Polyglot in Action

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. – Steve Jobs

The dots, they are connecting in my life. When I decided to move to Shanghai a little over a month ago, I realized it is time to cash in on my Mandarin skill. So, I found a freelance gig as a Content Editor for an online Chinese language learning platform, FluentU. The site allows Chinese learners to learn by watching videos, and provides extensive Chinese caption complete with definitions, example sentences, etc. It’s a really great idea.  When I was trying to master French, I was watching all of my favorite TV shows (ahem, Sex and the City) en français with French subtitles. It’s a pretty effective way to gain fluency, being able to simultaneously hear the words being said and see them in print.

My role as a Content Editor is exactly that, to edit the content, to make sure the English translation makes sense, to make sure the definitions and the example sentences actually help the learners understand the meaning of words and phrases. I first thought about being a translator back in 2009, but the idea didn’t expand into much of anything.  I was always afraid that my written Chinese and French wouldn’t be good enough. French is one thing, but Chinese is my mother tongue. Working for FluentU has proved that language is like riding a bike. You never really forget it, it just takes a bit of practice to grease the wheels again.

It has been a lot of fun working on videos that range from news clips, to movie previews, to my favorite – music videos. I have been pleasantly surprised at my own command of Chinese. Translation is tricky. It requires really mastering two languages to make sure things don’t sound… off. I’m sure you’ve all read those funny English in fortune cookies (which, by the way, are NOT Chinese, it’s American-Chinese). The music video is especially fun, because the lyrics are typically very poetic, and it’s always interesting to make them sound colloquially correct in English. Being a translator is also a great opportunity to bridge two cultures. You can never truly understand a culture until you learn its language, and you can never truly bridge two cultures until you can go back and forth between the two languages.

I have forgotten my love for the Chinese language. As a child, I read beyond my years. The other day, while working on some translation, I came across a favorite poem of mine, 再别康桥 (Goodbye Again, Cambridge). This was big step in reconnecting with my roots. I had forgotten about this poem, and my love for Chinese literature. Coincidentally, the poet actually spent time both at Columbia & the LSE in the 1920’s. Back then, I didn’t realize this poem is about Cambridge in England, which since have become one of my favorite places! Here is the poem in both Chinese and English. You can see how much wordier the English language is, and how unfair Twitter is in Chinese!

輕輕的我走了, 正如我輕輕的來; 我輕輕的招手, 作別西天的雲彩。 那河畔的金柳, 是夕陽中的新娘; 波光裡的艷影, 在我的心頭蕩漾。 軟泥上的青荇, 油油的在水底招搖; 在康河的柔波裡, 我甘心做一條水草! 那榆蔭下的一潭, 不是清泉,是天上虹; 揉碎在浮藻間, 沉澱著彩虹似的夢。 尋夢?撐一支長篙, 向青草更青處漫溯; 滿載一船星輝, 在星輝斑斕裡放歌。 但我不能放歌, 悄悄是別離的笙簫; 夏蟲也為我沉默, 沉默是今晚的康橋! 悄悄的我走了, 正如我悄悄的來; 我揮一揮衣袖, 不帶走一片雲彩。

Very quietly I take my leave, as quietly as I came here; Quietly I wave good-bye, to the rosy clouds in the western sky. The golden willows by the riverside, are young brides in the setting sun; Their reflections on the shimmering waves, always linger in the depth of my heart. The floatingheart growing in the sludge, sways leisurely under the water; In the gentle waves of Cambridge, I would be a water plant! That pool under the shade of elm trees, holds not water but the rainbow from the sky; Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds, is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream. To seek a dream? Just to pole a boat upstream, to where the green grass is more verdant; Or to have the boat fully loaded with starlight, and sing aloud in the splendour of starlight. But I cannot sing aloud, quietness is my farewell music; Even summer insects keep silence for me, silent is Cambridge tonight! Very quietly I take my leave, as quietly as I came here; Gently I flick my sleeves, not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away.