The language instinct
Updated: 2012-07-19 07:56
Chinese to English interpreters are bridging the linguistic divide and ensuring clarity of meaning. Zhang Yuchen reports from Beijing.
If you live in China, you're likely to have encountered any number of expats who speak reasonable Mandarin Chinese. You may even know some who, to all intents and purposes, are fluent in the language.
However, there's one group you may not have noticed unless you've attended a high-profile conference or major event: Soberly dressed and almost invisible behind the speakers or in a corner of a conference room, they are the professional interpreters who provide simultaneous interpretation from Chinese into English - or possibly a variety of languages - and back again.
This small group seldom makes an impression on the audience, but their work is invaluable in bridging linguistic and cultural divides. They are highly trained and in great demand.
One of these "invisible people" is Andrew C. Dawrant, who has won wide renown in his chosen field. The Canadian national has provided his skills to CEOs, Nobel Prize winners and politicians, the high point being his work at former US president George W. Bush's speech at Tsinghua University when he visited China in 2002.
Dawrant is a conference interpreter, although that title doesn't really explain the depth of his brief. He provides simultaneous interpretation - not translation, a term used mainly for work on printed documents - at conferences, media briefings, corporate events and even in international courts.
"It is called conference interpretation because of the history of the profession," said Dawrant, referring to the early days of the profession at the end of the 19th century, when large international conferences first came into being. Nowadays, the interpreter's skill is widely used by organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, and at meetings between heads of state and intergovernmental bodies. However, in general, most interpreters now work in the private sector for multinational companies and similar organizations.
One of the major skills is mastery of pronunciation. When Dawrant speaks in Mandarin, many of those listening would be hard pushed to believe he is not a native speaker. As such, he is one of a small group whose language skills are good enough to move flawlessly between Mandarin and English and qualify as a conference interpreter.
"I think there is a huge gap between what interpretation schools can deliver and what can really succeed in the demanding Chinese market. Every year I meet only a small number of students who are good enough to make it," he said.
The International Association of Conference Interpreters, known officially by its French acronym AIIC, was founded in 1953 and is the only global association of international interpreters. The association encompasses 3,000 professionals in more than 250 cities and 90 countries who are bound by a strict code of ethics and professional standards. Applicants are judged by their peers, who sponsor their entry to ensure that standards remain high.
AIIC currently has roughly 110 interpreters across the globe specializing in Chinese as a working language. A dozen years ago - when Dawrant joined the association as a freelance - the number was only about 20.
Tom Peart, an official interpreter for the Delegation of the European Union to China, who also manages the interpreters' budget, said that two years ago he spent 319 days in Beijing working for the EU. Some of the meetings required the use of two or three interpreters, so he hired a number of freelances to help with these high-level meetings.
"China is one of the world's fastest growing markets for international conferences and high-profile international events," said Martine Bonadona, president of Calliope Interpreters, a leading global network of professional interpreters that has just announced its official entry into China.
At present, 10 foreign interpreters are fully active on the Chinese mainland, but the six freelances among them are usually hired for multinational events, according to Peart.
"We don't discriminate in terms of nationality," he said. "It is simply about ability and experience. We have hired freelance interpreters from the United States, Canada and the EU region, but we also have some excellent native Chinese interpreters."
In many Western countries, the traditional direction of interpretation is from a foreign language into the mother tongue, according to Wang Enmian, chair of the Center for Translation Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, when interviewed by the Translators Association of China.
"If you compare Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean with European languages such as French, Spanish, English, Italian and German, it is really unfair to say that foreign interpreters are more skillful than native interpreters," said Dawrant.
That's because in the major European languages it is very easy for interpreter training schools to recruit students who are bilingual or very close to being bilingual. There is a huge pool of candidates from which these schools can choose: Many have grown up speaking two languages, have lived in foreign countries for extended periods of time, or have parents who speak different languages. That's a common situation in Europe, according to the experts.
However, the situation in China is totally different, as it is in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. It is very difficult to find people who are truly bilingual, native sounding and articulate.
"Interpretation from Chinese, Japanese and Korean is mostly conducted by native speakers, who have learned an international language such as English at school. These are not languages they have grown up with.
"It's often because Chinese foreign-language graduates rarely have the opportunity to live and study overseas," said Daniel Glon, an AIIC member who lives in China and interprets from English, Spanish and German into French. Glon decided to move to China after working at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and is currently learning Mandarin.