Hu Jintao suggested Wednesday that the United States and China increase their communication. Perhaps he meant they should learn each other’s languages?
The process of translating from English to Chinese and back again at a White House press conference lent itself to more than a few instances of awkward pauses and mistakes.
Even President Obama appeared surprised to find that the Q&A wouldn’t be interpreted simultaneously, leaving long pauses between statements from the presidents and reporters’ questions.
“I apologize. I thought we had simultaneous translation there,” Obama said after answering his first question. “So I would have broken up the answer into smaller bites.”
Before another question, Obama seemed to be having some technical difficulties of his own. “I’m sorry, I’m getting it in Chinese,” he said.
The Chinese requested that the Q&A not be interpreted while people were speaking, even though the opening statements were, according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest. As a result, the presidents called on just four reporters over the course of about an hour.
Perhaps the most embarrassing ordeal began with the first question Hu took, posed by the AP’s Ben Feller. “How do you justify China’s record, and do you think that’s any of the business of the American people?” Feller asked.
After Obama gave an answer, Hu didn’t take the question. The press conference moved along, until Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols got to take another crack at it. “President Hu, first off, my colleague asked you a question about human rights which you did not answer,” Nichols said. “I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question.”
Through a translator, Hu explained that he didn’t answer the question because he didn’t hear it.
“First off, I could clarify, because of the technical translation and interpretation problem, I did not hear the question about the human rights,” he said. “What I know was that he was asking a question directed at President Obama. As you raised this question and I heard the question properly, certainly I’m in a position to answer that question.”
But Earnest told POLITICO after the presser that the English-to-Mandarin translator, an experienced State Department translator, confirmed to the White House that Feller’s question was conveyed in full to Hu.
Kudos to the White House press corps for keeping after Hu on the issue, and to Josh Earnest and the White House for refusing to let Hu get away with his claims that technical problems impeded the translation of the original question on human rights.