As the world's largest translation exam turns 20, challenges remain for the sector
By Ji Jing  ·  2023-12-25  ·   Source: NO.52 DECEMBER 28, 2023
Senior translators are awarded for their contribution to the China Accreditation Test for Translators and Interpreters at the conference marking the 20th anniversary of the exam in Beijing on December 15 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Zhao Zhonghui, a Chinese-English translator, passed the China Accreditation Test for Translators and Interpreters (CATTI) Level 1, the highest level, in 2013.

Zhao is now director of the translation center of MCC BERIS Engineering and Research Corp., a subsidiary of state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp., based in Qingdao, Shandong Province. In addition to providing translation services for large events such as the Olympic Winter Games 2022 in Beijing, each year, the center also translates nearly 10,000 episodes of Chinese reality TV shows, TV series and films into more than 10 foreign languages, which are exported to more than 190 countries and regions.

After passing the exam, Zhao's career experienced a boost. More than 10 universities hired her as a part-time lecturer to teach translation skills.

Zhao is one of the 240,000 translators and interpreters who have passed CATTI since the exam was launched in 2003.

CATTI has tests in nine languages including English, Japanese, French, Russian, German and Spanish. It is notable that an international version of the exam was launched in 2020, with test sites established in more than 80 countries and regions, including Belarus, Russia, Canada and Thailand. The test has attracted the participation of more than 50,000 foreigners interested in Chinese language and culture as well as Chinese studying or working abroad.

Growing popularity 

"Over the past 20 years, the number of people signing up for the test increased from more than 1,600 in 2003 to nearly 190,000 this year, achieving double-digit growth for 20 consecutive years. To date, 2.2 million people have signed up for the test in total and the test has become the largest translation exam in the world," Huang Yulong, President of the CICG Academy of Translation and Interpretation, said on December 15 in Beijing at a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of CATTI.

Huang added that as the exam becomes more widely recognized, increasing numbers of employers have listed a CATTI certificate as a necessary or preferred qualification for recruitment and CATTI has become an important criterion for judging the competence of translators and interpreters. 

In spite of the exam's rapid expansion over the past two decades, Huang Youyi, Executive Vice President of the Translators Association of China (TAC), said at the conference that a lot more needs to be done to ensure the exam identifies qualified translators that meet the needs of China's international exchange and social and economic development.

He said that the world has a population of 8 billion and China has a population of 1.4 billion. Chinese is the most spoken first language in the world. However, the International Federation of Translators classifies Chinese as a non-common language, suggesting that Chinese is rarely spoken outside of China and that translators are indispensable for telling China's stories to the 6.6 billion people of other nations.

"As the exam is designed to serve the country's need for translators and interpreters, it should not be so difficult that it becomes an exam only for a selected few, nor should its standard be so low that it affects the quality of the translators selected," Huang Youyi said, pointing out the direction for the exam in the future.


Despite the development of the national qualification exam for translators, the translation and language service sector in China still faces many challenges.

The total number of people employed in China's translation and language services sector stood at 6.01 million in 2022, up 11.7 percent from the previous year, according to the 2023 Report on Development of Translation and Language Service Industry released by the TAC in April. However, in spite of the large number, high-caliber translators and interpreters are lacking. 

Zhao told Beijing Review that her center offers an annual salary of 250,000 yuan ($35,044) for college graduates, which was a decent income in Qingdao. The average annual salary for city's urban employees was around 90,000 yuan ($12,616) in 2022, according to the city's statistics bureau. Even so, she found it hard to find excellent translators and interpreters.

She attributed the lack of competent translators to translation education at universities. "Most university teachers know translation theories well, but lack practical experience. They should focus more on training students' practical abilities," she said.

Machine and artificial intelligence (AI) translation have also had an impact on the translation industry.

ChatGPT, an AI chatbot launched by U.S.-based company OpenAI at the end of 2022, has reignited the debate about whether machine and AI translation services will replace human translators. Although the chatbot was not specifically designed for the translation sector, it has strong translation abilities.

Prior to ChatGPT, traditional translation services such as DeepL and Google Translate had been widely applied in the translation industry. As of the end of 2022, 588 translation and language service enterprises in China offered machine or AI translation services, increasing by 113 percent from 2021, according to the TAC report.

Does the wide application of machine and AI translation mean human translators will be replaced?

Liu Junhua, Deputy Director of iFLYTEK AI Research Institute, told Beijing Review although AI translation can swiftly translate from one language into another, it cannot generate reliable translation under all circumstances. For instance, it has difficulty dealing with Internet buzzwords or words that have more than one meaning. 

iFLYTEK, China's leading intelligent speech and AI company, launched its generative language model SparkDesk in May this year.

"New technologies will not replace translators but have created higher requirements for translators' pre- and post-editing abilities," Huang Youyi said at the conference.

Pre-editing involves the use of a set of terminological and stylistic guidelines or rules to prepare the original text before automated translation to improve the raw output quality.

On Diplomacy Talk, a one-on-one interview program on, Huang Youyi said although ChatGPT is trained on a large corpus of text in multiple languages, it has limitations. For instance, he said when one uses Chinese to ask ChatGPT what the Communist Party of China is, the chatbot provides objective answers as it uses Chinese language corpus. However, if one asks the chatbot what the Communist Party of China is in English or other foreign languages, it draws the answer from the corresponding language corpus and the answer reflects foreign views.

"Therefore, if we want machine or AI translation to help us, we need to translate a large amount of Chinese texts in multiple fields such as politics and traditional culture into English in the first place so that the machine or AI translation systems can learn from them and better help us translate from Chinese into foreign languages," he said.

Liu said the combination of machine and human translation represents the future trend and he suggested CATTI introduce tests of examinees' ability to use AI translation tools, such as post-editing abilities. He also suggested the exam should focus on testing examinees' ability to translate texts that machine translation has difficulty translating, because this is what distinguishes human translators from machine translation.

(Print Edition Title: The Trials of Translation) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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