Mandarin a bit rusty? Hold the phone
By Clay Chandler

(FORTUNE Magazine) – If you're headed to China on business, now the language doesn't have to be a barrier. China Helpline (, which launched last year in Shanghai, lets travelers get on-the-spot translation assistance--from English to Mandarin and vice versa--simply by hitting speed dial, talking to an operator, and handing the phone to whom- ever they're trying to communicate with.

Helpline is the brainchild of several frequent Asian travelers--one American, one Indian, and one Japanese. "Each of them spoke some Mandarin," explains Helpline's fourth founder, Beijing-born Karen Zhou, but with the language's different pitches and regional accents, "they still had trouble." The service charges about 36 cents per minute, accommodates three-way calls, and can also handle basic concierge services like reservations. Zhou says most users call for help with personal matters such as bargaining with shopkeepers and giving directions to cab drivers. One recent mediation, for example, involved a Chinese cook who couldn't understand why her employer wanted chicken served without the head and feet. Two of Helpline's best customers are a Western man and his Chinese girlfriend, neither of whom speaks the other's language.

One warning: While the translation itself is competent, only two of Helpline's ten interpreters man the phones at a time. During one of FORTUNE's calls we were left on hold for 15 minutes, listening to some wretched boy band mangling a version of "Sukiyaki" ("You've gone away and left me lonely ... You disappeared, now my eyes are filled with tears ...") Good thing we don't mind chicken heads for dinner. -- Clay Chandler