FOUND IN TRANSLATION

Mr Benjamin Foo, 34, is intent on creating
messages that inform, connect and edify

I began my first translation “job”, aged six, at a place where knowing the right language gives you some privileges: the wet market. My grandmother could only speak Hainanese and, during our trips to the market, I ended up translating for her. The bargaining was the most important part.

Did I ever expect to make a living out of this? No, but this is what I do now. I specialise in English and Chinese translations at the Ministry of Communications and Information. I translate and vet info-ads, making them accessible to folks like my grandmother (she has since passed away; she’d have been proud of me).

I speak English, Mandarin, Hainanese and Japanese. I’ve also tried to pick up Malay and French. Each language reminds me of different people. Hainanese reminds me of my grandparents. I speak in Mandarin with my mother, a dancer; and in English, Mandarin and Hainanese with my father, a former businessman. I first encountered the British accent when a great-uncle read The Ugly Duckling to me. He’d worked for the colonial government and it was captivating to hear him speak. I learnt to appreciate the beauty of the Chinese language, thanks to my teachers, particularly Mdm Chiu Chen Choo at Chinese High School. I continue to be fascinated by the diversity and myriad hues of languages.

Travelling also helped me stay alert to how language is used. During the two years I worked in Fukushima, Japan, as an English teacher, I came to appreciate translation as an art and profession, as I did some Japanese-English translation and interpretation for the local government in Iwaki. Later, I returned to Singapore and took a translation course at SIM University before furthering my studies in London with a Master of Arts in Conference Interpretation. I also trained in Beijing for 11 months.

At work now, I stay up-to-date with public policies and work with different agencies. I also translate noteworthy editorials, commentaries and letters into English. It’s important to reflect public sentiments accurately. I really enjoyed working on the SG50 newspaper ads that honoured the contributions of everyday Singaporeans. They told authentic stories. Mdm Leong Yuet Meng, for example, has been making and selling wonton noodles since 1958. Everyone has a story to share.

I’m always thinking about how we can have a better dialogue between the people and public agencies. Translators understand that good communication is about tailoring the message to a specific audience. There’s no single method that works for everyone; the young and the elderly need different images and voices.

In translation work, the devil is in the details. I often come across translations that are well-intended but use expressions that convey messages quite different from the intent. Once, I came across a brochure positioning Singapore as a leading financial centre by describing its competitors as 望尘莫及 (wàng chén mò jí). What that literally means is that someone has fallen so far behind that he or she can only see the dust left by the person in front.

Translations such as this are meant to show how far Singapore has come, but it paints an arrogant rather than flattering image of what we’ve accomplished. A disregard for the sensitivities of language belies our good intentions. This is why we must always express ourselves clearly.

Translation work is very purposeful. It helps people who are unable to understand information in its original language to access it. It’s about making a connection with others; to do this well, we have to speak their language.

In translation work, the devil is in the details. I often come across translations that are well-intended but use expressions that convey messages quite different from the intent. Once, I came across a brochure positioning Singapore as a leading financial centre by describing its competitors as 望尘莫及 (wàng chén mò jí). What that literally means is that someone has fallen so far behind that he or she can only see the dust left by the person in front.

Translations such as this are meant to show how far Singapore has come, but it paints an arrogant rather than flattering image of what we’ve accomplished. A disregard for the sensitivities of language belies our good intentions. This is why we must always express ourselves clearly.

Translation work is very purposeful. It helps people who are unable to understand information in its original language to access it. It’s about making a connection with others; to do this well, we have to speak their language.