TED To China: An Inside View

Today, we’re featuring a guest piece by Tony Yet, a Chinese student, who is helping lead an effort to bring TEDTalks to China. This is part of a larger TED Open Translation Project, which wants to move  TEDTalks “beyond the English-speaking world by offering subtitles, time-coded transcripts and the ability for any talk to be translated by volunteers worldwide.” Tony speaks very eloquently about how he got involved with this project and what he hopes to achieve, and how the connections between East and West can hopefully become closer. Take it away Tony and check out his web site TEDtoChina

I have been watching TEDTalks for nearly three years. I originally found them by serendipity on iTunes. The very first few talks (notably from Al Gore, David Pogue and Sir Ken Robinson) grabbed me like a magnet, and I couldn’t resist watching them again and again. There were quite a few sentences and phrases in each of these talks that fell on a deaf ear for me, as I couldn’t quite understand some slang English. I worked with the TED videos at home with a computer and a notebook. And yes, I’ve got to admit that I am taking each TED screening as a valuable learning experience, and they did help me in broadening my horizons and enriching my understanding of the world.

Then, in the summer of 2008, I decided that merely watching was not enough, at least not enough in coming to a full understanding of the talks, as many of the meanings are hidden in the semantics. Thus I embarked upon a project to translate TEDTalks into Chinese. I started with some familiar ones, like Erin McKean’s talk on redefining dictionaries, and Alex Steffen’s talk on a bright green future. It proved to be a mind-enriching experience. Before making any attempt to translate a talk, I would probe into the depth of the background of the speaker and relevant concepts and ideas. This was a great learning process. It helped me build up a clear picture of the talk and its significance, and also reshape my understanding of many ideas across the whole spectrum of arts and science.

As I was pushing forward with my endeavor, I found that it would be better if we can have more people joining in this joyful journey of intellectual mining through translation. So I posted the message on a community website for translators. Then it started to get kicked off. People jumped in the boat and offered help. It was a most gratifying experience to know that your efforts in spreading the idea of TED generated so much energy and so rich a welcoming response.

We then decided to run a dedicated fan site around the idea of TED, and we called it TEDtoChina. The idea is to bring the most mind-blowing talks and inspirations to Chinese readers through the simple act of translation. The site went online in November 2008. It is run by the community and loved by the community. We hope that we can do some translations from Chinese to English, and to bring some of the dynamics of contemporary China to the rest of the world by showing its local innovations and stories. This will be a long-term project, and we hope that through these efforts, a bridge of understanding between the east and the west can be created, and a global reservoir of shared knowledge and insights can also be made possible.

Some of the TEDTalks have huge resonance with the Chinese people, most notable among which are Dave Eggers’ talk on one-on-one tutoring, Jose Abreu’s talk on music education, and Sugata Mitra’s talk on the possible future of “outdoctrination”. You might have noticed that all of these videos are related to the theme of education. Then you are right. TEDtoChina is more of an initiative to bring the insights and ideas from the US to China, and not a mere translation effort. In the past, great ideas were either blocked or it took a long time for these ideas to arrive and take root in China. Now, with the help of Internet, this process can be shortened, with efforts from social translation. It is hoped that people can come to a clearer understanding of the whole picture by taking in more than one unified channel of opinion, and TED is just the perfect example of this.

Tony Yet is a native of China. He speaks Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, English, German, and a little bit of French. He is currently a senior student majoring in English language and literature in Sun Yat-sen University. He lives in the coastal city of Guangzhou.



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  1. Amanda Coolidge says . . . | June 2, 2009 / 8:32 am

    Tony- great work and congrats on getting such a fabulous initiative going.

  2. Nini says . . . | January 23, 2012 / 9:28 pm

    Your efforts are brilliant and inspiring.

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