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Hu Said What? Press Conference Interpretation Fail
January 26, 2011 - By: - In: Interpretation - 17 comments

Intrepid US journalists corner Hu on human rights in joint press conference! Nice meme, but looks like the big scoop was nothing but a translation fail.

The state visit of China’s president Hu Juta to the United States last week gave both governments a chance to paper over substantive problems in the US-China relationship with some feel-good grandstanding for the masses in both countries. So a real no-news snooze, if you know what I mean.

This particular performance was tightly scripted from the get-go, but as we will see, there should have been a rehearsal. From Beijing before the visit, the Economist reported that “Mr Hu wants this visit to be seen by his audience at home as a flawless display of choreographed statesmanship, unmarred by protests or gaffes. (His last official visit in 2006 involved both, for which Mr Hu’s hosts took the blame.) Mr Hu is not a lover of the impromptu, as was evident in the “interview” he gave to American correspondents before he left (no meeting, written answers only).”

Aside from the dinner menu, the big news on this event was the joint press conference. Things started off fine, with scripted opening bromides interpreted simultaneously, most likely from prepared remarks. The first question from AP’s Ben Feller also followed the unwritten US media script, starting off with a challenge to both leaders on China’s human rights record. Then after President Obama’s lengthy response, interpretation went consecutive and proceedings ground to a halt. Jill Dougherty at CNN called it “the ‘lost in translation’ moment that turned the press availability into what felt like ‘one long Chinese-language lesson.”

When the translator finished at last, President Obama said, “I apologize. I thought we had simultaneous translation there. So I would have broken up the answer into smaller bites.” Guess no one told the President what was going on. Well, he’s a busy guy. But it seems as if the US president wasn’t the only one in the dark on the move to consec, since the technician was having trouble switching back and forth between Chinese and English.

Now, usually I enjoy the mistranslations of others, but seeing an interpreting event like this go south in real time triggers my post traumatic stress disorder. I’ve been there. In fact, I had one many years ago with another Chinese president at the New York Stock Exchange. Excruciating.

Anyway, after Obama finished, a pregnant pause. Hu remained silent on the podium, looking like a deer caught in the headlights in the face of Feller’s brutally worded question. But looks can be deceiving, especially with Hu’s poker face. But then it was on to the next question from a Chinese journalist.

The event dragged on until another American journalist asked for a response to the human rights question. Hu denied that he had heard the question first time around, and then read from notes or a prepared response. Hu’s kicker: “And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights.” And that was the big story. Hu gets squirmy and then admits that more must be done. Bullshit.

How did that translation get so screwed up?  According to James Fallows, who apparently has better luck getting his calls to the White House returned than I do, the fault doesn’t lie at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I am informed by people in a position to know that in fact it was not a screw-up…. The idea from the get-go, and at Chinese urging, was that all interpretation would be consecutive. A U.S. interpreter would render Obama’s remarks, plus questions from English speakers, into Chinese, and a Chinese government interpreter would convert Hu’s comments and Chinese questions into English. So what appeared―to me, and to the TV commentators I saw―to be confusion over a failing interpretation system actually was working as planned. (Feature, not bug, as we say in the software biz.) And, according to someone involved in the planning, the opening question, about human rights, had indeed been interpreted into Chinese the first time.”

So the embarrassingly bad translation was the fault of the Chinese. By going consecutive, Chinese officials must have hoped to maximize their control over the free-wheeling, Washington-style journalism. But I think Fallows is being misled too, since it smells like just the kind of BS I get from AV guys trying to cover their asses. Just because the question was interpreted doesn’t mean that Hu got the feed. There were plenty of signs in the press conference that both leaders were experiencing problems with their equipment. And why would Hu duck the obvious question on the first pass, and then read from notes the second time around?

Sure, it’s more fun to imagine that Hu was squeezed hard on this question and announced important new policy from China. The American press reported it as a sign of progress, but only silence from the Chinese press, since Hu’s remarks on human rights were censored in China, appropriately enough.

But Damian Grammaticas of the BBC nails it. (Tip of hat to Mac Jeffery on this.) “If you look at President Hu’s remarks in Washington, he says China respects the universality of human rights, but ‘we need to take into account the different national circumstances.’ China, he is saying, should not be held to western standards of human rights because its people are poorer, its population is so big, and it is in what he calls ‘a crucial stage of reform.’ This is not a new position, but a restatement of China’s traditional one. It’s an argument for why China should be treated differently and the Communist Party exempted from criticism.”

Some scoop. Alright then. No news here. Move along.

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