What if you feel like a fancy beer instead of the cheap, on tap stuff? How much extra money are you going to carry around with you for unforseen contingencies?

Why am I mentioning this? Well, our speaker mentions the Basel Accords, and the fact that they stipulate how much of a ‘capital cushion’ (his words) banks must have. A few minutes of Googling and I’m pretty sure this ‘capital cushion’ is analogous to the ‘carrying around money’ I talked about above; money that is there just in case. It seems like a good idea to me; if you’re in hock up to your eyeballs (economists call it “excessively leveraged”) it’s a good idea to have something in your back pocket in case someone unexpectedly asks for their money back.

I wasn’t sure how to interpret “cushion” so I sniffed around Google. For the record, Chinese does have a word for the thing you sit on, but ‘capital cushion’ literally translated is just confusing. Wikipedia let me know that a “capital cushion” was actually something to do with a “capital adequacy rate”, something that does have a Chinese equivalent: 资本充足率.

All in all, I think I got through this alright, but it was a struggle sometimes. Good luck in your practice.


English: to cut off your nose to spite your face.
Chinese: 因噎废食 literally “to stop eating for fear of choking”.
Both are talking about actions taken to avoid something, with the action taken being worse than the thing you’re trying to avoid. Note that they aren’t completely the same, the Chinese is talking about quitting something to avoid its consequences, while the English is talking about actually doing something, not just quitting.
I prefer the Chinese, the English is a little gruesome isn’t it.