Monday, August 5, 2013

Tributes to Dr. Yuanxi Ma -- 2013 Summer Issue

Reflections on a Lifetime of dedication: Dr. Yuanxi Ma

Members of the CLD are mourning the loss of Dr. Yuanxi Ma (马元曦), longtime CLD leader and mentor, who passed away on May 17, 2013 after a battle with cancer. Since she worked constantly and vigorously until illness prevented her from doing so in the last year or so, some might be surprised to learn that she had reached the age of 80. She is survived by her husband Dr. Yongbiao Zhang, two daughters Xiaodan and Jessica, and countless former students, colleagues, and friends.

马老师 (Ma Laoshi or Teacher Ma), as many of us called her with respect and affection, joined the ATA in 1996 and was a key force in developing the Chinese Language Division, as well as the ATA’s English > Chinesecertification exam . She served as the CLD’s Assistant Administrator from 2000 to 2004, and then as Administrator from 2004 to 2006. She further contributed to the CLD by providing leadership in establishing a link between the ATA and the Translators Association of China (TAC). Yuanxi Ma remained an active leader, mentor, presenter, and grader with the ATA up through the ATA Annual Conference in Boston in 2011.

Yuanxi Ma was born in 1933 in Shanghai, where she spent most of her childhood and teenage years during China’s turbulent period of war and foreign occupation. Making her way to Beijing soon after the founding of the People’s Republic, in 1950 she began studying English language and literature at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute (now called Beijing Foreign StudiesUniversity). She began teaching there before even finishing her own coursework, earning a BA in 1954 and an MA in 1956. Her teaching career at that prestigious institution lasted nearly thirty years, from 1953 to 1982. Dr. Ma’s achievements are reflected in the comments of Isabel Crook, a Canadian who, with her late husband David Crook, began teaching at the university in the mid-1940s. After learning of her colleague’s illness, Mrs. Crook wrote in a December 2012 letter to Dr. Ma, “You were one of the best-loved teachers in our school. You played a leading role in shaping the teaching methods and materials in our English department in those early exciting days... Dear Xiao Ma, you can look back over the years and feel you have left a mark.”

In 1975, in addition to her teaching duties, Dr. Ma began accumulating experience as a translator and interpreter for conferences, delegations, and business negotiations addressing legal, business, literary, cultural, and other topics.

Between 1982 and 1985, Yuanxi Ma moved to the BeijingInstitute of International Relations as Vice Chair of the English department, where she also carried a teaching load. Her stay there was relatively brief, but the impression she left was deep. Students from those days kept in touch with her until the end of her life. Former student Haiqing Xu wrote of Dr. Ma, “The first time I met her, I was surprised by her diminutive size. The first time I heard her lecture in class, I was intimidated by the dignity and self-confidence in this petite woman’s gaze.” Remembering this teacher, Weiping Zhang wrote, “Though her time as my teacher was not the longest, between primary school and college, Ma Laoshi was the teacher who left the deepest impression on me.” Youyi Huang, a former student who later became a vice-chair of the TAC wrote, “When we were students, she was our dear teacher and, when we embarked upon the path of translation, she guided us in the profession. Ma Laoshi’s familiar, gentle voice often echoes in my ears.”

As China deepened its policies of reform and opening to the outside world, Dr. Ma moved in 1985 to the US for graduate work at the StateUniversity of New York at Buffalo, completing an MA in 1987. In January 1992, just shy of her 59th birthday, she was awarded a PhD in American and comparative literature. She remained a whirlwind of teaching activity throughout this period. Between 1989 and 1995, as associate director and lecturer with the China Institute in America, she taught courses on Chinese culture and literature. In the midst of teaching, Yuanxi Ma also served for four years as the institute’s director of business development programs, organizing exchanges and study tours between the US and China. Concurrently, from 1990 to 1995, she served as an adjunct professor in the East Asian Studies Program at New York University, teaching courses in Chinese language and literature.

At an age when some retire to a simpler life, the indomitable Yuanxi Ma continued squeeze out additional substantial work. For starters, she was instrumental in the 1991 formal establishment of the Chinese Society for Women’s Studies (CSWS), an international NGO connecting scholars from around the world. Since then, members from various countries have worked closely with Chinese scholars to open gender studies centers, train specialists, develop gender and development projects in China, organize international conferences, and produce academic publications. Dr. Ma participated in all of the organization’s major projects and was co-chair of the CSWS Board from 1996 to 1999. Between 2000 and 2010, she translated and/or edited the translations of three books on gender, development, and Chinese-American women, all published for a Chinese audience. CSWS board chair Danning Wang wrote, “To all of us, Ma Laoshi was not just a name representing leadership; she was a spiritual friend and caring figure that we can all rely on.”

In 1995, Dr. Ma began working at the international law firm Baker& McKenzie in Chicago as Director of Translation in its China Practice Group, a position she held until 2004. Jia Zhao, a partner at the firm, made the following comments at Yuanxi Ma's memorial service: “How did she meet the challenge to work in a highly professional business world in the USA when she was already over 60? With her excellent language proficiency, she was modest, eager to learn, showing respect for business culture and rules, asking from time to time, ‘How should I work? Tell me.’… She won people's hearts… Once an American colleague said, ‘She has brought China closer to us’.”

Even after leaving Baker & McKenzie, retirement was a foreign concept to Yuanxi Ma. As China rapidly expanded its public and private post-secondary education systems, she went to Shanghai in June 2004 to join LesRoches Jinjiang Hotel Management College, a new joint-venture training institution. Her work there received high praise from Dean Ron Carpenter, who said, “She was such a special lady, beloved by her students, fellow teachers and all of us… We very much cared about Yuanxi, our first Head of English, colleague and dear friend.”

Shuttling between Shanghai and Chicago, Dr. Ma also continued to lead the ATA’s CLD during this time. Former CLD administrator and close colleague Frank Mou recalled that, “To reach out to Chinese translators and interpreters, Yuanxi Ma worked tirelessly by organizing CLD panels, collecting presentation papers for each annual conference, contributing articles to our newsletter, and giving presentations herself… Yuanxi did her down-to-earth work not for personal gain/fame but for the benefit of the profession.”

Yuanxi Ma’s last official position in a 60-year working life began in 2007. At the invitation of the Aston Educational Group (AEG), she became the group’s Vice-President of North American Operations and later the director of the Aston International Academy (AIA), its member institution in Austin, TX. David Wisner, the CEO of AEG wrote, “She was such an inspiration to me, and loved by so many of our Aston family… I will never forget her positivity, passion and friendship.” Lynn Petro, deputy director of AIA commented, “It was an honor and a joy to work with her and get to know her. She was much-loved not just by me, but by all the teachers and students. She was a light at school and she radiated such warmth. She was one of the kindest, most gentle souls I have ever met.”

Dr. Ma had a unique and profound impact on anyone with whom she came into contact, whether they were students, long-time colleagues, or new acquaintances. While compiling this tribute, I reflected back on my own experience of Yuanxi Ma’s friendship and gentle encouragement after I joined the ATA in 2002. One memory stood out. Ma Laoshi had warmly received me in Shanghai the previous summer, and I was very happy to have her stay in my home during the 2005 ATA conference in Seattle. I was eager to share with her some of my latest work translating subtitles for the National Geographic documentary, China’s Lost Girls. We sat together on my not-very-comfortable guest futon, watching the heart-wrenching film with tears streaming down our cheeks. She had no particular reason to make the time for that vulnerable moment with me, but she did so in her own completely accessible and humane way.

Yuanxi Ma’s long-time friend Charles Wu wrote, “Since we met over 60 years ago, facing trials and hardships together, our friendship has not once been interrupted… Her life achievements were outstanding and her vitality extraordinary, but she was modest and, everywhere she went, she took pleasure in helping others… We have lost a family member and an intimate friend; a go-to person.” Peter Gilmartin, program director of Primary Source, a global resource for educators and a friend of 40 years, wrote, “Her intellect and her passion for living have inspired us to reach to be better humans.” Attorney Fei Yu, whom Yuanxi Ma helped along the way, said, “I don’t know if I will ever encounter in this life another teacher/mentor who treats people as kindly and genuinely as Ma Laoshi.” Xiaofeng Wang, a former student who later became a colleague, summed up feelings echoed through many of these tributes and shared by so many of us: “You were our dearly respected teacher, role model, and kind elder sister… Rest in peace, Ma Laoshi.”

Michelle LeSourd
Chinese > English Translator


Yuanxi Ma was one of the founders of the ATA’s Chinese Language Division. It was back in 1998 at the 39th ATA Annual Conference on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina that some of us Chinese translators decided to establish a Chinese Language Division. A preparatory committee was later formed, and I was fortunate to work with Yuanxi and others on that committee to achieve our goal. We worked hard to seek signatures from ATA members endorsing our plan, attended other divisions’ meetings to learn their best practices, and drafted the CLD by-laws. These by-laws were later adopted at the first CLD annual meeting in 2000. As the only active ATA member sitting on the committee, I was asked to serve as the first-term CLD Administrator. I appointed Yuanxi Ma as my deputy administrator. We cooperated so well that in just a few years we were able to create an online venue (Yahoo! listserv) for members to share translation tips and exchange ideas, begin publishing a quarterly CLD newsletter, organize a team of exam graders, and set up the English > Chinese accreditation exam. These preliminary activities laid a solid foundation for the growth of the CLD.

Yuanxi Ma worked tirelessly to reach out to Chinese translators and interpreters – organizing CLD panels, collecting presentation papers for each annual conference, presenting at conferences herself and contributing articles to our newsletter. The events and activities she helped to organize attracted many participants, including both Chinese language professionals and those working in other languages. Within five years of founding the CLD our division membership exploded tenfold to a membership 183 persons strong. During that time, Yuanxi Ma and I continued to work together - I served as Administrator for the first and second terms, and Yuanxi served the third term while I was her Assistant Administrator.

Most of these achievements can be credited to Yuanxi Ma’s inspiring volunteer work. But, true to her greatly admired modesty and humility, Yuanxi did her down-to-earth work not for personal gain or fame, but for the benefit of the profession. I recall vividly when she she approached me in 2008 to give a joint presentation at the 18th World Congress of the International Federation of Translators (FIT) in Shanghai. Her goal was to better promote the cause of the CLD and ATA among professionals in China, and I happily accepted her offer. Our presentation was a great hit and we had a huge turnout. However, when a senior Chinese official from the State Council came up to praise Yuanxi, she pointed at me, and said, “You should thank him.” She was such a great person to work with, and she will be remembered by all who have worked with her. I will cherish forever the memory of the time I spent working with her through all those years.

Frank Mou
Former CLD Administrator


I was very sad to hear of the passing away of our beloved Professor Yuanxi Ma. I first learned of her illness in late April, 2012.  She had gone through chemotherapy and was recuperating at home in Chicago. In August, 2012, to pay tribute to the memory of an American professor, I took my family back to Chicago and paid a special visit to Professor Ma. She had just come back from another hospital stay and seemed strong enough to receive us in her home. 

She briefly spoke of her health condition and treatments, but quickly moved on to talk about our Chinese Language Division and all her ATA friends.  She gave me boxes of chocolates and thank-you cards to bring to ATA’s Annual Conference in San Diego. She wanted to thank all of the friends and colleagues who had sent her wish Get-Well-Soon wishes.  She was also keenly interested to know what presentations and events we were going to have at the San Diego conference, since she would have to miss it this time.

I think my memories of that visit pretty much sum up Professor Ma’s life and personality.  She seldom spoke about herself, and she was always thinking of others. She truly cared for the members of the CLD and her ATA colleagues. She spent so much of her life in America giving her time to the ATA. She went to almost every Annual Conference since I began attending in 2004, and she also attended the Federation of International Translator Congresses in Shanghai and San Francisco. 

As grief was pouring in from CLD members whose lives had been touched by Professor Ma, I could not help but recall the same caring and gentle soul Professor Ma was when she was in China. I was one of the students of the Class of 1978 enrolled at Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (now known as Beijing Foreign Studies University). Professor Ma was the Instructor-in-Charge of one of the small classes.  Even though she did not teach the small class I was in, I attended her larger lectures in big classrooms, and considered myself one of her admiring students. By all accounts, she was a very devoted and well-respected teacher who seemed to spend all the time and energy she could muster on her students. Needless to say, her former students, old and young, were shocked and saddened when they learned about her decease. We grieve her loss because she gave us so much and made selfless and sometimes noble sacrifices on our account.

At the memorial service in Chicago, the CLD’s Assistant Administrator, Mrs. Liping Zhao, recounted her personal experiences with Professor Ma and those of others from our listserv exchanges. Each tale was touching, endearing and true to Professor Ma. Also attending the memorial service were two of Professor Ma’s alumni - UN interpreter Mr. Erik Guo and CLD member Mrs. Sophie (Suhui) Qu. Having worked and lived in Chicago, Mr. Guo remembered finding and connecting with Professor Ma in his earlier days in America. Mrs. Qu and her husband remembered with loving detail in their frequent interactions with Professor Ma. Mrs. Qu exemplified what a student should do when their beloved teacher is ill: on weekends, she and her husband would drive to downtown Chicago from the suburbs and pick up Professor Ma for traditional Chinese rehabilitation therapies and treatments, and then drive her and her husband back. They continued this pilgrimage in between Professor Ma’s chemotherapy sessions for about a year. I think there is nothing better to pay tribute to Professor Ma’s memory than to say your students loved you and cared for you in words as well as in actions.

Bin Liu
ATA Certified English > Chinese translator
Immediate Past Administrator of ATA Chinese Language Division


As former students of Professor Ma Yuanxi, we still find it very hard to accept the painful reality that Professor Ma Yuanxi has left us. We have always addressed her as Ma Laoshi in Chinese - no matter what - even if we wrote to her in English. Neither “Teacher Ma” nor “Professor Ma” fully convey our respect and feeling for her. Ma Laoshi always remains Ma Laoshi, for each and every one of us in Class 1, Grade 78 of the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (now known as Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beiwai for short).

At Beiwai, Ma Laoshi was our first English teacher and a well-recognized teaching expert. With her outstanding language teaching technique, communicative skills and, especially, patience and dedication, she helped hundreds of young students like us in the early stages of pursuing a professional career. Her teaching technique was superb. By means of meticulously prepared plans and skillfully designed communicative activities, she provided each of her students with the maximum number of opportunities to practice in each class hour and laid a solid foundation for our future learning. 

Ma Laoshi was not just a language instructor but also a great educator, with a caring and loving heart. When we were enrolled in the English department at Beiwai in 1978, we were assigned to Class 1, the lowest level in Grade 78.  Despite our lower proficiency level, Ma Laoshi encouraged us to lay a solid foundation of English skill and tried to help us catch up, or even surpass those students at higher levels by providing extra one-on-one tutoring hours every week. Her encouraging words kept us going during our college years, and those words were ringing in our ears when we graduated, when we passed the entrance exams for graduate studies, and when we got our master's or doctoral degrees. What she taught us was not just English, but more importantly the way to face life’s ups and downs.

Ma Laoshi was actually a very quiet person, more a listener than a speaker. She showed respect for her students and never imposed her ideas on others. If she wanted to make comments, she would pose them more like questions for consideration. Throughout her life she fought for the emancipation and equality of women, and she showed the girls in her class step-by-step how to live as tough and independent women in the world. We can never forget her question: “... what would you do if, as a woman, you had to choose between career and family?” We could not answer that question at the time, and unfortunately it took us many years to understand her loaded question.  Only after going through sweet and bitter experiences ourselves, did we finally get her message: it is never easy to have both, and a fair and equal world for women as well as for men demands joint efforts from both genders!

Ma Laoshi remained a life-long friend with her students. In the past 30 years, though we didn't see her very often, we kept constant contact with her through email and phone, wherever we happened to be. Each time we met, whether it was in America, in China, or in Europe, we always had so much to talk about - as if time had come to a standstill. We always wanted to ask her for advice and talk about things that concerned us. In her correspondence to us, she always wrote: don't work too much and do take good care of yourselves. Days before she passed away, we called her and realized that it might be the last time we would speak with her. On the phone she was, as usual, reticent about her own condition but still asked about our lives and families. We couldn't hold back our tears after hanging up.

Now she has left us. We have lost a close and dear friend as well as a teacher who mentored, inspired and guided us through the past 35 years. We thought of her from time to time and now miss her very much! She was small but great; she looked ordinary but was extraordinary; and she will always have a soft space in our hearts!

ZHANG Hong Bin
HU Wenze
Former Students

No comments:

Post a Comment