结果是她拖长了“巴别塔”现象（Tower of Babel，出自《圣经》，比喻因沟通不善造成工作无法完成——译注），造成了一周多的痛苦时期，并且让当时盛行的东西方永远合不来的观点更加根深蒂固。
Bad Interpreters are Anti-Heroes
Since the mid-90s English studies in China have been a booming business. The number of younger Chinese people who speak good, very good, or outstanding English has increased dramatically, as has the number of foreigners who speak some Chinese.
This is a sea-change from the 1970s and 1980s, when language problems were frequent road blocks in the process of communication between China and the outside world.
If there was one area when contacts between Chinese and foreign business people could be expected to fall off track in those days, it was communications.
Not only were qualified interpreters as scarce as hen’s teeth, but the gap in mentality was a million miles wide.
Neither side had much exposure to the other’s way of thinking, living, eating or doing business. And at that stage, one side was comprised of business people primarily engaged in doing business, and the other side was mainly government officials charged with following the 5-year plan – two groups with very different mindsets indeed.
Having said that, even in the days of Soviet-style. central planning, front line Chinese officials at State-owned companies were respected by their western business counterparts as being very well-trained negotiators. One description which made the rounds in the mid-70s Canton Trade Fair circles was that negotiating with the Chinese side was like being “nibbled to death by ducks” – a wonderful description of a largely painless but excruciatingly slow demise.
Western business visitors seemed to be in a hurry compared with their Chinese counterparts, who were in anything but a hurry. They were, after all, still routinely taking noontime naps. Success or failure was also measured on a collective basis in the context of a five-year plan versus quarter by quarter metrics with a fairly high degree of individual accountability.
In those early days when the inadequacies of available interpreters was the rule rather than the exception, both sides were more vulnerable than in later years ; because no one other than the interpreters had bi-lingual abilities. There was thus little or no language checking or translation audit capability around the discussion table.
This meant that an interpreter’s shortcomings were largely shielded from view, especially because it was a given that the other side was coming from virtually another planet in terms of mindset anyway, so it was to be expected that they would issue bizarre comments on a more or less regular basis.
Among the Chinese, this would be explained in private by references to the inscrutable (capitalist) foreigners.
Among the foreigners, this would equally be explained in private by references to the inscrutable (communist) Chinese.
This generally created a deeply muddled atmosphere, but somehow life and commerce went on, albeit at a fairly slow and inefficient pace.
The most colorful problems arose when an interpreter entered the arena who was so far underqualified that they chose to fake their way forward rather than ask questions.
I was once thrust into a dilemma of this sort involving a delegation of first-time visitors from China to North America, none of whom spoke a word of English except the interpreter, who was a fresh college graduate with a degree in English.
As with virtually any fresh graduate with a similar background to hers, her verbal English abilities were far, far short of the task assigned her. However, the chance to make an overseas trip at the time was about as remarkable as being chosen for the astronaut program ; and none of her colleagues had a clue as to how far off the mark her English ability was, anyway.
So there we were. She had a choice, which was, simply put, to interrupt the proceedings with a lot of questions seeking clarifications on words and phrases, or, to make it up as she went along. She chose the path of least resistance, which was the latter choice.
What resulted was a prolonged Tower of Babel situation, which dragged out over a painful period of more than a week and reinforced the prevailing view at the time that East and West would never meet.
The worst moment of all occurred at the end of a high-profile luncheon to which the Chinese delegation had been invited by the CEO of their American host organization, who was a respected dignitary. He was joined by all the members of his second-tier management team.
The food was Western, and I noted with appreciation that the Chinese delegation made the best of appearing to enjoy food which I knew was not to their taste.
The luncheon banter was friendly and cordial.
Towards the end, the leader of the Chinese delegation, Mr. Huang, gave a nicely worded speech thanking the American side for their hospitality, thoughtful arrangements, etc.. He complimented their company as a famous leader in their industry both in North America and around the world. He went on at some length and I was impressed by his thoughtful choice of words in Chinese.
Then it was the young interpreter’s turn to render his comments into English. What followed was a dramatically abbreviated and twisted nightmare of a statement which bore little resemblance to what he had said, and was actually insulting in its tone.
“Mr. Huang says thanks for lunch and for the arrangements of this trip. He says he hopes your group will be an important one in your industry and in the world one of these days.”
You should have seen the jaw-dropping expressions on the faces of the CEO and his right-hand people. The word “devastated” comes to mind.
Although I am always mindful of creating potential hurt feelings or loss of face by correcting an interpreter while they are on duty in front of a group, in this case I felt I had no choice. So I chimed in and added a fuller and more accurate account of what Mr. Huang had actually said.
The luncheon came to an end, and we were on our way.
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