Mr. No Has Achieved Yes with Diligence
By Manling, China Plus Host
"Being a translator is like being a servant who works for two masters." This analogy best depicts the belief of Huang Youyi that you must thoroughly understand what someone is saying before you can translate their message well for someone else. As an established professional translator and one of the country's top officials in charge of translation, he has spent his career sharing this message with his peers.
On January 16, 2019 Huang came to the China Plus studios for an interview. Despite having retired, he was still busy serving as the vice president of the Translators Association of China. From a student farmer sent to the countryside to toil in the frozen fields of northeast China, to an active player in bridging China with the rest of the world through translation, his stories of growth are both intriguing and enlightening: intriguing, because every time an opportunity came his way his initial reaction was to turn it down; and enlightening, because with every opportunity he grew and thrived and was able to serve the growing needs of his country.
The first time he turned down what good fortune had sent his way was when he got picked to go to university. Early in the Cultural Revolution, universities were shut down. But by 1971 some young workers, farmers, and soldiers were picked to go to university. The only qualification he needed to go to college was that he was a hard working farmer. At first, he thought his peers might be more deserving and wanted to give the opportunity to them. However, he was persuaded to accept the offer and was enrolled at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
The catalyst for the limited resumption of recruitment of a few batches of students was the ice-breaking visit to China by Henry Kissinger in 1971. Huang said he was lucky to have Zhang Daozhen as a teacher to help correct his clumsy English. Zhang was one of China's most prominent expert English teachers and is still a household name here, and I admit I was envious when Huang told me he was one of his students.
China had clearly mobilized all of the resources it had at its disposal to form the best teaching faculty it could for its small number of university students. This is why I was so surprised when Huang told me that he and his classmates didn't spend their time studying at the university's campus in Beijing, which would remain closed until 1978 when China fully resumed its college entrance examination system, also known as Gaokao. Instead, they were sent to the school's outpost in Hubei so they could be both students and laborers.
After four years, Huang graduated and was assigned a job at the prestigious Foreign Languages Press. Just six months later, good luck visited him once again and he was invited to go to Britain to study. And yet again, at first he wanted to turn down the opportunity. During the Cultural Revolution, people were called upon to "learn from Comrade Lei Feng and to serve the people heart and soul." Lei Feng was a soldier who died at an early age, but whose life was an example of altruism in action. Many young people in China today, exposed as they are to a market economy culture that emphasizes the primacy of the individual, struggle to understand the mindset people had at that time. Altruism was the collective identity for several generations, and many people sincerely believed that others should always come first when it came to opportunities and benefits. This meant voluntarily and willingly giving away opportunities for better jobs, better housing, and better pay. As had happened before, the people who picked him wouldn't change their decision, and finally he relented. He was to return from Britain armed with greatly improved English.
As a young editor at Foreign Languages Press, he had the good fortune to work with some of the best-known foreign language experts and journalists such as Israel Epstein. They not only polished his language, but also mentored him with his career. Huang repeatedly mentioned the American editor Joan Pinkham, who told him: "If you do not understand it, go and find out first. Never start translating anything before you really understand it." This straightforward advice became the standard and the principle he's stood by throughout his career.
A few years later, Huang had another opportunity to go abroad to study, this time to the United States. He was asked to undertake further postgraduate education, and he brought back a Master's degree in history, which improved his capacity to understand what he was translating.
Soon after China started opening itself to the outside world, Huang Youyi and his colleagues witnessed the first wave of a booming demand for translations into Chinese, mostly from languages such as English, German, French, and Japanese. Chinese people were curious about the world and wanted to learn from more advanced nations.
Huang said that a second wave of demand for translations came after China emerged as an economic giant at the turn of the century. The world was increasingly curious about China, Chinese goods were entering homes around the world, and investors started to pour into China. That led to a growing demand for Chinese texts to be translated into other languages. The world wanted to better understand the country that offered a huge potential market and was quickly becoming a presence in all aspects of life.
Huang became a council member of the International Federation of Translators in 2002, and in 2005 was elected its vice president. This was the third time he wanted to say no to an opportunity. But this time it was not out of altruistic habit but rather that he was too busy to shoulder more responsibilities. But once again, he relented and accepted the role in which he was to excel. Three years later, he successfully brought the organization's 18th World Congress to Shanghai, which marked a moment of worldwide recognition of China's professional capacity in the field of translation.
Throughout his career, Huang tried many times to turn down the good opportunities that have been offered to him. But time and again he has proved himself to be a high achiever who in the end makes the most of the good luck on offer. He is still an altruist in his professional life, willing to share with others the fruits of his experience. He helped to initiate China's Accreditation Test for Translators and Interpreters, which has become a national standard, and he is continuing to push for the introduction of national regulations that would provide better oversight of the translation market and help to protect translators.
The recent growth in big data and artificial intelligence technology has substantially changed how many people approach translation. But Huang believes that machines won't replace humans. "Never start translating anything before you really understand it" remains a fundamental principle of good translation, and so while machines might take on basic tasks, they won't surpass the importance of creative people taking on the role of editor. Harmony, peace, and prosperity among the peoples of the world require understanding. And understanding comes from good communication, which is why the world will always need people like Huang Youyi.