The China Syndrome

The taxi driver doesn’t speak much English; the receptionist asks you to sign papers that could for all intents and purposes be yearly subscriptions to the local newspaper; the doctor doesn’t have a clue what you are talking about and prescribes medicine with a name you cannot even read, never mind understand; many of the few translations into English you can find could be straight from one of those websites trying to keep you entertained with examples of ‘lost in translation’; there are 5 million cars on the road and they all seem to be large Audis, Passats, Buicks, BMWs or Mercedes, and they all seem to have decided to drive down the same street you’re just on; at 7am the outdoor sports facilities are packed with people stretching, exercising, and practicing Tai-Chi – not the young energetic types in their twenties, but the slower more concentrated and focused types in their 50s and above; there are 100 universities in town, many quite sizeable settlements in their own right; squares are the size of your home town; the list of overwhelming impressions could go on and on and on: this is no ordinary place.

Welcome to Beijing, China.

Of course, I knew China is big in more than one way, but I had no idea how big because I had never had the opportunity to visit the country. Even the knowledge that with just over 42% penetration there are now almost twice as many internet users in China than there are people in the USA was kind of abstract. It was impressive, but what was missing was the feeling in my stomach that could bring home to me what this figure really meant. So, I was delighted when my friend and colleague Qun Liu (DCU) invited me to Beijing to attend and speak at the 2013 IET International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies (IETICT2013) held on 27-29 April 2013 in conjunction with the China-Ireland International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies (CIICT2013). I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to learn first hand about this awakening giant, its people, and, of course, its localisation community. On my way to China, I was thinking about my first ever visits to other ‘eastern’ countries that had not been on my ‘western’ radar until I eventually went to visit them, among them India and Russia. How would China compare? I also thought about the Chinese students I had taught at our postgraduate Localisation Programme at the University of Limerick; they had been a mixed group of students, some very open, some a bit more cautious and shy when connecting with the other students and our western culture.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my stay in China was another lesson in humility. The amount of knowledge, experience, and expertise shared by the people I met was really breathtaking. And in that sense, the experience was similar to that of my first contacts with the localisation communities in Russia and India. On all of these occasions, I knew that the person who benefitted most from the visits was myself. The little bit of knowledge I could share during the meetings, conversations, and presentations must have been almost negligible in comparison. However, I also realized that our work both in the Localisation Research Centre (LRC) at the University of Limerick, and at The Rosetta Foundation is being followed closely around the world, and particularly in China and beyond. I was genuinely delighted to meet colleagues who have been following Localisation Focus for years, as well as volunteers of The Rosetta Foundation.

The presentations by our Chinese colleagues at the Ireland-China Localisation Forum organized by Localisation Service Committee of Translators 2013 China-Ireland Localisation ForumAssociation of China (TACLSC) were far too short, while the organizers, being polite, had allocated much time to the western contributors, including Vincent Wade (TCD), Josef van Genabith (DCU), and myself. Of course, this allowed us to share reports on our work, ideas on future trends and research, and to issue invitations for potential collaboration with our Chinese colleagues; but I, at least, could hardly keep up with the amount and depth of material presented by Gavin Cui (LSCTAC) in his introduction to the session. Gavin Cui introduced the speakers: Francois Zhang (Huawei) on Practices and Evolution: Huawei Translation Quality Management; Henry Huang (Pactera) on New Requirements of China Localization Markets; Yongpeng Wei (Lingosail) on Machine Translation in China; Shi Li (LanguAge) on Building the Partnership between Clients and LSPs; and Zhijun Gao (Peking University) on CAT and Localization Education at Peking University.

Of course, we went to see the great Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall, all examples of why everything outside of China feels so small. I learned how to eat using chopsticks, how to roll up thin slices of Peking Duck in paper-thin pancakes, and how to eat soup without a ‘proper’ spoon. Many years ago, I had learned not to eat spaghetti when wearing a white shirt – well, I can now tell you that unless you are a ‘pro’, wearing a white shirt is not a good idea when eating Chinese foot with chopsticks either!

Another notable China experience: the internet went all ‘funny’ on me: Skype worked for 20 seconds and cut out; Google searches went to a site in Hong The Great Wall of ChinaKong and got stuck there; Facebook did not work at all; and the Chinese sites that came up instead, presumably to allow me to search and social network, were, well, in Chinese. I got a feeling that China is so big, that it doesn’t even have to look outside, at least not yet. There are Chinese social networking sites, short messaging services, search engines, and other services used by hundreds of millions of people every day that I had never heard of, among them: Sina Weibo, Renren, and Alibaba. There are companies employing tens of thousands of people. The names of cities that are home to the massive manufacturing plants of western consumer goods only vaguely ring a bell. The obvious question that came to my mind was: what will happen if this giant one day decides to extend its active reach to the West?

I know that this was certainly not my last visit to China. I met strangers and left leaving friends and colleagues behind. There is a lot we can learn from each other, and there are really good indicators that we will deepen our initial contacts and start to develop our mutual understanding, working together in areas of mutual interest.


Osborne, Charlie (15 January 2013). China’s Internet population surges to 564 million, 75 percent on mobile. (last accessed 01 May 2013).

2013 China-Ireland Localisation International Forum. 29 April 2013. (last accessed 01 May 2013).

2013 IET International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies (IETICT2013) held on 27-29 April 2013 in conjunction with the China-Ireland International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies (CIICT2013). (last accessed 01 May 2013).

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “The China Syndrome”

  1. Zhijun Gao Says:

    Great Post. Hope to meet you again soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: