Found in Translation

In Taiwan, Amy Y. Hsiao translated for kids and presidents

Published in 2019 San Diego Super Lawyers Magazine — April 2019

Shortly after Amy Y. Hsiao arrived in San Diego to attend California Western School of Law, she was invited to a friend’s house on a weekend afternoon. A few guests from Taiwan were there as well, and as soon as their kids saw Hsiao, they got excited and started shouting. “Rita! You’re the hostess! Rita!”

The kids weren’t confused; they were fans. From 2007 to 2008, Hsiao, with dyed red hair, co-hosted the educational TV show ABC Jump! in which her character, Rita, helped Chinese-speaking children learn English. 

“I’m a celebrity among the kids,” Hsiao says with a laugh. 

Born in Hualien in 1981 and raised in Taichung, Hsaio became fascinated with English at an early age. It was part of the school curriculum, of course, and like many kids in Taiwan, Hsiao also attended an English-language buxiban, or cram school, twice a week. But she quickly became obsessed in a way her peers were not. Blame Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera.

“I listened to it every day,” she says. “I listened to it, and then I looked up the lyrics, and I memorized it. I just sang it again and again.” She did the same with the soundtrack to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and classic songs by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole that her father, an international trader, bought for her. “I loved singing,” she says. “I would perform for my parents.” 

After graduating from National Taiwan University with a degree in English language and literature, Hsiao was working steadily as a translator but wanted to up her game. So she enrolled in a program at the University of Bath in England: “As part of the program, I went to the United Nations, and I did interpretation there for a month.” When she returned to Taiwan, she was translating for top politicians in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), including the president of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian. 

“It was inaugural speeches for the president and then inaugural speeches for the chairman of the party,” she says. “I remember one time—this is such a long time ago—when the United States had to negotiate whether to sell weapons to Taiwan. I was part of the negotiation. It was quite intense.”

A year later, she discovered she wasn’t allowed to enter Hong Kong. “They put me on the blacklist,” she says, “because I translated and interpreted for the Democratic party, which promotes, obviously, democracy, and they don’t like anybody who’s speaking up for Taiwan. Or anybody translating for them.”

Her translation work, which often dealt with legal affairs, got her interested in the law. “I was seeing how negotiations work,” she says. “I was just inspired by some of the politicians that I was working with. Some of them had legal backgrounds. One was an alumnus of California Western School of Law.”

Before that, though, she had to get ready for her close-up.

The opportunity for ABC Jump! came about, she says, because “they were looking for people who looked good on camera, who spoke English and who were versatile; and they were like, ‘Oh, hey. Do you want to go for an audition?’ I didn’t actually want to do it. I went with a friend. I just accompanied him to the audition, but sadly, he wasn’t picked. I was.”

The show, she adds, took only a few hours a week. “It wasn’t my full-time job,” she says. “In the TV show, I had a partner from North America. He would be speaking English, and then I would be speaking Chinese and facilitate the program. We would get the children to come on stage and either dance or sing, and I would teach the kids, basically.”

ABC Jump! was seen through much of Asia. “Rita” appeared on it for a year, but it continues to be popular among toddlers today. Now living in San Diego, Hsiao runs her own estate planning firm. “My target audience is parents with minor children like preschoolers,” she says. “My passion for helping families and children stems from very, very early on. That’s the correlation, if you will.”

The correlation is also translation, only this time she’s decoding the law for people who don’t know it. 

“Absolutely,” she says. “I feel like I’m doing that every day.” 

美国/中国: Translating law

“The legal concept I find hard to explain to Chinese clients is the necessity of setting up a trust, and appointing power of attorney, to avoid probate. Taiwanese/Chinese society is very relationship-oriented, and the default in the law is that if one is incapacitated or dies, the spouse or next of kin automatically takes over. One doesn’t have to go through extended probate proceedings. It’s very hard for Chinese people to understand that, here, nobody is going to ‘automatically’ take over unless you specifically name someone. The traditional Chinese concept of ‘I’ll just rely on my children to take care of me’ hinders their understanding of the U.S. legal process. I spend a lot of time educating people on that.”

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