Say It Again, Sam

When Angelenos need a Chinese tutor, translator, or cultural ambassador, they turn to Samuel Chong

Samuel ChongSimultaneous translation is no easy feat, says Samuel Chong, president of the Los Angeles Chinese Learning Center and Abacus Consulting Services. It’s so demanding, in fact, that even the best interpreters can do it for only about half an hour. Chong says he had to take the certification exam twice before passing. Even now, he still finds simultaneous translation challenging.

“It requires a lot of brain power and energy,” Chong says. “You have to listen to the source language, understand the meaning, translate it in your head, then speak the target language while continuing to listen. After about 20 to 30 minutes, the interpreter gets extremely exhausted.”

Chong recalls an interview he translated between Rupert Murdoch and Changle Liu, president of Hong Kong broadcaster Phoenix Television. “They started out talking in normal speeds, but as they got more and more interested in the topic, they started to speed up. It was intense.”

A native of Beijing, Chong arrived in the United States in 1993 at age 15. After obtaining degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, the London School of Economics, and Carlos III University of Madrid in Spain, he couldn’t find a job in 2002. But he saw a growing need for Chinese language instruction and seized the opportunity to open his own learning center. He started with one-on-one classes, teaching not only the language, but also Chinese culture.

“Chinese language is embedded in Chinese culture, and vice versa,” he says. “The two cannot be separated because Chinese people use hidden messages in their conversations. They’re not that straightforward. For example, when they really don’t want to do something, they’ll say ‘I’ll think about it,’ or ‘I’ll see if I have time.’ They give you a lot of explanations to save face. Americans tend to be more direct.”

Chong’s timing couldn’t have been better. Students were soon clamoring for his services in such numbers that he had to expand to group sessions. The center currently counts more than 200 students, and Chong employs several tutors who travel to private homes and, increasingly, to businesses. (He also offers classes in simultaneous translation.) As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies becomes more accessible to the West, students are joining Chong as he takes advantage of a historic opportunity.

Jim and Janine Harvey, a married couple from Covina, Calif., were at the forefront of that tidal wave. They first came to the Chinese Learning Center two years ago — Janine needed to learn Chinese for business trips to China, and Jim wanted to explore the country without having to rely on an interpreter while his wife was in meetings. “Samuel’s been extremely patient with me,” says Jim, who is now fluent enough to navigate through China on his own. “I can buy myself a bus ticket and get a meal.”

When he’s not teaching, Chong serves as a freelance translator for business clients like the Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles. He is also one of only 30 certified court interpreters of Mandarin Chinese in all of California. Chong’s expertise has even led to 15 minutes of TV fame. While working as a Chinese culture consultant for an episode of TNT’s The Closer, he appeared on-screen as a Chinese tourist who had lost his camera. He may never become a movie star, but Chong is already a Hollywood success story.