The Beijing Diaries, Day 8: In Awe of the Translators

November 17, 2012 in China, Travel by pacejmiller

The young lady on the right

November 13

I’ve pretty much settled into a daily routine in Beijing, though it hasn’t been particularly fun with all the shrinkage and itchy skin caused the freezing weather (though locals tell me this is nothing compared to the ‘real winter’). There hasn’t been much except a lot of writing, a lot of researching and a lot of conferences and travelling. I’ve also attended a function or two for journalists, but it’s not exactly my idea of a good night out. I prefer to spend my free time resting or on Skype with my family.

My post today is about the translators at the 18th National Congress, who have continued to blow my mind every day thus far. All the sessions open to the press are of course in Chinese, but most of them have an English translator who does immediate translations all the way through without missing half a step.

I’ve done a little translation work myself so I know how hard it is, but these Chinese-English translators are like machines. Actually, I doubt there are machines that can do what they do. Even if I had the script and a dictionary in front of me with all the time in the world I doubt I could translate it as well as they do, and they do it on the spot and under pressure!

What is even more impressive is that most of these people look really young, but they are all so poised. The party official can ramble on for a couple of minutes before they get a chance to translate, and yet they don’t even break a sweat. They just listen intently, jot down a few notes (I assume in shorthand), and provide seamless translations whenever they need to.

I know what you’re thinking — perhaps they had the official’s script in advance and had already translated it. Yes, I have no doubt that is the case with the opening speeches, but that’s not possible during question time, when reporters ask multi-part questions and the officials give long, winding answers that can sometimes go for 10 minutes or more (all up). Yet, there are no long pauses, no stutters, no “ums” and no mistakes. None. Not a single word out of place.

How is it possible that so many of these young people can get so good at both languages? What is amazing to me is that most of them don’t sound very fluent in English because of their pronunciation and accents, and yet their vocabulary, comprehension and ability to articulate sentences are better than most native speakers. Are they, like those Chinese gymnasts, forced into training from infancy? Have they been told that their entire family will “disappear” if they make a mistake? Are they secret Chinese government experiments?

I don’t know how they do it, but I am in awe.

PS: Also kudos to all the foreign journalists who ask questions in Chinese. Takes a lot of skill and guts.