Brian Bies '10: From computer science to Chinese literature

Brian Bies has found a way to combine his Engineering education at Washington University in St. Louis with a career translating Chinese language to English.

Brian Bies worked as a course trainer for the Chinese version of the "American Ninja Warrior" TV show.

Bies, who earned a degree in computer science and math from the School of Engineering & Applied Science in 2010, has lived in China for about six years and has held a range of jobs, including teaching, working on a Chinese TV show and translating — all nontraditional careers for an engineer.

Bies has his own translation business in Nanjing, a city of about 8 million people, and works with clients who need translation of texts in Chinese history and culture, law and industrial machinery. Bies credits his WashU engineering education and good English writing skills for his success.

"A lot of translators don't have an engineering background," he said. "When you're translating things that require a lot of logic or technical expertise, it can be difficult if you don't have that background already."

Apart from the technical knowledge he gained at WashU, the study skills were just as important.

"The more useful thing I learned in undergraduate studies was how to learn effectively," he said. "Part of being a translator is that you have to learn new things all the time. Every time I get a new project, I have to do a lot of background reading and get a foundation about the material before I can start translation. My engineering studies gave me the skills to do that quickly and effectively."

Bies' interest in China began when doing an internship there the summer before his junior year at WashU. While he didn't know any Chinese at the time, he picked it up quickly and took Chinese language classes when he returned to WashU for his senior year. After he graduated, he moved to China to teach English part-time to kindergarteners for a year and to continue to learn the language.

After another year of studying the language on his own, Bies entered a master's program in Chinese literature at Nanjing Normal University.

"I enjoy literature, but it was more of a good way to practice the language full-time," he said. "We had to read a lot, which built up a good cultural foundation. A lot of the things in the classics are things that people still mention today."

While finishing his degree, Bies also did translation work part-time, which he planned to turn into full-time work after he graduated. However, by a "fortuitous coincidence," he got a job as a course trainer for the Chinese version of the "American Ninja Warrior" TV show.

"Before the competition, contestants would come ahead of time, and I would show them the ropes and tell them things to watch out for," he said. "I also helped with designing new courses and obstacles for later episodes."

When the show hosted an international competition, Bies set it up and coordinated the travel for contestants from around the world.

"The show didn't get picked up for a second season, but it was fun while I was there," he said.

Brian Bies

In 2016, Bies spent about 10 months in the United States — including time visiting family in St. Louis and Ron Cytron, professor of computer science & engineering and associate department chair — then travelled back to China via several European countries then through Kazakstan and Russia via Trans-Siberian Rail.

Bies said he is comfortable living in another culture.

"There are always different ways of doing things, different foods and different leisure activities, but in the end, I'm still working every day and spending time with friends when I have time," he said.

Recently, Bies has started another challenge. He is spending some time in the Sakha Republic, a federal subject of Russia, learning the Russian language and culture.