Student Daniel Lee, 17, has always been interested in the Chinese language. When he was posted to Victoria Junior College after his O levels, he appealed for a transfer to the junior college programme at Dunman High School (DHS) because it has a strong Chinese curriculum.
There, he decided to take up translation, a new subject offered this year at Higher 2 (H2) level, which is equivalent to the British A level.
Three other colleges are offering it - Nanyang Junior College (NYJC), Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) and Jurong Junior College (JJC).
Daniel is one of 62 students in the first batch to take the subject, which requires students to translate from English to Chinese and vice versa.
Daniel, who had previously taken media studies in Chinese for the O-level exams, said: "I'm thinking of taking a media-related course at university, and having translation skills will help."
The Ministry of Education's Mother Tongue Languages Committee recommended in 2010 that translation be included as an A-level subject, because it has practical value, and would help groom bilingual professionals with mastery of both the English and Chinese languages.
As part of the curriculum, students must learn to translate texts from eight genres, including news reports, cooking recipes and instruction manuals.
Teachers tasked with teaching the subject underwent a year of training with the Ministry of Education.
The A-level translation exam is set mainly in Chinese, and consists of three papers with a combined duration of six hours.
Students are required to translate passages, and analyse and critique various translated texts using translation theories and strategies.
The number of students at each college is fairly small, ranging from eight to 31.
Of the class size of 13 at NYJC, principal Kwek Hiok Chuang said: "It's a new course, there are no textbooks, and teachers have to prepare their own notes. I think we are starting with a good number now."
Translator Tan Dan Feng said he believes more schools will offer the subject if there is demand from students. One way to attract them, he said, is to show them the benefits the subject offers. "More than just learning about languages, translation grants a person the skills needed to succeed in an increasingly globalised world," said Mr Tan.
"These include being able to read between the lines and communicate precisely and with nuance, and having strong research skills, broad general knowledge and empathy."
Like Daniel, many of the other students in the pioneer batch are taking the subject for pragmatic reasons.
Student Rebecca Choo, who is among eight translation students at JJC, said her parents encouraged her to pick up the skill.
"My father does business in China, so he sees the value of being effectively bilingual," she said.
Mr Kwek said his NYJC students told him that they opted for the subject "because they want to be a professional translator, or they want to work in areas where such skills are crucial, such as in foreign affairs".
Students planning to take the subject must already be fluent in both languages. They must score at least an A2 for English, and either A2 or above for Chinese, or B3 or above for Higher Chinese, at the O levels.
However, a common problem faced by students is that they tend to be more proficient in English than in Chinese.
DHS student Law Xiao Xuan, 17, who is among 31 translation students at her school, said: "One of the challenges is that you're expected to be effectively bilingual.
"My English skills are stronger than my Chinese skills. This makes me feel a bit insecure about my translation abilities."
Some people might confuse translation and code-switching, but Mrs Tan-Lim Soh Whee, 40, who teaches the subject at JJC, said translation goes far deeper.
Speakers code-switch when they alternate between two or more languages.
To be able to translate well, one must have a good grasp of both English and Chinese grammar rules, said Mrs Tan-Lim, who has taught Chinese since 1998.
"But students are generally not sensitive to such rules, especially for the Chinese language. For instance, a student might be able to pick out an awkwardly phrased sentence, but cannot explain why it is incorrect," she noted.
Apart from teaching translation techniques and strategies, teachers also have to ensure that students have a good understanding of Chinese grammar. tudents must be aware of subtle differences between an English word or phrase and a Chinese term that, on the surface, seem to mean the same thing.
For instance, in English, it is fine to say "share your problems", said JJC translation teacher Lily Guan. But the Chinese term for "fen xiang" - carries a positive connotation and usually refers to sharing something good, she noted.
"It would be inappropriate to use 'fen xiang' when you are talking about something negative, such as your problems," she said, adding that she would discuss such translation issues with her charges.
In this context, having a small class is an advantage as it facilitates discussion, teachers said.
They also have to plan lessons and activities in novel and interesting ways, through real-life applications, for instance.
At HCI, the 10 translation students work on mini projects approach organisations and help these organisations translate materials.
"We had students who worked with tuition agencies to help them with their translation needs," said Dr Wang Dakun, one of two translation teachers at the school.
"The organisations gave the students feedback on their work. The students also presented what they had translated to their classmates and had a discussion."
Some JJC students spent a week during the June holidays at a translation firm, to get a taste of being professional translators.
When DHS teacher Liu Zhiqiang spots a translation error - on a poster at a mall or a sign at a bus stop, for instance - he takes a snapshot so he can share it with his class.
This helps students see how translation skills can be put to practice in the real world. He said it also drives home the point that "there are no perfect answers... Something can always be better translated".
JJC student Rebecca said she had become more sensitive to both languages since she started learning more about translation.
"I watch both the English and Mandarin news to see how they translate certain phrases. I also pay more attention to the English subtitles when watching Mandarin shows," she said.
"Sometimes, I spot inaccuracies that make me think further about how something could be translated more effectively."
This article was first published on Sept 14, 2015.
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