Sunday, April 30, 2006

Found in translation?

One of the many gaffes that occurred during Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent visit to the White House involved an announcer referring to the anthem of the "Republic of China," which is another name for Taiwan. (China is "The People's Republic of China.") I first read about this incident in a Newsweek article, which added, "Bush's aides said the Chinese translation gave the country's correct name."

I'm assuming the "Chinese translation" was actually the simultaneous interpretation of the event. (Translations are written; interpretations are spoken.) When I read this, alarm bells went off in my head. The job of an interpreter is to relate precisely what is spoken, even if the speaker has obviously made a mistake. At least, that's what's been drilled into my head in my classes and discussions on interpreter ethics. We do not have our own voices; we are supposed to be the bridge between two parties, and nothing more.

When I thought about this some more, however, I wondered if maybe the interpreter had done the right thing. Perhaps interpreters employed by the government have a different job description than legal and medical interpreters, one that includes acting on their knowledge of another culture and applying some diplomacy when needed. Personally, I think it's a dangerous practice to allow interpreters to do this. But I'm guessing that this is not the case. I've read that the simultaneous interpretation of Bush's speech was riddled with delays and grammatical errors, signs of an unqualified (or at least unprepared) interpreter. It thus seems likely to me that the correction of the country's name on the interpreter's part may have been an error as well---an error that fortunately worked out in the U.S.'s favor---based on his or her expectation of what the announcer would say.

Not that much of this matters, since the faux pas was widely understood and publicized. In the end, the hardest job probably lay with those who had to interpret and/or translate the U.S. apology; according to the Newsweek reporter, there are several ways in the Chinese language to say "sorry," and they will have to decide which degree is most appropriate. I do not envy their position.

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