Menu

The Vancouver Sun

Date:  March 17, 2008

Translator helps B.C. firms pitch to China

Chinese and Western worlds fail miserably to understand each other

Wintranslation CEO Huiping Iler has this advice for B.C. business people and travellers headed to China: “It is vastly different from the West. Not just in its language, but also in its people’s way of thinking, behaving and communicating.” Here are some examples of what befuddles people in China when they meet Westerners: Why do you mean, “I am not getting to the point?”

Joanne Lee-Young, Vancouver Sun

Vincent Dong is an unassuming Burnaby resident, but the Hefei, China native has helped a slew of B.C. companies and associations put a sharp foot forward when pitching for business in China.

At the same time, Dong also co-hosts a television show that helps recent immigrants from mainland China adjust to life in Lotusland.

Uniquely, then — as B.C. vies to trade more with China than any other Asian market; and, more people from China than anywhere else move to B.C. — he has seen how Western and Chinese worlds try, but often fail miserably, to understand each other.

In addition to a regular day job, Dong has, for years, been building a growing side business as a freelance translator. He now has a client base of more than 35 steady clients, including major forestry and increasingly ambitious mining groups.

“In the beginning, it was a lot of wood-product companies, but, for the past two years, the focus has switched to mining and exploration, energy industries,” said Dong.

He spends most of his time meticulously translating English brochures, reports, presentation materials and websites into Chinese. Some clients might do a few trips to China per year and he helps them with updates and revisions. Sometimes, he accompanies these B.C. executives on trips to China.

He also does contract work for translation firms such as Wintranslation.com (based in Ottawa), which serves big names including Maple Leaf Foods, Magna, Rogers and Intel.

“He’s a multi-talented person. He is a scholar at heart and he hosts a television show,” said Huiping Iler, chief executive officer of Wintranslation.com. “He is a simultaneous and consecutive interpreter, and also a very good translator.”

Dong said that Western executives and visitors to China often fumble around with what, in Chinese society, is a very natural concept of hierarchy. He explained: “China is a country with long traditions, where there is a lot of respect for older people. When someone calls you ‘Old John’ or ‘Old Lee’, it has nothing to do with thinking that you are old. But, [in the Western world], we don’t talk about age, especially if you are getting on to be 40 or 50.”

Similarly, “in China, when your parents bring friends home, you automatically call them Auntie or Uncle. When I brought some Canadian [executives] to visit Chinese families, they asked the kids to ‘just call me Mary.’ But the kids would never do it [out of respect for someone who is older],” said Dong.

Exchanging gifts can also be a time of miscues. Said Dong: “The Chinese receiving side would normally decline the gift several times. Seldom do Chinese open the presents right away. This should not be interpreted as lack of interest or appreciation.”

Another tip for Westerners that isn’t found in most textbook primers: “For some reason, many Chinese are fond of saying ‘Okay, okay, okay,’ two or three times in a row. The consecutive okays are more of emphasis than of impatience,” said Dong.

When Dong isn’t coaching Westerners on the idiosyncrasies of Chinese courtesies, he co-hosts a Mandarin-language television show for Fairchild Media Group’s Talentvision channel. Aimed at new immigrants from China, Learn English Tonight runs in short, 15-minute episodes. At first, it mainly taught viewers what to say when opening a bank account or going to the hospital. The show, however, has evolved beyond dealing with basic vocabulary into discussing appropriate cultural conduct, said Dong.

For example, “China is a crowded place. Because of the population, the idea of personal space just does not exist, so this is a big lesson.”

As a general rule of thumb, he has taught this audience: “When you speak face-to-face, the acceptable distance from someone is arm’s length. When you stand in line-up at a bank or supermarket, it’s elbow’s length. And, if you are waiting for the bus or the SkyTrain, well, it’s fist’s length. You don’t want to get closer than that.”

Not many people have what it takes to see two societies from inside and out the way Dong does.

“That’s why I find the translation work and doing the television show very rewarding,” he said.

When the twain meet

Wintranslation.com CEO Huiping Iler has this advice for B.C. business people and travellers headed to China: “It is vastly different from the West. Not just in its language, but also in its people’s way of thinking, behaving and communicating.” Here are some examples of what befuddles people in China when they meet Westerners: Why do you mean, “I am not getting to the point?”

People in the West speak and write by stating the most important facts first. But in China, it is common to think the other way around: “My son is sick and cannot go to daycare today. I tried to find a babysitter, but everybody is booked. Even my in-laws but they are not feeling well. So, I have no choice, but to stay home. Is it all right if I have today off?”

Father knows best!

“Not without my permission” is an important concept in Western cultures, because it shows respect for individual choices. In China, decisions are often made for underlings without their input. For example, a Chinese automotive product supplier makes changes to a very established product in North America without asking his customer’s permission. Later, he tells the client that he thought he would appreciate the change because it was clearly an improvement. However, the client is livid because he did not authorize the change.

Why can’t I ask how much money you make?

People from Western cultures have a very strong sense of what is private versus what is not. For example, how much money one makes is considered highly private. However, these questions are very common in China! Don’t be surprised if you are bluntly asked personal questions such as whether you are married or dating.

I don’t do hugs — don’t touch me!

Westerners appear to have few cultural taboos about hugging or kissing in public. In contrast, Chinese adults do not hug or kiss each other often, especially in public.

Why do I have to thank you for every little thing?

In the West, it is polite and even expected for one to thank others for favours large or small. But in China, if the relationship is very close, such as between family members or close friends and colleagues, saying thank you for everything is viewed as a way to distance oneself from the group.

Felicia Bratu

Felicia Bratu is the operations manager of wintranslation, in charge of quality delivery and client satisfaction. As a veteran who has worked in many roles at the company since 2003, Felicia oversees almost every aspect of the company operations from recruitment to project management to localization engineering. She recently received certification as a Localization Project Manager as well as Post-Editing Certification for Machine Translation. Felicia holds a BSc. in Industrial Robotics from the University of Craiova, Romania.