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Translation between Hungarian and Chinese: a new frontier?

The latest round of China-EU strategic dialog, which took place in Gödöllő in early May under the auspices of the Hungarian EU presidency, has underlined the importance of China’s relations with Hungary and the rest of the EU. Bilateral trade relations between Hungary and China were worth HUF 1 645 billion in 2010, out of a total China-EU bilateral trade volume of some HUF 90 534 billion, according to the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), a 28% increase on the levels of 2008–2009. The EU remains China’s single most important trading partner and Chinese companies have invested some HUF 472 billion to date in Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Fidesz-led government has reportedly laid the foundations for an increased intake of Chinese students at Hungarian universities. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has also lately filled his calendar with meetings with his Japanese and Korean counterparts, while he and Hungarian President Pál Schmitt also met visiting Chinese dignitaries in Gödöllő.

During the meetings in Gödöllő, Orbán praised the energy of China, and said that the world’s future was unimaginable without it. He also encouraged interested Chinese companies to find business partners in Hungary, and offered all official aid to facilitate this. These announcements built on the visit by Hungarian Minister of National Development Tamás Fellegi to Beijing, which also resulted in many declarations of cooperation in areas such as finance, aerospace, infrastructure and education.

With the growing volume of officially mediated interaction, and strategic moves from Asia such as the takeover of BorsodChem by Wanhua Industrial Group and Huawei’s decision to make Hungary its major European distribution hub, interchange between the two countries has never been more important. As a result, translation between Hungarian and Asian languages, especially Chinese, is becoming more and more significant in language services for Hungarian businesses. Translation agencies and other concerned parties have certainly seen the growth, both in Hungarian initiatives targeting China, and vice versa.

“The main task of translating and interpreting is to help both parties be able to understand each other,” according to Katalin Polonyi, Head of Office at the Office of Economic Affairs of the Hungarian Consulate General in Shanghai. “Governmental and municipal delegations are coming and going, companies are talking business, trade and investment negotiations are taking place and documents get signed, which most of the time requires interpreters and translators.”

“The main drivers of translation work are usually Hungarian businessmen trying to introduce their products and services to the Chinese market,” noted Adrienn Simon of the Chinese Language Consultancy. “There are also some Chinese companies investing in Hungary.”

“Both directions of business can create need for translation work,” pointed out Richard Mohr, Managing Director of Eastinfo, himself based in Beijing. “However, there are not many big-volume Hungarian investments in China. Also, big investors and companies are more experienced in the international environment: therefore, they can more easily use English as an intermediate language.”

Actual translation between Hungarian and Chinese, though, seems to embrace almost bewildering diversity. “There are all kinds of demand for Chinese translation,” remarks Simon. “In the recent past, I have translated for example manuals (e.g. lithotripters, chain hoists, solar lamps, software), patents, investment brochures, feasibility studies, copies of company registrations, company introductions, contracts, invoices and business correspondence.”

Mohr pointed out an important, and apparently often unrecognized, culture gap between Hungarian and Chinese businesses that can make for mutual misunderstanding no matter how good the translation services are. “A typical Hungarian business dealing with China is a small SME without almost any kind of international business experience, but which has heard about the gold rush in China . . . This creates a perfect basis for misunderstandings or cheating, which often results in business losses.”

Special requirements for interpreting services, in Simon’s view, also shade over into background technical knowledge. Specialization is an increasingly important priority for translation. Gao Jian, China's ambassador to Hungary, recently noted that around 90% of trade exchanges between the two countries is accounted for by the engineering and IT sectors, supplanting more traditional labor-intensive goods.

Fellegi, on his recent visit to China, highlighted Huawei’s investment in Hungary as a perfect example of the need for greater concentration on ICT in Sino-Hungarian commercial relations. This is an area that Hungarian-Chinese translators need to work to develop. “Most of the Chinese interpreters and translators majored in liberal arts,” Simon notes. “In the past it was enough, but in the future we will need real professionals (not just translators, but also Chinese-speaking specialists) in fields like ICT, chemistry, biology, foreign trade, medicine, health care, winemaking, engineering, tourism, management, etc.”

Mohr sees a further set of issues in the use of interpreters in business. “Good interpreters are pricey and busy, but cheap interpreters can sometimes provide unbelievably low-quality work, and can even hurt more than they help. Chinese interpretation is also an important consulting job, since during translating a lot of explanation and correction is needed towards both parties. Hungarian businesspeople in general are not very keen on writing long letters or preparing written materials; they prefer to meet their partners and talk about business. Therefore, there is a more definite need for oral interpretation.”

Translation, like most forms of communication, depends ultimately on what the participants bring to it. “Translation is an important vehicle for the flawless communication between Chinese and Hungarian businesspeople, but just like all other vehicles, it has its rules and requirements,” said Mohr. “The best advice I can give is to try to learn about China as much as possible in advance, be clear about yourself and your aim, do your homework before contacting China, and ask for expert help at the beginning. Because, if any big problem arises, experts will only be able to take part in the compensation process, when substantially more money [might] be spent on getting definitely less results.” (The article originally appeared in the June 3rd issue of the Budapest Business Journal)