糟糕译员是反面英雄 / Bad Interpreters are Anti-Heroes



那时合格的译员凤毛麟角 / Qualified interpreters were as scarce as hen’s teeth

糟糕译员是反面英雄

从上世纪90年代中期开始,学英语越来越流行。能够说一口好、很好或是出色的英语的中国年轻人的数量急剧增加,同时,会说一些中文的外国人也出现激增。

与上世纪七、八十年代相比,这是一个巨大的变化。那时候,语言还经常成为中国与外部世界沟通的障碍。

如果说在当年的中外商务交往中有哪个环节会出差错,那就是沟通。

这不仅是因为那时合格的译员凤毛麟角,而且还因为双方的思维方式也相差十万八千里。

当时双方对彼此的思考、生活、饮食和做生意的方式都知之甚少。在那个阶段,交往的一方是一门心思做生意的商人,而另一方却大多是掌管下一个五年计划的政府官员——双方的理念存在着天壤之别。

话虽如此,但即便是在苏联式的计划经济年代,中国国企的一线官员也被西方商业同行们尊崇为训练有素的谈判专家。70年代中期的广交会上曾经流传着这样一句话:与中方谈判就好像是“被鸭子小口咬到死”——形象地把谈判的过程描绘为一段基本没有疼痛但慢得难熬的死亡过程。

西方的商务客人看上去很着急,相比之下,他们的中国同行则根本不着急。无论怎样,他们都要照常午睡。双方一边是要实现五年计划,一边要完成带有高度个人问责性质的逐季业绩指标,在这样的背景下,成功与失败也是根据整体表现来衡量的。

在早期,译员短缺是常态而不是例外,双方比起以后的几年更容易出问题。因为除了译员之外,其他人都不具备双语能力。因此在谈判桌上,很少有人,甚至根本没人能够把语言关或是审核翻译的对错。

这意味着译员的缺陷在很大程度上被掩盖了,这尤其是因为,双方都觉得,对方的思维方式简直就是来自另外一个星球,所以即便经常发表一些奇谈怪论,也在意料之中。

中方在私下里解释这种情况时会说,外国人(资本家)的心思叵测难料。

外国人同样在私下里解释这种情况时会说,中国(共产党)的心思叵测难料。

通常,这会造成一种极度混乱的气氛,但不知为何,生活和生意仍然继续下去,尽管速度很慢,效率很低。

当在场的译员实在无法胜任,他们就选择装腔作势地翻译下去,而不是提出疑问。此时就会出现最令人啼笑皆非的问题。

我就曾被推入这样一种两难的境地。当时,一个中方代表团首次访问北美,团员当中除了译员——一位刚刚获得英文专业学位的大学毕业生——之外,其他人连一句英文都不会说。

和几乎所有背景相似的其他新毕业生一样,她的英文口语远远不能胜任此项工作。但是,当时能有机会出国就像能入选航天员计划一样令人瞩目,况且她的同事中也没人知道她的英文水平差得有多远。

我们也不知道。她可以选择——简言之——打断会议进程,通过多提问题搞清某些词汇和短语的意思;还可以选择在翻译的时候编造。结果她选择了最省力的方式,也就是后者。

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。

最糟糕的时刻发生在一次高调午餐会的结尾。邀请中方代表团赴宴的是美方主办机构的CEO——一位令人尊敬的大人物。他手下的全体中层管理人员也尽数出席了此次宴会。

那天吃的是西餐。我心怀感激地注意到,中方代表们竭力表现出一副菜很好吃的样子,但我知道这些食物其实并不合他们的口味。

席间的说笑气氛友好而真诚。

将近结束之时,中方代表团团长黄先生发表了措辞考究的讲话,对美方的热情好客及周到的安排等等表示了感谢。他赞扬美方公司是北美乃至全球业界的翘楚。他的讲话有一定长度,精心的中文修辞给我留下了深刻印象。

之后,轮到年轻的译员将他的致辞翻译成英文。但人们接下来听到的却是一段严重缩水、如噩梦般扭曲的译述,和黄先生的讲话基本不一样,而且口气颇为无礼。

“黄先生说,谢谢午餐以及此行的安排。他说,他希望你们集团有朝一日能成为本行业和全世界的一家重要企业。”

稀里哗啦!

你应该可以看到美方CEO和他手下干将们大跌眼镜的表情。我脑海里出现了一个词:“搞砸了”。

虽然我一贯小心,避免当众纠正译员的翻译,以免造成伤害他们的感情,或是让他们丢面子,但在这种情况下,我觉得自己别无选择。于是我自告奋勇,对黄先生的讲话作了更全面、更准确的描述。

午餐会结束了,我们的访问继续进行。

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.”

Ka-boom!

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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