Zhengyang Wang '14 to Translate Commencement into Mandarin

by Ryan Dougherty
The Mandarin translation from Zhengyang Wang ’14 and Chi Zhang ’15 will be available to commencement guests and, via Web stream, people around the world.
Mandarin translation from Zhengyang Wang ’14 and Chi Zhang ’15 will be available for commencement guests and, via livestream, people around the world.

For Zhengyang Wang '14, the providing of simultaneous translation of commencement into Mandarin and Spanish "pays tribute to the diversity on which the Swarthmore community thrives."

"Some parents are flying from the other side of the planet to join this commencement," says the philosophy and biology major from southwest China. "We'd better make sure they feel at home here."

Wang's parents will be among those special guests. The couple is making their first visit to the U.S. to see their son graduate with honors. But before Wang receives his diploma, he'll be stationed on the third floor of the Lang Performing Arts Center, wearing headphones and translating the words of the ceremony's speakers into Mandarin.

"I feel tempted to throw in some Sichuan dialects for [my parents]," Wang says. "This is my chance to reverse the scene and give them a good talk."

One of Wang's honors concentrations was philosophy of language and he wants to put what he learned into practice. But he also sees the translation as a chance to overcome linguistic barriers and "send out an embracing message" to potential students and their families around the world.

"Fear and misunderstanding arise when people are not able to communicate," says Wang, a 2014 Watson Fellow. "My job as a translator is to dissipate that fear, delivering core values beyond language."

Wang and fellow Mandarin transcriber Chi Zhang '15, a mathematics and economics major from south-central China, received scripts for the commencement speeches a few days before the ceremony. They put as much as they could onto paper ahead of time but knew they'd also have to work on the fly.

"Speakers will change their speech at the last minute, or make ad-lib comments to break the ice," says Wang. "That's delightful for the audience, but strenuous for the translator.

"The translator has to first understand the joke, then search his own lexicon and hopefully find corresponding words," he adds, "then connect them in a comparable syntactic formation to deliver the liveliness, elegance, subtlety, and innuendo of the original remark, and accomplish this all in seconds, before the cheerful moment is gone."

Anyone interested in hearing the ceremony in Spanish or Mandarin can don headsets and listen at the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater as well as the two indoor telecasts on campus. The translations will be available to people around the world as well through the College's livestream, beginning at 10 a.m.

In the meantime, Wang will be worrying about translating idioms, jokes, historical references, and, "worst of all," puns.

"My job would be easy if everyone sings 'Kumbaya' and bombards the amphitheater with clichés," he says. "But I know that's not going to happen."