Found in Translation

When we got this in our inbox from contributing editor Daisann McLane, we were just as smitten as she was…

Two weeks ago, an email from an unfamiliar address showed up in my box with an eye-catching header: “From Michael Zhang, Translator of Many of Your Articles.”

I opened the email excitedly. This was a mystery I’ve been puzzling over for more than two years. National Geographic Traveler has a partner in mainland China called Trends—they put out a Chinese-language version of our magazine that has become one of the most widely-read travel magazines on the mainland.

“My wife and I have never been outside of mainland China,” Michael wrote. “But we are coming down to Hong Kong for a few days on vacation, and it would be wonderful to meet the person whose travelogues I have been translating all these years.”

Here in Hong Kong, I’m always thrilled when I see NG Traveler-Trends on the newsstand right next to the English-language edition. It reminds me that the words I write every month in the “Real Travel” column reach a more diverse readership than I can even imagine.

And the Chinese character headlines on the cover of this sister Traveler also brings home the reality that very soon, the largest percentage of the world’s tourists are going to be from China. The future of tourism, sustainable and otherwise, is going to be shaped by this nation of new travelers.

As any writer would, I have been daydreaming for a long time about who might be sitting up in Beijing, huddled over my copy, trying to wrestle my English phrases into something that makes sense in Chinese.

(I have been studying Chinese for a couple of years, and let me tell you, it is really, really hard to get these two very different languages to “work” together without a lot of hard effort).

So I was overjoyed to hear, at last, from “Michael Zhang, Translator of Many of Your Articles” and I invited him to come have lunch when he got to Hong Kong.

Michael and his wife Riya Wong (who also works at Trends) met me for a lunch of tasty Shanghainese dumplings at Crystal Jade Palace in Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong. Right off the bat, I could tell these guys were “Real Travelers”—they were staying nearby at a guesthouse in the (in)famous Chungking Mansions, the location for one of Wong Kar Wai’s films, Chungking Express. We Hong Kongers think the Mansions are a little raffish and scary, but Michael assured me his guesthouse was not only thrifty, but clean and comfortable.

Then Michael asked me for suggestions about what he and his wife should eat in Hong Kong. I started into the litany of “musts”: steamed milk custard at Yee Shun Milk Company, roast pork and goose at a barbecue restaurant, Hong Kong noodles in Causeway Bay…

“We already did all those things yesterday,” Michael said, grinning.

Like I said, these guys are real travelers.

Michael’s English is beautiful, fluent and unaccented. (If I can ever get to that level of fluency in Chinese, I will be ready to retire). He told me that he learned English at university—he’s had American and Canadian teachers, but never lived in an English-speaking country. And he shared with me his translation technique: “When I sit down to translate your column, before I do anything else I try to imagine that I am you, visiting all these wonderful places. And then the words start to come…”

‘We Chinese are just beginning to go out and explore the rest of the world. That’s why magazines like NG Traveler-Trends have become so popular. Even if they don’t have enough money yet to travel abroad, through the magazine, Chinese can imagine the places where they might like to go. They can see the world through your eyes.”

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And yours, too, Michael. Thank you so very much.

Daisann McLane writes the Real Travel column in Traveler magazine each month.

Photos: Daisann McLane

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