PROFESSIONAL SERVICES/LEGAL | Contributed Content, Hong Kong
David Lazar

Finding the right Chinese translation


When you are told to “slip carefully” instead of be careful because of the slippery floor or you see people dining at a place called “Translation server error”, you would know how seriously erroneous English translation can be.

But why is this the case? Is it because translation service in China is very expensive and unaffordable for people? Is proper English translation that hard to come by?

In the following article we’ll try to map the Chinese translation market with a look at the major numbers and prices. Use this as a guideline for the next time you need a translation and to understand the different options available for you.

Chinese Mainland translators
In China, translation service providers are mainly divided into 3 types: agencies (from large-scale agencies employing professionals to small-scale, amateur agencies), freelance translators and machine translation.

It is estimated that the total number of translators in China is around 1 million but the number of professional translators, accredited by the China Accreditation Test for Translators and Interpreters (CATTI –, is less than 100,000. Therefore, it is obvious that due to the limited supply of professional translation providers, their price is twice as high (0.2 RMB per word) as the regular translation service.

Also, on top of the higher price, certificates are not always trusted in the Mainland, given the dismal abundance of forgeries in circulation. Hence, most of the people would rather opt for small translation agencies or freelance translators, charging as low as 100 RMB for 1000 words for an English to Chinese translation.

Translation trends in Mainland China
Many companies resort to the most convenient and free of charge option: the online machine translation, such as MDBG. Even though this option is very cost effective and super fast, the results are very poor. English and Chinese are linguistically so distant that current translation engines cannot produce reliable translations.

Some would argue that the actual translated text is of no importance and many of these texts are only intended for the Chinese speaking audience. The English text merely adds to the brand’s reputation, they’re not meant to be read.

However this solution often backfires. Due to the preference of low cost over quality, we can see those hilarious erroneous translations everywhere in China.

Hong Kong Translators
Back in Hong Kong, the situation is very different from that in Mainland China. Many translators here have completed their studies for a Translation degree or lived in foreign countries.

They understand foreign culture more and have higher proficiency in foreign languages so they do not just provide a grammatically correct translation but also put it into the right cultural and linguistic context. The price of translation in Hong Kong is higher - agencies charge around 0.5-0.8 HKD and freelance translators charge 0.3-0.5 HKD per word. But compared to China the quality is guaranteed to be better.

Hong Kong Translation Agencies
There are plenty of translation agencies In HK, some are offering specialized services, such as TranslateMedia for marketing campaigns. In general choosing the right agency is not an easy and fast task.

Many would refuse smaller scale projects and may charge a higher fee to support their operations. This cost is always transferred to customers, which in turn increases the cost of the translation. This is especially true for smaller projects that do not benefit from economies of scale.

A good choice for smaller projects is to make use of one of the new direct management platforms. These connect the customer directly to freelance translators, giving faster, cheaper translations without any overhead. See Translation Market ( that operates only with tested translators.

The Western world
Chinese translation services are also available in Western countries, but since wages and expenses are much higher there, the charged fees are higher as well. A typical US based freelancer would charge US$ 0.10-0.20 per word and an agency would double that.

Costly mistakes
Although businesses can always enjoy low translation costs in China or free machine translation, but is it worth it to sacrifice quality and brand image for a small saving? Mostly not.

The Shanghai Maritime Court recently heard a case that hinged on basic translation errors whereby “dry docking” was mistranslated as “tank washing,” and “except fuel used for domestic service” as “except fuel used for domestic flights.” This gave rise to costly disputes between the Chinese and foreign parties about their respective rights and obligations under the agreement.

Today’s interconnected world and its ever shifting markets make proper English translation a must. The all encompassing internet allows access to endless options and countless translation service providers. Agencies and freelancers are accessible all around; whether high-end agencies for big jobs or tested and tried freelancers for smaller projects; investing a little time and money in proper translation is definitely worth it.  

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Hongkong Business. The author was not remunerated for this article.

Do you know more about this story? Contact us anonymously through this link.

Click here to learn about advertising, content sponsorship, events & rountables, custom media solutions, whitepaper writing, sales leads or eDM opportunities with us.

To get a media kit and information on advertising or sponsoring click here.

David Lazar

David Lazar

David Lazar is founder of Metatron Software HK.

Contact Information