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Concerns over English translation: Professionals, observers warn of ‘critical’ gaps

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Ms Wang grew up in a Chinese family and attended a Chinese school before deciding to further her studies in English translation and interpretation. But her dream did not come true.
Today, she is working as a secretary in a public department and has not even tried to apply for a job as a translator following graduation. Wang says she did not feel she had what it took to become a translator.
When she enrolled in the Macau Polytechnic Institute (MPI) – the only higher education institution that offers degrees in translation and interpretation – her English “was just at a normal level”.
“I’m very weak at communicating with English speakers due to the lack of practice during my high school period. I was very shy and didn’t dare talk in English.
“I have always been interested in English and I watched a lot of Hollywood movies and TV shows to increase my knowledge. As a result, my listening skills and understanding are far better than speaking,” she bemoans.
After Wang finished her higher education studies, her English did not become any more fluent and her lack of confidence in English skills did not ease.
“I have to say my English didn’t improve much after my graduation,” she admits.
“The vocabulary built up a bit but I made little progress in my communication with English speakers. I did find my Mandarin had improved after graduating mainly because most of our professors spoke Mandarin during classes,” she adds.

‘All [our translators or interpreters] already have guaranteed jobs when they graduate, but not as translators. They are hired as bilingual workers, some in the government, but mostly in big private companies’:

Choi Wai Hao

Every year, some 80 students enroll in the MPI’s bachelor degree in English/Chinese translation and interpretation, 60 of which are locals and 20 come from mainland China. However, like Wang, most of the graduates did not become translators or interpreters.
“All of them already have guaranteed jobs when they graduate, but not as translators. They are hired as bilingual workers, some in the government, but mostly in big private companies,” director of the MPI’s School of Languages and Translation, Choi Wai Hao, tells the Macau Daily Times.
Although the MPI’s objective is to train translators, Choi admits that the English translation labour market is not very big, in comparison to the Portuguese translation market.
According to professionals and observers, the problem is fast becoming critical and deserves better attention from the people in charge. The issue, they say, is not only the shortage of translators, but also a lack of quality in most cases.

Missing essentials

“The use of English language has been improving in Macau, very slowly though. We are lagging behind Hong Kong and China, because the Education sector in Macau is still not in good shape,” says Gary Ngai, former translator and interpreter, fluent in eight languages.
To a greater extent schools are to blame, he says, because they have neglected the quality of teachers and textbooks and have not made enough effort to improve English proficiency in Macau’s students.

‘“The use of English language has been improving in Macau, very slowly though. We are lagging behind Hong Kong and China, because the Education sector in Macau is still not in good shape’:

Gary Ngai

“The quality of English in Macau is stagnating,” he remarked.
“It’s a concern, because it doesn’t comply with the general demand that is to transform Macau into an international city.”
“Taxi drivers don’t speak a word of English and that’s disturbing tourists that don’t speak Chinese,” Ngai adds, to give an example.
There are problems in the English translation business as well. “The role of English translation in Macau will be essential in the future. In the government, at this very moment, there is virtually no significant amount of English translation or [it exists] in a very limited way,” highlights Leo Stepanov, proprietor of local company Macau Translations.
Stepanov is looking forward for the use of English to grow in Macau. “That’s an element needed to make Macau an international city”.
“At this point, we can’t compare English to Portuguese, because the latest is an official language. What we discuss is the language that helps the government communicate with the international community and vice-versa and that has to be English,” he says.
“We hope that, sooner or later, English will be needed for translation and interpreting at the same time,” he adds.
However, there is no such thing as English translators or interpreters in the Public Administration.
Director of the Public Administration and Civil Service Bureau (SAFP), José Chu, told the MDTimes that the government “hires services from the private market and counts on the voluntary cooperation of civil servants that are fluent in English, by hiring an extra service from them.”
But even the private market is feeling the effects of growing pains. Stepanov warns that the lack of English translators in Macau is becoming “critical” due to the competition among private companies, while business is going down instead of growing.

 

‘Every year, between March and May, we interview between 10 and 15 recent graduates from MPI and we notice that their level of proficiency falls year-on-year’:

Leo Stepanov

“We train some of them, but we are doing it less and less, because they leave mostly for the casino industry. They get good references from us and have very good chances of working as managers,” he said.
Furthermore, many of those available in the market lack quality. “Every year, between March and May, we interview between 10 and 15 recent graduates from MPI and we notice that their level of proficiency falls year-on-year,” Stepanov explains.
English, French and Cantonese translator and interpreter, and MPI’s lecturer, Carlos Alves shares the same concerns and regrets that the English spoken in Macau is “more of a ‘Chinglish’”.
“There is no sophistication at all [in the English spoken in Macau],” he says, adding that the quality is miles away from what should be expected.
“Even some government officials speak dreadful English,” he points out.

Education under fire

Director of the MPI’s School of Languages and Translation rejects the criticism. He says that the institution has established a teaching quality control system and students are submitted to an international standard testing system.
Of the 17 teachers in the Chinese/English translation bachelor degree, “more than 30 percent are native English speakers,” Choi says.
As for students, “those who come from English language schools are very good, but those from Chinese language schools are also good. They all have to take an exam before enrolling in our school,” he added.
Choi disclosed that the Chinese-English Translation and Interpretation programme is getting a new coordinator this year and changes and improvements are expected.

The English spoken in Macau is ‘more of a Chinglish. There is no sophistication at all […]. The quality is miles away from what should be expected. Even some government officials speak dreadful English’:

Carlos Alves


Nevertheless, he admits that the English level of the local population is not enough, but the problem must be tackled right from the beginning, in primary schools.

Carlos Alves fires off in the same direction. The scholar blames the Education sector as a whole for the lack of English quality in students and in society as a whole.

“Students are ill-prepared. It’s a matter of quality of ‘raw material’ and the problem comes from schools,” he says.
He goes on to say there are not enough native English-speaking teachers in Macau needed to “guarantee a good quality standard of the English spoken in the city.”
Gary Ngai agrees and suggests the government take action and start improving English from kindergarten providing a better education in Mandarin, English and Portuguese. “Young people can easily accept multiple languages, so why not?” he questions.
According to Ngai, the key to solving this problem rests with the Education system, from an early age. Today’s system does not work and actions must be taken as soon as possible, he says.
“If students start learning English in high school, that’s too late. You have to start from the very beginning,” he urges.
The veteran translator calls on the government to invite “some good professionals to teach properly” and slams officials for “not paying enough attention” to this problem.
“It’s a tragedy,” he warns. “We are losing our competitiveness in comparison with other surrounding cities. You want to make Macau a tourist destination, but if you don’t improve your English, how can you achieve such a goal?” he asks

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