In Episode Six of the Translate By Humans Podcast, we get up-close and personal with our charming interpreter from China specialising in the English – Mandarin language pair and having expertise in all major industries.
Get with us on this journey where we unravel Zhuoyue Kong’s life as an interpreter and everything she’s gathered over years of experience in the localisation industry.
Hello everyone. Welcome to the Translate By Humans Podcast, where I – Shifa Miyaji – talk to colleagues, linguists, and experts about their lives, cultural experiences, and professions.
In the last few episodes, we have talked to some brilliant linguists who introduced us to their cultures and gave us a peek into their daily lives, the kind of work they do, their specialisations and the advice they would like to give to people entering this field.
In the recent episode, we got into a conversation with the CEO of Translate By Humans on being a women entrepreneur and how she keeps her head high in a male-dominated corporate world.
Joining us on our podcast today is Zhuoyue Kong. She’s a multilingual interpreter from China, and she has worked for a fascinating array of industries and projects. We can’t wait for you to meet her.
Hi Zhuoyue, thank you for tuning in with us today.
Thank you, Shifa. It’s my pleasure to be here today. Hi everyone!
I am super excited to be chatting with you today. For those unfamiliar with your works, could you please give a brief intro about yourself to get us started?
Yes, I would love to. Hi everyone. This is Zhuoyue. I’m a freelancing conference interpreter and translator in English and Mandarin pair.
I was born in Xi’an, one of the most popular Asian capital cities in China and the city is known for its love for noodles.
I went to the states for my high school and college education. Then spent two years working in Australia. I specialise in simultaneous and consecutive interpretation for fields like business, education, art, music and IT. I’m also a project manager for an Australian real estate company and the market research moderator.
That's impressive. I am curious to know about how you got involved in language and linguistics and made your way to being an interpreter.
I guess it was a constant desire to communicate that inspired me to start my career as an interpreter and translator. So when I was a senior in high school, I was the kid who interpreted for my parents during school meetings. During college, I volunteered to translate novels, and I loved, and learnt Japanese because I wanted to be able to communicate with the locals when I was in Japan.
Doing translation and interpretation was a part of my job, but I didn’t think of myself as a linguist back then. During the pandemic, I saw a job post about becoming a freelancing translator, so I thought I could put my younger skills into good use.
I signed up for some interpreting and translating courses like NAATI and the medical certification program. I also joined some translators’ groups, and through these groups, I connected with some translation companies and started collaborating with them. So that’s how I started my career as a freelancing translator and interpreter.
That's great. I mean, it's great to know that you followed your passion, and on that trajectory, you managed to achieve so much. I would like to know about the language industry in China. How do people react when you tell them that you're an interpreter?
So in China, the translation industry is quite well known because people see it on the news. When people do press conferences, they see an interpreter standing alongside the speaker, so when I tell people I am an interpreter, their first reaction is – ‘Your English must be really good’.
So is it a common opinion that being bilingual or multilingual qualifies you to be an interpreter? Isn't it a lot of skills, experience and expertise?
Yes. I guess that’s what people usually think. If you’re fluent in English and you’re fluent in another language, your native language, you must be a good interpreter.
But the truth is far from that because being an interpreter is much more about just being able to speak several languages.
As my language instructor, Luisa, once said – ‘The prerequisite for being a good interpreter is that you excel in both languages. So being bilingual should be a given. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically a good interpreter because you need to be able to multitask and prepare for each assignment since they’re always different’.
And you can’t possibly know every jargon and expression for all industries.
Yes, I couldn't agree more. So you also mentioned that you are a part of many recognised organisations for translators and interpreters. Can you give us a brief about your association with them?
Yes. Sure. I’m a member of the American Translators Association (ATA).
I joined them last year, and I am in the Chinese translators sub-division. They have online groups and virtual meetups. They also offer an ATA certification test for the translators to take if you’re interested. I feel it’s really good to connect with colleagues and learn how the industry operates in South America.
And I also got to know a colleague who is also based in Xi’an, so it opened my eyes to more opportunities and gave me more chances to do networking.
So when we talk about networking, I am sure it's really important for you. Does talking to other language industry professionals help you navigate it better?
Yes, it was absolutely necessary for me to build a support system within the industry because when starting out, I wasn’t a translation or interpretation major. It felt like a one-woman battle as I didn’t know any mentors, interpreters, or colleagues. After several months, I connected with some colleagues through online classes and work assignments and started talking with them.
Many of those colleagues are experienced, and some of them are even course instructors. So from those conversations, I learned so much about setting up a virtual booth and how the industry operates.
I feel like this is a very underrated point because all the linguists we interview on our podcast focus on one common thing- the power of networking. That, and also the ups and downs of the freelance lifestyle. So how does that work out for you?
First, I found it really hard to manage my own schedule because I work from my home, and I live with my parents and because they think I’m home so they can talk to me whenever they want. But it’s really distracting, especially when I’m preparing for my assignments or when I’m in a meeting.
So we developed a system just using a whiteboard. My mom asked me to put the board outside my door; if I’m working, I should write Do Not Disturb so they don’t come in.
I actually kind of like the whiteboard idea! 😀
Haha yes. 😀
I guess, after a while, I learned how to balance my work and started doing my own finances and managed my working hours to limit them to a reasonable amount because I wanted to take whatever assignments I could get. And sometimes, that would stretch me out.
And, it wasn’t really good for my, um……
Aaah, yes! It wasn’t really good for my work-life balance. So I started learning my pace and saying NO to the assignments with ridiculous working hours.
That sounds fascinating. However, I can see that your work is really intensive on most days, right?
Yes. It depends on whether I have scheduled meetings or am working on translation assignments.
So how do you manage when things start getting tight?
So I started to limit my daily work time to not more than two meetings per day because, after two or more meetings, my brain stops functioning. And since I sit in front of my computer a lot, I try to exercise daily. So I rotate between Pilates, gym and boxing. And sometimes, I would go out and walk around the city. Other than that, I read a lot, which helps me relax.
Also, I started to play switch games during the pandemic.
So, these games are animal crossing and, um, Just Dance, Ring.. but sometimes the game can get really intense.
Okay. So you start them to relax, but then they have the opposite effect?
Yes. I don’t know if you know animal crossing, but you need to build a virtual island, and then you need to build houses for animals, and you need to grow flowers. And the flower has different colour combinations, and you need to water them every day. Yes, I guess it started to stress me a lot after a while!
That's interesting. So, talking about being an interpreter, what is the most challenging aspect?
I think the need to constantly prepare for new topics and areas that I’m not familiar with. Sometimes it could really be a challenge because when preparing, I need to put a lot of time into researching and reading to equip myself with the new terms and glossaries. The other part of the challenge I have is- discourse management.
So, for example, when in a business meeting, sometimes as an interpreter, I can’t control the pacing of the speakers. And most of the time, these meetings I am doing are done virtually. So it’s hard for the speakers to adjust their pace because they can’t see the audience’s reaction to adjust their pace. Clients who haven’t worked with an interpreter tend to talk very fast or don’t stop for a long time. So, to solve that problem, before the meeting starts, I always say my intro and warn the clients that I may interrupt the speaker if they talk too long or if I need any clarification from them.
That sounds like a great idea, though. So with all your experience in the language industry and the milestones you've achieved, what's been the most memorable project you've worked on?
I can think of two projects.
One is a female empowerment workshop series. So, I did three workshops with Miss CEO and a Stanford instructor called Nita Kaushal. And the workshop itself was about how women can excel in business settings and how to find mentors. It was really helpful because, at that point, I was starting out as an interpreter, so I used a lot of tricks from the workshop to build myself up in the industry.
And the other one – I was in an international workshop hosted in Beijing that lasted for two weeks. And it was funny because first, I joined as a student upon invitation from my translation company, and the workshop was in English. We had a different instructor each day to deliver the notes.
On the second day, there was a professor who had a hard time using English. Because his primary instructing language was Chinese, he paused in the middle and asked if anyone could help him deliver the speech in English. And I jumped right in. Ever since that, I became the go-to interpreter for that workshop for two weeks.
So I guess what I learnt is – ‘just try to put yourself out there’. And so people will just come to you to ask for you to do the interpretation. It was a good point for me while starting out as an interpreter.
Wow, yes, that sounds great.
Talking about projects you've enjoyed, have you ever received any peculiar requests from your clients?
Yes. When I was starting out, I had a client who reached out to me, and they wanted to attend an online psychology training webinar. The webinar was hosted in the states, and the time difference between China and the states is about 12 hours.
So the five-day assignment would be from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM in China time. And the client wanted me to do simultaneous interpretation for the entire five-day gig, which would be six hours per day each day. So first, I told the client that it wasn’t even possible for a single interpreter to interpret for that long.
And then the client said, I could just summarise for them because they know some English and would record the session. Before the webinar, we worked everything out, and I charged the client for a deposit since it was a big commitment. But during the tech meeting, the host was extending some pleasantries, and the client didn’t speak a word of English, and afterwards…
Yes, I know!
The organisers sent the client an email saying they didn’t realise that the language gap was that huge and since the organiser hadn’t worked with an interpreter before and didn’t feel comfortable using an interpreter for the sessions because they thought the sessions were extremely fast-paced and emotional.
So they sent out an email saying that they would not have the client attending the workshop because of the language barrier, which was huge.
So I refunded all the deposit to the client, but the tech meeting was at 3:00 in the morning. So I did spend a day and a night working with the client.
When expectations are not communicated properly, it can create many problems. I'm also curious to know about how and if the pandemic caused significant changes to your profession and life, in general.
Yes. So I live in Xi’an, and our city was under lockdown from last year, December, to this year, January. So we couldn’t go out of our apartments, and it was a common occurrence for us to do the Nucleic Acid test daily.
And since all my assignments were remote, I had to inform my clients that I may need to take a short two-minute break to do the Nucleic Acid test, and my clients were very understanding.
I think COVID changed not only the translation and interpretation industry but all the industries and how they work since many people are embracing the hybrid work model now. And I see a boom in remote interpretation platforms like Zoom and Kudo, and I think the hybrid model gave me more chances to do interpretation assignments because I can reach out to clients across the world. And I think the hybrid model will be here to stay.
Yeah. That sounds like it's the future. Like when we talk about telemedicine, it wasn't that popular before COVID, but now it's the new normal. So, you told me that you moved from China to the US for your further studies, and then during COVID, you returned home?
Yes. So I went to the states when I was 15 years old, stayed in the United States for eight years, then in Australia for two years, and then came back to China after a decade of spending my time overseas.
I'm sure you must have experienced a lot of cultural changes.
Um, when I started my high school in the states, it was a completely different educational system. So the shock was how the class operates. Also, the class size – we had 10 classmates in my high school and then back in China, I had about 60 classmates. So, I definitely got more attention from the teacher because the class size was smaller and cultural-wise, I guess it’s completely different from an Asian country and The States. Because I went to the United States in such a young age, when I came back to China, I had a different mindset, with all of my family members or peers. So, we had to adjust our views on many topics.
I think Asian cultures have a more close-knit community. And there is comparatively a lesser scope of, you know, personal space here when it comes to our families and within our society. Did you feel like that?
Yes, because, when I was overseas, I lived mostly by myself, and when I went back to China, now I live with my family.
And, so our personal space is very little to non-existent. So we have agreed on how much personal space I can get while I’m working or while I’m not working. So I guess that happens when we have family members who are well-versed in both Asian and Western cultures.
Yes, talking about cultures and languages makes me wonder if there's any other language you'd like to learn or any new cultures that fascinate you.
Yes. Although I am a Mandarin and English pair interpreter, I’ve always loved the Japanese culture. So as a kid, I grew up watching Japanese anime, like Naruto.
And when I got older, I got into J-drama and J-pop, so I took some Japanese lessons and would love to freshen up my Japanese skills further.
I want to visit Thailand because I recently worked with a client on traditional Thai dance. And it was fascinating, and I want to visit there. Also, I know Thailand just opened up for tourism, so I think, yeah, maybe in the future, I might visit it.
That's really cool. With respect to your work, are there any new chapters that you're looking forward to, or perhaps any new industries that you're looking to master?
I want to get a certificate for NAATI, which is Australian standard. So when I go to Australia, I can work there as an interpreter as well. And as for industries, I want to get more in-depth into the medical industry.
Because, as you said, the medical industry is getting bigger and bigger, but it’s a slow-going process as there are so many medical terms to learn and I need to memorise all of them.
What are some tools and devices that you absolutely can't do without?
I think hardware-wise, I always have two pairs of headphones at hand just, to be prepared because sometimes one pair of headphones might fail during the meeting.
And I also have two monitors to use during meetings. So one is just for the meeting interface. And as there is a for me to look up dictionary, documents. And as for online tools, I think machine translation tools help me go through a mass amount of materials for conferences, just to get familiar with the terms.
And, the other helpful app might be a time zone converter because I deal with many clients from different time zones, and I must get the meeting time right.
And, what are your opinions about machine translation vs. human translation?
I know we have machine translation apps and AI interpatient apps. Still, I only use them as an aid because, for machine translations, they can’t have the professional knowledge that an interpreter or translator may have in a certain field.
That's true. Thank you so much for chatting with us, Zhuoyue, and sharing snippets of your work, culture and life's experiences. I hope you had a good time because I definitely enjoyed our chat.
Thank you for having me, Shifa.
Before I let you go, I have one last question - what are your thoughts about your journey with Translate By Humans?
I started to work with Translate by Humans in October last year. I think it was about a conference assignment. The project manager (Krupa) – she’s always responsive to my questions, and provides materials to help me prepare. And our exchanges are always upfront. I think the process is very formal.
And we had all the PO and finance and briefings. And overall, I have a similar experience with your company and shout-out to Krupa if you’re listening!
Thank you. Well, she loves you too!
Thank you so much for taking your time from your work hours. I'm really glad that we had a chance to connect.
Thank you, Shifa, for having me here, and I hope we talk soon.