Language Screwup at the Hu-Obama Presser? Maybe Not

By James Fallows

On the run, but to clarify something that had confused me:

It looked for all the world as if there had been a big interpretation screwup at the Two Presidents Press Conference just now. First Barack Obama gave a very long opening answer; then when the consecutive interpreter started in, Obama acted surprised, apologized for his prolixity, and said he would have broken the answer into shorter chunks if he had understood that the interpreter was going to wait until he was done. (Rather than simultaneous interpretation into an earphone, as is the case at many high-end US-Chinese conferences). Then Hu Jintao said, when asked on a followup why he had not addressed an earlier question about human rights, "I didn't hear it interpreted." My wife and I thought -- welcome to the world of unexpected Chinese-English language barriers!

ObamaHu.jpg

But I am informed by people in a position to know that in fact it was not a screwup -- perhaps with the exception of President Obama's not initially realizing that it would be done consecutively. 

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. Now you know.

Two other points of style/substance:

- On their extremely rare opportunities to interview members of the Chinese senior leadership, Western reporters do of course need to ask about human rights and liberties within China -- even if they can predict word for word what the rote answers will be. But by this historic standard, Hu's answer was slightly more accommodating than normal. According to the English version -- which, remember, came from the Chinese interpreter -- he said:
>>China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights.

We will continue our efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people, and we will continue our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in our country. At the same time, we are also willing to continue to have exchanges and dialogue with other countries in terms of human rights, and we are also willing to learn from each other in terms of the good practices.<<
Emphasis added - by me, not by Hu's interpreter. These quotes are from the official transcript, which I have but don't yet see posted online.

- Obama's answer, when asked about Jon Huntsman's possible plan to run against him next year, was a work of art. First he made all the sober-sounding points about partisanship stopping at the water's edge, the excellence of Huntsman's work in Beijing, and so on. Then with a wicked grin, he added easily, "I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary." This is the way John F. Kennedy would have answered a similar question (although he might have said "his having worked..." - this point, I realize, can be argued either way).  Huntsman -- sitting a few feet away from Obama and Hu through this process, and usually a supremely suave guy -- did not appear to be the most at-ease member of the audience at that moment.

Update: More on this later, but on the actual meat of Obama's remarks, about America's view of China's rise and the areas of cooperation and disagreement, I thought that what he said was also artful, properly balanced, and right. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/01/language-screwup-at-the-hu-obama-presser-maybe-not/69802/