Hu Jintao Tries to Escape Questions About Human Rights . . .

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 20, 2011

And fails:

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.

  • Interpreter

    I’ve been translating for summits of Chinese leaders (including Hu Jintao and his predecessor) with those from my own country (and that was not the US, so, please, pardon my English) for more than a decade. And I’d like to shed some light on the story above.
    The questions of Ben Feller had been translated into Chinese by a Mandarin-speaking interpreter from the US and working for the US. This is a normal practice for bilateral meetings, as the interpreter should be accounted to his employers in case of failure during interpretation. And this is exactly the case.
    I saw the entire press conference in White House on Youtube. We don’t know what Hu Jintao did hear in his earphones when Ben Feller was asking his questions. But the AP correspondent surely mixed up two different issues when he addressed President Obama, and was obviously rude to Chinese President (even as he ‘politely’ smiled at him), arrogantly “giving a chance” for Hu Jintao to justify “China’s record on human rights”. If it was me staying there, I’d definitely ignore such a question thrown so unprofessionally by a professional working with AP, even though it might have been a most righteous and justified question.
    But now let’s go back to the interpretation issue. We don’t know how the interpreter in the booth managed with all that mess, but we know that the simultaneous interpretation was interrupted. Why? Because simultaneous interpretation setting can to some extend tolerate the interpreter’s inaccuracy, but the stakes were too high for Chinese to allow that. The simultaneous interpretation was interrupted after President Obama finished answering the questions, than the consecutive interpretation had started, and what Hu Jintao had hear from the US interpreter, was literally the following (I am giving you a word by word transcription from Mandarin): “About that specific question on human rights… President Obama, can you explain to American people, how can America have [interruption by announcement in English that the Chinese consecutive translation is in progress] with such a State. Another question is about some people guessing of the US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman’s prospective. And President Hu, what WAS your answer on the previous question with regard to the human rights?” Then interpreter went into rephrasing of President Obama’s appraisals of Ambassador Huntsman’s brilliant abilities, as Hu Jintao, already totally misguided by all this interpretation mess, asked his aide for explanations. Hu obviously was not aware that he was expected to answer the question that President Obama had already answered.
    When further pressed by Hans Nichols to respond, he had clarified his reaction: “Firstly, I have to explain to you, that I did not hear that the previous speaker (literally – “that mister”) asked ME a question about human rights to be answered by ME. I thought he was giving the question to Mr.President”.
    That brings me to a conclusion: it is always too easy to blame interpreters for such episodes. It is worth, though, to show some compassion to those poor guys, which have to work under tremendous pressure of political significance of those public high-level meetings and sometimes unprofessional attitude of certain speakers.

    • Gretter22

      I cannot imagine how the interpreters could even have heard their presidents speaking with all the noise and interruptions. It is surprising that they were able to render anything. I was there and the clicking of cameras and chatting was intolerably loud, drowning out the voice of Obama and Hu

Previous post:

Next post: