An Interpreting Star is Born

by Translation Guy on March 22, 2010

It’s a story as old as gas-lit Broadway. Opening night, the diva takes a dive, but the show must go on. What to do? The producer is pulling his hair out. The sponsors are as pale as ghosts. But there’s a young hoofer from the sticks, pulled from the chorus line. Can she stand in? Sure, she’s got the look, she knows the lines, but can she carry it off before an expectant crowd in their pearls and tails who paid good money to see the headliner, now down and out?

The curtain rises; the only sound in the whole theater is the thunk as the stage manager throws the klieg light switch on to spotlight this young kid from nowhere. For a moment, silence…and then the show begins.

Cut to final curtain, a standing ovation, she brings the house down. Later that night, back in the empty newsroom, Walter Winchel, unlit cigar hanging from his lips, whiskey bottle by his Remington typewriter, bangs away for the bulldog edition, “Tonight on Broadway, a star is born.”

It happened last week in our show business: Chinese=English simultaneous interpreter Zhang Lu became a translation celebrity.

It wasn’t Winchell reporting this time, but Sky Canaves at the Wall Street Journal, who brought this Chinese interpretation sensation to the attention of us English speakers last week:

“On Monday, the hottest topic on China’s Internet was this young woman behind the fluent English voice of Premier Wen Jiabao’s annual press conference. Zhang Lu, who translated at the two-hour press conference Sunday morning, made her first appearance at Wen’s side at the annual event this year. Internet fans praised Zhang’s work and complemented her personal style, a short bob and elegant tailored suits, and posted an assortment of photos of Zhang at work.  ‘Her appearance and voice are extremely refined,’ commented one Web user.  ‘Talent and style, she’s got both in spades,’ wrote another.”

I love it. Professionally, it’s more appropriate for folks in our trade to keep a low profile. At 1-800-Translate, as at any professional service, interpreters are the silent service, transparent vehicles for policy and all that jazz. When our interpreters do head-of-state stuff here at the UN, the last thing we want is for them to make headlines. But I’m glad she’s made such a splash.

And I guess I should also disclose that Zhang is no bright-eyed kid from nowhere, but a highly-trained professional from the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing, with a degree in international law. Currently, she serves as deputy director of the English Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ translation office, and acts as chief interpreter for both Wen and Chinese President Hu Jintao. I understand that she has extensive knowledge of Chinese classical literature and that her ability to render it into English is both accomplished and elegant.

But let’s get back to Broadway. After her next number, I’ll be waiting by the stage door, with top hat and cane, accompanied by my chauffeur, carrying an enormous bouquet of flowers. Perhaps a champagne nightcap, Ms. Zhang?

I think it’s great to see a translator get some credit in the press. A nice change from the usual mentions, where interpreters generally only make headlines when they are collateral damage in some bullet-ridden tragedy.


  1. Roland says:

    Here’s an interesting blog about an interpreters life in Iraq –

    • Ken says:

      Thanks for the link Roland. I’ll be writing on an interesting translator safety initiative, “Red T” introduced at the ATA ACD conference by Maya Hess. So much to write, so little time.. sigh.

  2. The problem of truly unqualified interpreters being used by schools and other places, persists. These “interpreters” are not merely uncertified; they often can barely sign! A deaf mainstreamed child whose education is being communicated to him through an unqualified interpreter is being irreparably harmed. We need to celebrate acknowledgements for the talented people in our field like Ms. Zhang – you rock girl!

  3. Catherine says:

    She’s very sexy to me, somethig about her that I find very appealing – maybe it’s her intelligence?

    • Ken says:

      Catherine, while it may be appropriate for interpreters to be intelligent, is it appropriate for us to find that intelligence sexy? I’m only asking because I married one.

  4. Pamela1972 says:

    Find the next Ms. Zhang

    • Ken says:

      Aim high, Pam, and keep posting bold sales pitches on your competitors’ blog!

  5. Dandelion12 says:

    Good point about the less qualified interpreters. I’m a certified interpreter and the majority of the interpreting assignments in my area are filled by signers, not interpreters. That means that the thousands of dollars I have paid in Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and FRID membership dues and testing fees were pretty much worthless since I get no assignments. I cost agencies too much money.

  6. Yoseph says:

    What deaf people LOVE about Interpreters, hilarious –

  7. Brit says:

    Hire professionally-trained interpreters and translators.

    Using people from “around the office” for formal translation and interpretation tasks is unprofessional for any business. Would you ask Jeff from accounting to fix an electrical problem? No. Hire a professional every time.

    • Ken says:

      Brit, we learned our lesson on using accounting for electrical work when Jeff blew up one of the servers. So we promoted him to washing windows.

  8. Leslie says:

    There is omething to having a pro. Consider this, in China, if you are going to be using an interpreter for contract negotiation, you had better find someone who you not only trust, but also find someone who will not back down when confronted by the Chinese company with which you are negotiating.

    • Ken says:

      The side with the interpreter wins, right Leslie? We see it again and again in negotiations. Most fun is when we’ve sent a blue-eyed interpreter to an Asian language meeting, who listens quietly to the Asian side who talk away as if the Americans on the other side of the table can’t understand. Even more fun is when our interpreter spots a bilingual ringer like that on the other side!

  9. This discussion reminds me of one of my favorite tricks. Try going into a negotiation with someone who the other side would never think speaks their language and never tell the other side that you have that language capability. You might be surprised at what you learn when the other side starts speaking in their language, assuming you do not understand a word of it.

  10. Centerfold says:

    For your enjoyment, here is a perspective from a translator:

    Different people will have different views in a situation. When you sit down in a room full of people, please think about where they could all be coming from!

  11. Roland says:

    You’re welcome Ken!

  12. Pamela1972 says:

    I thought that it was creative 😉

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