Students at the University of Toronto can now read their campus news in simplified Chinese. The Varsity recently announced the publication of its Chinese website, which contains translations of content originally published in English and is updated weekly.
The aim of the website is to increase engagement among international students from China. There were 17,452 international students enrolled at U of T in 2016-17, of which 9,187 were from China. That’s 11 per cent of the university’s population, which The Varsity is striving to reach.
The pilot project is the brainchild of Celine Liu, a U of T graduate from China and founder of a non-profit organization called Listeners. After experiencing mental health struggles, Liu created Listeners as a peer support group run by and for Chinese international students.
Liu’s first initiative with Listeners was to offer one-on-one conversations with students in distress, which sometimes lasted for two or three hours.
“As I talked more, I listened to what they really struggle with a lot. I find that there’s a disconnect between what they know and what the school offers,” Liu said. “I wanted to bridge the gap between what the school can offer and what international students really know about in their daily lives.”
Liu approached The Varsity in June and the two groups worked together to pull off the ambitious feat. The Varsity began developing the website and Listeners started recruiting translators and a manager on WeChat, the most popular social media app in China.
“This whole project to put together the Chinese website has been really exciting,” said Jacob Lorinc, editor-in-chief at The Varsity.
He explained that the translators chose the 13 articles currently on the website from stories in The Varsity’s first issue of the year and the Frosh Handbook. The paper announced the publication of the site on Sept. 18.
Going forward, Lorinc said that the plan is for The Varsity to continue to put out its weekly English paper on Monday and then have the translators start work on Tuesday to release the Chinese versions in the same week.
Due to the sheer volume of content that the paper produces, not every story will appear in Chinese.
“We know that we want to keep some of the niche content of The Varsity about student politics or the administration, stuff that you can only really get from Varsity News,” Lorinc said of the way the paper will decide which stories appear on both sites.
One of the project’s biggest challenges is ensuring accuracy in the Chinese articles.
“Since I can’t read simplified Chinese, I can’t personally confirm that the writing is correct; however we’ve put in a quality control system to do our best in order to make the translations as [accurate] as possible,” Lorinc said.
Liu and Lorinc based the translation process on The Varsity’s existing copy editing system. This system has three stages before Liu and another Chinese-speaking manager with a background in journalism approve the final product.
“That’s really as best as we can do, we haven’t really found the perfect way of translating it, knowing that the end result is going to be the exact same as the English result,” Lorinc said. “In a sense we have to take a bit of a leap of faith. But knowing that other publications have done this, the New York Times, for example, we are willing to take this risk.”
Liu said that the initiative has been well-received among the Chinese international student community.
“There were a lot of people who really wanted to take part of it and help us to promote it,” she said. “They’re really excited about it. We’re planning to have a marketing campaign on WeChat to recruit more people and make this spread out more.”
On Facebook, responses to the Chinese Varsity site were mixed. Some commenters praised the initiative and others wondered why The Varsity chose simplified Chinese over other languages — like French, for example.
In previous years, there have been informal conversations about the idea of publishing The Varsity in French, but these ideas did not flourish due to lack of resources.
“This project certainly wouldn’t have been able to happen if [Listeners] didn’t approach us and say ‘not only do we want to make this happen, but we also know a bunch of people who would be able to help translate,’” Lorinc said.
Liu said that The Varsity publishes in simplified Chinese because of its prevalence in mainland China, but that there is potential for The Varsity to expand to traditional Chinese as well. Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, whereas simplified Chinese is more common in Mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore.
For now, Liu and Lorinc are monitoring the project’s success in its first month. If it gets off the ground, Lorinc would like to see the system work the other way around, with reporters pitching and writing in Chinese and that work being translated for the English site. Lorinc is also hoping to increase the amount of honorariums that the volunteer translators receive and to publish Chinese advertisements on the site.
For Liu, translating The Varsity is just one of many ways to improve university life for international students. Listeners is working on training new peer supporters and trying to get authentic, high-quality Chinese food into U of T residence dining halls.
“My initial idea is to focus more on the Listeners so once I find someone [who] can really take charge of this project, I will leave it to The Varsity,” she said. “But I will still give them a lot of great ideas and feedback about it because I feel like The Varsity may want to have something of their own and to have their own Chinese platform on WeChat, so it really depends. If they wanted to open up an official account on WeChat, I can help them to find the right people.”
Disclosure: Iris Robin was the news editor of The Varsity in 2015-16.