All the Presidents’ Interpreter

Managing Director Charles Qin recalls close encounters with visiting presidents.

The first visit by a Chinese head of state to Australia occurred in 1999 when Chinese President Jiang Zemin came to Australia and I found myself surrounded by politicians and businesspeople keen to talk as I did the interpreting for him.

Then President Hu Jintao became the first non-English speaker to address a joint sitting of federal parliament in 2003. This time I was perched above the gallery in a sealed booth with the President’s personal interpreter, doing simultaneous interpreting for the President and delegation.

Unlike the visiting interpreter who had a carefully scripted and translated speech, I had to rely on my wits.  Later I won an award for this gig! APEC was held in Sydney in 2007 and I was one of a team of interpreters assigned to deliver simultaneous interpreting for the leaders – this time George W Bush was in the seat. My other presidential encounter was a few years prior to George W, when Bill Clinton came to Sydney and I had the pleasure to see him up close – again interpreting for a major gathering.

Next in my encounters with presidents was the incumbent Xi Jinping, first for his visit as Vice President in 2010. Then in 2014, I led a team of ten of our interpreters to Tasmania where we spread out far and wide covering every step of the day, then followed him to Sydney and Canberra to another address at a joint sitting of parliament and various leadership events.

We all had a “reunion” at the G20 in Brisbane and I had the excitement to interpret for a guest list including Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. This time not in the same room, but connected via video.

Interpreters are privileged to bear witness to many significant events and meetings, much of it highly confidential. I feel very lucky to have had these amazing opportunities. I’m left wondering whether there will be another Chinese presidential visit to Australia – personal contact is an important part of building understanding. It is to be hoped that post-pandemic, exchanges like these resume.

Interpreters play a critical role in diplomacy yet often we are thought about only at the last minute and not brought into the tent. In my experience, working closely with clients through the planning stage, being able to ask questions and even offer advice results in a much better interaction and positive outcome.

The same applies to our clients whether negotiating with Chinese or facing off in the courtroom – capable and trusted Mandarin Interpreting is a critical link.