Skills lost in translation of a resume
As a mid-20s professional I have decided to jump into a bigger pond. In the past two weeks I’ve had the surreal experience of having my CV translated into Chinese.
My English-language resume is a heady blend of white spaces, bold-faced key performance indicator achievements and independent project management positions. It’s a long document – six pages – designed to convey all key information in a glance at the front page. The rest is available for reading should I get to the interview stage. Education details and direct benefits to employers are set out upfront.
I roped in Chinese friends with experience in the Australian and Chinese job markets, seeking help to move my shining document in all its glory into Chinese. Unfortunately my first draft hit some challenges.
“To be honest, your resume looks like a disorderly novel, too many words to read,” I was told. “The interviewers receive many resumes every day and they only spend very few minutes reading each of them. The thing you should [consider] is how to attract their eyes and let them know you well in very short minutes.”
What was wrong? It was the same resume. I hadn’t changed my format, just the language. It was easy to read; I was certain of it.
So my response was, thanks for the feedback, but what’s a good Chinese resume look like? Send me a template.
The first sample I was sent (despite the prickly tone of my request) looked like a mortuary document.
Age, weight, sex, even blood type: this form had as much grace as a home appliance user’s manual. There was space to account for my health and marital status and for every month of my life since high school graduation. There was, however, no room for project management or any achievements beyond the workplace or skills outside my main career path.
What purpose did this draconian format serve? It seemed to dehumanise the applicant, distancing the potential employee from their skills rather than showcasing them. If my blood type was intended to indicate my temperament, as one internet forum suggested, it could lead to some interesting results come transfusion time should I decide to be deceptive.
So I did some research, showing other Chinese workers the sample resume my friend had sent me, alongside my first draft, and secretly daring them to say mine was the inferior document. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what they did.
Their reason was not because the sample resume was particularly good but because the direct translation I had asked my interpreter to provide did not, in this case, work.
As a character-based system, Chinese focuses on key words to an extent that would be impossible in English. As a result, even in something as functional as a DVD player manual, basic Chinese sentences can seem like abstract poetry.
In contrast, English, weighed down with the grammar of a dozen root languages, seems clunky and overly specific, full of wandering prose and repeated information when written down in the Chinese hanzi.
This aside, my bold-face of key topics was unworkable and it was impossible to highlight single words or sentences.
I felt as if I were learning kung-fu. Apparently my treasured white spaces were irrelevant and unprofessional. Chinese characters are neat and square, reflecting their origins in some of the earliest printing technology. As such they apparently adapt naturally to a two-page resume, having similar total dimensions to a traditional wall hanging calligraphy scroll.
I was out of my depth.
I heard recruitment horror stories galore. One choice example involved an unnamed corporation with a vast applicant pool. By randomly dividing applicants into an unlucky pile and a lucky pile this company attempted to filter out future employees lacking in the essential quality of good fortune. Anecdote or not, this story exemplifies the anxiety of the graduate rat-race in mainland China.
As an outsider I was hoping to be shielded from some of this panic, but I still needed a readable document that showed my key skills at a glance. I also needed to know what skills employers would want from a foreigner and emphasise them.
After reading accounts from other expats online it seems a personal introduction, an education at a well-known institution and good looks are the key factors to getting a good job in China. Lacking a degree from the University of Melbourne or the Australian National University and without a connection at a good employer, I felt more than a little exposed relying on my looks alone.
Photoshopping my picture was an option. I bolded my master’s degree at the centre of the page and indicated my career specialisation at the bottom of the page.
I doubt any prospective employers will get that far down unless they have already decided to interview me, but that photo could turn it all around.