Meet TED Translator Cissy Yun: an interview

Cissy Yun
(Photograph courtesy of Cissy Yun.)

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Cissy Yun has been a TED Translator for five years now. She took on her first translation way back in 2013, and she’s since become one of TED’s Simplified Chinese Language Coordinators (LCs). Cissy moved to New York in 2016, where she currently studies media and communications at NYU. Given all of this, we thought it would make for an interesting and enlightening conversation to interview Cissy about her work with TED Translators and the Chinese translation community. Read on below!

What inspired you to join TED Translators?

I should start with my discovery of TED, when I was in seventh grade. The first TED Talk I ever watched was Marco Tempest’s “The magic of truth and lies (and iPods)”, which he delivered at TEDGlobal 2011. I was mesmerized by his use of then-contemporary technology to explain a number of visual illusions we occasionally experience, and from that point on I was hooked on TED Talks. Around the same time, I realized that my fluency in English could enable me to translate and share insightful talks with friends, family and colleagues who aren’t English speakers. And because I believe language should never be a barrier to the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, it was a no-brainer for me to join TED Translators and put my language skills to work translating TED Talks.

Since then, I must say, volunteering as a TED Translator has given me a tremendous amount of joy. I studied Spanish in high school, and when I watched and translated a talk called “Poetry, music and identity”, which Uruguayan musician and poet Jorge Drexler delivered at TED2017, I was brought to tears (it’s my favorite TED Talk by far). Needless to say, I was thrilled to contribute to spreading Drexler’s brilliance with my translation. I’ve had many other similar experiences in my five years as a TED Translator, and they’re what keep me going and why TED Translators has become an inextricable part of my life.

How do you put yourself in the shoes of a TED Speaker in order to best translate a talk?

First, I try to select talks on subjects about which I’m knowledgeable; I’d rather not butcher talks whose topics I’m unfamiliar with. That said, if I’m assigned a translation with a subject that’s out of my bailiwick, I don’t shy away from the research required to translate the talk. Next, I always watch each talk in its entirety before I begin translating it. I think it’s essential to study both a talk’s topic and its speaker in order to home in on the most accurate context for translation.

One of the most challenging translations I’ve completed offers a detailed picture of my process. I translated a five-minute talk about tornado tracking that, despite its brief duration, is packed with distinct nouns and tornado jargon. As a result, I researched the basic science of the storms, including reading several Chinese science journals to find the accurate argot, for seven hours before I started translating the talk; I basically became a mini-expert on tornadoes. It was quite a surreal (in a good way) experience for me, and the satisfaction I felt after I’d completed my translation was beyond words!

What are some of the benefits you’ve derived from being a TED Translator? You’ll be attending TEDSummit 2019 in July?

Having lived in the U.S. for a number of years now, I “breathe” English every day, so my work with TED Translators has increasingly allowed me to keep my Chinese polished. It’s also encouraged me to stay current with the ever-changing language culture back in China so I can make sure I’m using the most accurate, up-to-date vernacular in my translations.

In addition, I was invited to attend “We the Future” last September—an annual collaborative gathering put on by TED, the Skoll Foundation and the UN Foundation, and which takes place during each year’s UN General Assembly and Global Goals Week. “We the Future” was held at TED’s New York headquarters, and its primary focus was how we can build a sustainable future for humanity in the face of global warming and climate change. I had the amazing opportunity to both talk with some of the top experts in this field and connect with LCs and TED Translators from a variety of other language communities. What’s more, after “We the Future” wrapped up, I translated a few of the talks delivered at the event and got to relive a bunch of the day’s highlights.

And yes, I will attend TEDSummit 2019 this July. I’m really looking forward to what’s sure to be an incredible gathering in beautiful Edinburgh, and to meeting new and old friends alike!

Can you share with us some powerful ideas coming out of China? Which kinds of TED Talks have you noticed are popular in China?

I’ve recently seen a lot of TED Talks that deal in environmental issues circulating on Chinese social media—talks about green energy and preserving endangered animals, for example. Also, many teachers in China incorporate TED-Ed videos into their lesson plans; and new university graduates entering the workforce, I’ve noticed, are extremely interested in TED Talks that explore workplace relationships, social etiquette and identity formation.

As for powerful ideas emerging from China, the country has a vibrant TEDx—especially TEDxYouth—community. Tons of middle- and high-schoolers are engaged with TED and regularly delivering very thought-provoking talks that are tailored not just to Chinese audiences, but their respective local cultures and social structures as well. And these talks span a wide array of subjects, from public health to urbanization to gentrification to art and food (to name a few!).  

Lastly, what advice do you have for new TED Translators?

To me, the most magical aspect of being a TED Translator is that you don’t necessarily have to take on difficult tasks alone; the TED Translators community is always within reach if you need help with a translation. So, my advice to new TED Translators would be: Don’t shy away from asking a fellow translator or an LC for a helping hand, if need be. And one more thing: Always remember that translating for TED is so much more than completing a task; it’s a continual learning experience and “therapeutic” craft and a one-of-a-kind opportunity to connect with other people all over the world who share your passion for translation.

2 thoughts on “Meet TED Translator Cissy Yun: an interview

  1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story that inspired me! I hope that my dreams come true as you made.

  2. Thank you Cissy for your sharing! I’m a Chinese girl who also enjoys translating. It’s true that more and more Chinese teacher introduce TED talks to Chinese students. But sometimes students can’t understand them very well. I hope I can help them and also make my dream come true.

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