Breaking Through the Language Barrier

If your understanding of Chinese is limited to takeout menus, you need a friend fluent in Mandarin. With a telephone interpreter and translation service, English-speaking visitors to China can get directions, make reservations and basically avoid embarrassment. We tested two interpreter services in the market: chinaONEcall, a British company started in 2006 that promotes itself as “the interpreter in your pocket,” and Language Line Services, which was started by a former California police officer 25 years ago.

Both companies can be used from a land line or cellphone anywhere in the world and operate similarly: Pass the phone between interpreter, non-English speaker and you, or have the firm dial the Chinese source directly and call you back with the answer. Yet which service really talks the talk?

THE SETUP: Both services require patrons to set up an account and get a PIN and customer-only phone numbers.

With chinaONEcall, sign up online ( or by phone (877-660- 2838), and receive access to two interpreter phone numbers: one for calls within China, one for out-of-country calls. The company also can help you buy a Chinese SIM card (a chip containing your phone and account number) or rent a cellphone.

For Language Line, sign up online ( or by phone (800-528- 5888 in the United States; 831-648-7582 elsewhere). You’ll get a PIN and two phone access numbers: one for calls within North America, one for everywhere else.

Advantage: Tie, though we appreciated chinaONEcall’s cellphone assistance.

COST: ChinaONEcall’s pay plan works like a debit card: Minutes are purchased with a credit card (or PayPal) and deposited in your account. Packages range from US$89 for 60 minutes to $179 for 180 minutes. You can add minutes at a discount and track usage online. Drawback: If chinaONEcall dials for you, it’s treated like a conference call, and your account is charged 1.5 times more than if you’d placed the call yourself.

For Language Line, it’s $3.95 per minute, which begins when the interpreter joins the call and ends when you hang up. Pay through an account established with a credit card.

Advantage: chinaONEcall

STAFF: Based in Kunming, chinaONEcall’s call center is staffed with 15 people. General manager Christina Huo says more will be added by August. Operations director Greg Sinclair, who lives in China, said in an e-mail that most calls average 10 minutes. Staffers have access to resources, such as maps and listings of hotels, restaurants, hospitals and embassies. When not on a call, they translate documents or do other research, he said.

Louis Provenzano, president of Language Line, said the Monterey, Calif.-based company has “over 3,000 interpreters over 18 time zones in 11 interpretation centers.” Forty percent of the staff works from in the United States and Canada. Interpreters must be able to speak English and a native language plus have a grasp of the various cultures.

Advantage: chinaONEcall

HOW THEY PERFORMED: We tested the companies by asking, “How much is admission to the Capital Theater in Dongcheng, and how can we get tickets?”

The chinaONEcall interpreter could not get through to the theater immediately but researched the answer and called us back several times. His supervisor sent an e-mail saying that the 72-cent fee for a theater tour was recently dropped and that show ticket prices vary greatly. Per a subsequent request, a second e-mail provided a Web site in English to book entertainment in China. Total elapsed call time and charge (including research): Less than three minutes, about $4.40. However, 22 hours passed between first call and final answer.

An operator for Language Line Services dialed the theater with a US-based interpreter (and us) on the line, for a three-way conversation. The interpreter asked the theater the questions, then repeated the answers for us in English: Productions run $14 to $42, but “bigger” (meaning very popular) ones can cost up to $129. We also received bonus information, including advice to book far in advance. Total elapsed call time and charge: Five minutes, $19.75.

Advantage: Language Line

BOTTOM LINE: For “in-person” translations between English and Chinese speakers, both services work equally well. However, when the company or customer must make the call to China, chinaONEcall is the better value,at about $1.48 a minute. On the flip side, Language Line has the pay-as-you-go advantage, a better deal for less-inquiring visitors. Also, because the company’s translations occur in real time, there is less wait time between question and answer.

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