The quadriplegic translator volunteering at Shanghai Film Festival

I was looking to interview volunteers at the upcoming 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), when someone recommended I speak to longtime translator Zhang Keping.

My story pitch to my editor consisted of the following keywords: quadriplegic, self-taught English speaker, volunteer for 12 years.

Needless to say, I got the green light in a heartbeat.

It wasn't his paralysis that made Zhang a good candidate for a human-interest story. His reflective and clear thoughts on movies, literature and the society of disabled people made him stand out among the crowd. The man had something to say – and it was hard not to listen.

'I read directors and screenwriters' minds'

"See the fishes and parrots? I bought them after I translated the Georgian film 'Horizon' for the Shanghai Film Festival this year," Zhang said as he introduced his new family members to me.

"Horizon" tells the story of a Georgian man who goes to a small barren island by sea. He struggles to survive in the inhospitable environment, and regrets leaving his happy past. The film will be screened at this year’s edition of SIFF.

"People never realize that death is very close. The movie shares the same thoughts with Chinese ancient thinkers. It is a reminder to us: 'don't think too much, enjoy the moment'," Zhang noted.

Zhang has been volunteering at the SIFF since 2007, and has translated more than 20 films in the past 12 years.

His career began in translating literary works before moving to movies, which Zhang noted he approaches differently. He believes each word and sentence should serve the picture and music.

"The most important thing is to interpret what directors and screenwriters want to say, to show people what’s in their minds," said Zhang. "For example, a simple ‘how are you?’ does not always mean a greeting."

One of his most impressive translation works is the biographical war film "The King's Choice" in 2016, which tells the story of a Norwegian King who needs to decide whether to act against invaders as German troops land in Oslo in 1940.

"How to reflect his struggle and the complicated situation? I spent days and nights working on it. I love challenges," said Zhang. "I am happy to do it. It is a way to communicate with the characters in the movie."

'The world lost one beggar, but gained a translator'

Zhang became quadriplegic at 17. He broke his spine as he dove in a swimming pool.

"'How will you make a living in the future?' My father asked me," Zhang recalled. Many recommended he become a beggar, making money off of his disability, but he refused.

To make ends meet, he chose to study English and write articles in magazines, even though no one wanted his work in the first year.

Now, Zhang is a known translator, whose name is associated with several big productions, such as "Despicable Me" (2010) and "The Intern" (2015).

On an elevated customized keyboard, Zhang can only type with his right hand in a clenched fist, punching one letter after the other.

He needs considerable time to feed his translation to the computer – but that doesn't discourage him.

'Hawking is my life icon'

In 2010, Zhang translated the biography of Stephen Hawking, which was "one of the most distinguished moments" of his life.

"I could bring Hawking's story to China, which meant a lot to me. I feel my life was not in vain," Zhang told me. "I know his pain. I know his helplessness, both physically and psychologically."

Zhang said even though he could not be as great as Hawking, he tries his best to make his job as excellent as possible. He said he strives to make contributions to society, no matter how small.