Bilingual Jobs: How Video Editors Tell Stories In Any Language

An editor at a Chinese television station gives us insights into the art of storytelling in two languages.
bilingual jobs

When you’re watching television, you probably aren’t thinking about the amount of work that goes on behind-the-scenes. There are a huge number of people who play important roles in weaving a narrative that’s compelling, informative and entertaining. One such role is the video editor, who takes raw footage and attempts to craft a story out of it. And when a foreign language element is added into the mix, the job gets even more complicated. Video editing is crucial for ensuring a story reaches a wide audience, no matter what language the viewers speak.

We chatted with James Chan, a video editor for the United States-based Chinese television station SinoVision, about how he uses his knowledge of Mandarin in his day-to-day tasks.

Here’s How It Works

Video editors can work with languages in a variety of ways. They may edit foreign language films and television shows, add subtitles to help others understand the content, or completely remix stories in an entirely new language.

Chan works in SinoVision’s news department, which produces stories from around the United States on topics of interest to Asian Americans. The stories are produced in Mandarin Chinese, but the station also has an English-speaking audience it caters to. That’s where Chan comes in.

When he receives a story in Mandarin, Chan starts by translating it and creating an English-language script. Then he creates a shortened version of the piece for Facebook and Twitter, using on-screen text in English to tell the story.

“I’m basically recycling TV stories presented in Mandarin to a Mandarin-speaking audience, and making them English and for social media,” Chan explained.

Chan has experience with the language because he was born in China and moved to the United States when he was 2 years old. He grew up speaking Mandarin with his mother.

“Wherever I went, she was pretty much the only person I’d speak Mandarin with,” Chan says.

Chan isn’t fluent, but he has a solid understanding of the language, and he knows pinyin, the official Romanization of Chinese characters based on the way they sound, which helps him with transcription and translation. He says his job would be a lot more difficult if he didn’t know Mandarin, because he would have to rely a lot more on guesswork and help from coworkers.

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

Various dialects of Chinese can be vastly different, so Chan sometimes struggles to understand interviews with subjects who speak dialects such as Cantonese or Shanghainese. He says even Mandarin speakers sometimes have such a thick accent that he can’t make out what they’re saying.

According to Chan, another challenging part of the job is dealing with concepts and phrases that don’t translate well, and the use of specific, technical vocabulary he’s not familiar with. But he always finds a way to work around the gaps in language knowledge.

“For really difficult things that I feel could use some more nuance, I’ll ask a coworker to help,” Chan says. “For really general things where I only have to convey a sense of what’s happening, I’ll simplify the descriptions of things.”

Occasionally, Chan will also need to do some subtitling in Mandarin. Translating English into Mandarin can cause some additional challenges. Again, Chan finds a clever workaround.

“Sometimes there are English sayings like idioms and proverbs that would be absurd if translated,” Chan says. “For example, if the English saying was ‘piece of cake,’ I’d just transcribe it as ‘that was easy,’ or something to that effect.”

And The Most Rewarding Part?

For Chan, the perks of the job are threefold: first, he’s improving his Mandarin skills on a daily basis. Second, he’s using those skills to tell stories accurately in English.

“I really enjoy learning Chinese as I go along, plugging in pinyin and learning what characters correspond to,” Chan says. “All in the hopes of accurately retelling or repackaging a story.”

Most of all, Chan enjoys seeing the stories he edited on air and witness the impact they’re making.

“It’s surreal seeing your work on TV,” Chan says. “Stories that people in the community watch and respond to. That’s a trip.”

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