How to Hire a Translator in Mongolia — 3 Times (incomplete)

[disclaimer: since this post has already become the top google hit for “how to find a translator in Mongolia” I wanted to add a quick note to those actually looking for advice in this matter. Do some networking; hook up with the expat community, or local institutions (hit some of the cafés, make some friends). Find out who other people have already worked with. Meet and chat with the prospects. Then, if/when you decide (this is the most important point): GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. and make sure you work out all the details in advance. Especially if your work involves travel to the countryside–should your translator decide they don’t quite like the terms, and want to renegotiate, you won’t have much ground to stand on if you’re halfway to nowheresville, broken down on the side of some (non)-road; if you know what I mean. Not that that’s likely to happen. Mongolians are pretty friendly people. But better safe than sorry. Now, the following is a piece of creative nonfiction regarding a particularly colorful experience I had with translators during my research there.]

First, ask your host institution–they will have a list compiled by the language teachers (who are university grads in their twenties with decent English). A few names will be starred, one of whom is from the town where you plan to do your research. You lay claim to her services.

You meet the prospective translator outside the Wrestling Palace, not far from your student hostel.

Find somewhere to chat. Preferably a grimy _buuz_ emporium Realize she has flawless English, with a British accent! Talk for ages about your research ideas, and get lots of helpful suggestions. Hire her on the spot, and setup a preliminary itinerary and departure date.

Spend a couple days travelling around the factory district where you’ll get a random _in_ at a small skin processing factory named after Chicago, Illinois.

Change your trip destination to somewhere more accessible. Set an itinerary and date of departure.

Meet with your academic director, who will ask you casually about your translator arrangements. Mention her name, and feel uneasy when the AD does a double take, then laughs fiendishly as she hints at some past drama (she worked for the program last semester as a language teacher, and “wasn’t asked to come back”). The pit in your gut gains mass and shape. She assures you that maybe things will be different–since things went smoothly when she was hired by a student for his research…

Decide to take the risk given what you’ve seen of her character so far. Or rather, that you’re leaving in two days and have no other options. You push from your mind the ever-surfacing thought that her english is just a little too good to be working for some college student for $20 a day, let alone working as a Mongolian language teacher at SIT. She could land a real translation job, without having to travel around the countryside.

Breach the subject casually, and receive a surprised and innocent response. _She doesn’t know how she could think so highly of your AD, yet still be the target of such animosity… *sigh*_

Leave the subject to rest.

The next day, meet as usual, by the Wrestling Palace–and hail a car (in Mongolia, every car is a taxi). You are headed to the skin markets outside the city to find a ride to the countryside, and gather more info. You are leaving in two days and are nervous. As a car pulls over, your translator asks you to _Guess what?_ You guess, _What?_ She anticlimactically informs you that _she’s leaving for Beijing in the morning._

Laugh, and interrogate her face for signs of a joke. Feel numb, and laugh, cause _what else can you do?_

She mentions her venture into the _party business_. She organizes New Years parties in the city. Her husband is in China getting supplies.

_Remember the supplies her husband was bringing back?_ Well, turns out they’re stuck at the border, mired in red tape, and she has family strings to pull that might help.

Stare at her dumbly, and continue to hope this is all a sick joke. _You really had me there, for a second!_ You will say.

She reassures you that _Everything will be fine_ since she talked to a friend and past co-worker who is willing to take over. She reassures you that the friend’s English is good, _Better than her own!_

Nod gravely, your eyes are now glazed with cynical skepticism. You have no choice _Can she meet soon? As in, tonight? As in, after you get back from the market?_

Meet at a _Khaan Buuz_ (_Mongolian National Fast Food_), and talk about your research and plans for travel. Feel the pit grow larger as you realize the new translator’s English is far from better, or even comparable. And any rapport you had with the first translator is now replaced with awkward distance.

Decide to leave a day later. You have two days to find a ride. Head to the market, and spend the day mostly chatting with the new translator about life and politics. Realize that maybe your good-natured teasing is lost on her; reminisce about your two days with the version 1.

Head to the market again the next day, with the new translator. At some point she mentions that her schedule has changed. _She totally forgot when she agreed at first_ but she has a wedding to go to. A wedding that falls directly in the middle of your research trip, as you transition from countryside town to countryside city. Laugh some more.

Decide to just roll with things, since… well, you have no choice. Figure you can find a translator in the city.

On your way back to the city on the second day, she will try to re-negotiate her terms, asking for more money. Fight the anger that wells up, and try to explain calmly why you feel this is ridiculous, for her to re-negotiate one days before leaving on a two week research trip. And she’s going to a wedding.

After your week in the countryside–during which you simultaneously try to conduct interviews through confused translation, and try to win over your stand-offish translator, say that _you hope she had some fun, that you enjoyed working with her_. She misses no beat and replies that _No, she didn’t._ Apparently you complained too much. Have a flashback to your first day at the markets in the capital when she manages to completely miss any and all undertones to your teasing. Think again of your first translator, and your language teachers, all of whom manage to catch the signals so lost on her. In shock, and offended, tell her that _you have nothing to apologize for._ And that you did everything you could to make her time pleasant.

8 Replies to “How to Hire a Translator in Mongolia — 3 Times (incomplete)”

  1. Wow, this is kinda intimidating. We are hoping to move to UB this fall, and we just found out today that our only English-speaking contacts are going to be gone for a few months when we arrive. Our experience with a translator on a previous visit got a little nasty due to a lack of agreement on payment. I have to admit I’m getting nervous.

  2. Hm. I responded briefly on your page, but didn’t realize the part about “no English-speaking contacts”. One easy solution is to ask around at the Universitites. There are tons of students who are studying English, and would love the chance to hang out with native-speakers.

    Also, (since you’re Catholic? From your blog?) the Catholic church is probably an even better bet. Father Patrick has been in Mongolia for a while (apparently his Mongolian is pretty legendary–he’s completely fluent) and he has lots of contacts I’m sure. Plus he’s just an all-around great guy.

    Other places are the café’s, there’s the French Bakery–a block or so N of the Green Olive (i think that’s what it’s called… an italian restaurant) on Peace Ave. It’s owned by a french guy. There’s another café called… Nara I think? It’s right across from the Mahayana center ( They have contacts there too.

    OH, the other obvious answer, is go to the American Center for Mongolian Studies. Oh wow, I just checked their website, and they actually have _services_! They’ll pick you up from the airport… hire you a translator and other fun things.

    Good luck

  3. Actually, I’m not Catholic; I’m Protestant, and I know there are lots of English-speaking Protestant missionaries in the area, so I assume we’ll be able to find the resources when we need. We actually plan to enroll in language school immediately upon arrival, so hopefully the language problems will begin to be addressed very quickly.

    I understand and appreciate your concerns about how some evangelism has been done in Mongolia. I also have witnessed some things done there in the name of Christ that are not very pleasing. We are not actually going to do evangelism and church planting; we are going in more of a support role, helping to encourage and equip leaders in a Mongolian church.

  4. That’s good to hear. I forgot to mention the language school thing as your best option. Not only will learning the language equip you with practical skills, but you’ll be connecting yourself to your fellow students, and more importantly, the language teachers.

    Dunno why I thought you were Catholic, I guess I assumed when I read your post about the Catholic stats?

    Anyways, good luck! If/when you bump into Pastor Dashdendev, send my regards 🙂

  5. “Chris Sumpter: I also have witnessed some things done there in the name of Christ that are not very pleasing.”

    Can you give me some examples?

    I very much would like to know.

  6. Actually, I was just referring to some theology that I think isn’t very helpful. I noticed that television preachers like Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer were on TV, translated into Mongolian. They teach a version of Christianity that says that we create our own realities, that turns God into some kind of cosmic vending machine and that ultimately leaves people hurt and disappointed.

  7. Could there be something to do about it?

    Mongolia has been tolerant to any religion, but sometimes I question the necessity.

    P.S: Thank you for quick reply.

  8. I think the only way to combat falsehood is with truth. I am glad that Mongolia has freedom of religion. I respect the right of these people to put forth their viewpoint, but I think there is a better way, and I have confidence that truth will ultimately win over error.

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