DURING a Secondary 1 class at Chung Cheng High (Main) one Wednesday afternoon, Ms Liam Hsiao Wen asks the 32 students how to say starfish in Mandarin.
'Xin yu,' some shout, triggering a burst of giggles.
'That's direct translation,' admonishes Ms Liam, 28, as xing means star, and yu means fish. The correct term is hai xing, which means, literally, sea star.
Since the start of the semester, these students have been learning the finer points of translation for an hour a week.
Under the school's Chinese Studies programme, students take extra courses in Chinese culture and language, including translation.
Chung Cheng is one of half a dozen or so schools which have introduced translation courses in English and Chinese in the last three years. Others include those offering the Bicultural Studies Programme, such as Dunman High or River Valley High.
It is not just secondary schools that are interested.
With Singapore eyeing a slice of the estimated $20 billion global pie in translation services, tertiary institutions have come up with diploma and even degree programmes in translation, a much neglected field here.
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) started a graduate diploma in translation in Chinese and English two years ago to help raise professional standards in the field.
So far, the course has been getting an average of 50 applicants and takes in about 20 students a year.
In July, UniSIM, or the Singapore Institute of Management University, started the first ever degree programme in translation here.
About 100 students applied to the UniSIM course, of whom 59 were enrolled. They hail from all walks of life, and include interpreters from the Supreme Court, teachers, engineers, businessmen and preschool principals.
PIONEERS: Mr Adam Ong, 70, and Ms Julie Chong, 32, are among the first batch of students in UniSIM's translation degree course. Photo/ ASHLEIGH SIM
One of them is senior systems specialist Julie Chong, 32, who decided to sign up for the course as she does a lot of translation work as a volunteer at the Handicapped Welfare Association.
'I help to do translation work. That's when I found my skill set not up to mark,' she said, adding that she found it hard to translate certain technical medical terms from English to Chinese.
'When you are working, you are using English most of the time. You don't know what it should be in Chinese,' she said.
For Mr Adam Ong, 70, a grandfather of six, the course was a perfect fit as he had always been interested in languages.
The former industrial engineering manager had studied both English and Chinese as a student. He also speaks Malay and French.
Mr Ong, now a part-time property agent, said he is keen to start a new career in translation and hoped employers would give him a chance.
'Hopefully, I can get into my third career in life,' said Mr Ong, whose wife is a retired Chinese Language teacher.
The new interest in translation courses is music to the ears of veteran interpreter and translator Lee Seng Giap, one of only two translators in Singapore admitted to the Geneva-based International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC).
This is a prestigious post for only the cream of the crop, and has about 2,800 members.
For too long, there has been little avenue for professional training for translators or interpreters, he said.
'The assumption that the knowledge of two languages will make one a translator or interpreter is a myth and that myth has to be debunked.'
What qualifies a person as a 'professional translator'?
Knowledge of two languages is just the beginning - just as having two hands is the basic requirement for playing the piano, he added.
Translation is both a craft and art, he said, and interpretation in particular calls for quick thinking and knowledge of a wide range of subjects.
'Another misconception is that translation is a simple, mechanical process, with a word for word relation between two languages,' said UniSIM provost Professor Tsui Kai Chong.
Instead, translators navigate two languages and mind frames, which can be very 'intricate and arduous work'.
The most recent estimate two years ago found that there were about 1,000 translators here, including part-time and freelance ones.
Most translate from English to Chinese, or vice-versa, with a minority of them translating other languages. Their qualifications range from O levels to postgraduate degrees.
Some are working full-time in the civil service, while others are doing it part-time to supplement their incomes.
Prof Tsui said that while a handful of them were very skilful in their craft, there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to translation standards.
While Singapore translators are better at translating from Chinese to English compared to their peers in China, the reverse is also true.
He said that 'the standard of translation and interpretation from English to Chinese is deteriorating and this is worrying'.
Indeed in the class at Chung Cheng, a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school with a strong Chinese tradition, students were noticeably more confident in translating from Chinese to English than vice-versa.
There are many students who are not proficient in either language, noted Chung Cheng's Ms Liam.
'One of the objectives is to nurture students to become bilingual and make them improve in both languages.'
It is also to sensitise them to the link between the two languages and help them communicate better, she added.
What is heartening is that there has been greater awareness of the importance of translation and interpretation in the last two years.
With increased trade and exchanges between Singapore and other parts of the world, especially China, the prospects for the industry are bright.
Said Associate Professor Helena Gao, from NTU: 'Highly qualified translators and interpreters should be able to find good job opportunities both within and outside the country.'
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