Celebrating 50 years of Australia-China diplomatic relations the importance and challenges of diplomatic interpreting

By Jessica Huang, Mandarin Interpreter

This week, Australia had its first ministerial visit to China in more than three years – when Foreign Minister Penny Wong met her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi on Wednesday 21 December. This meeting also fell on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Australia and China, attributing even greater significance to this long overdue visit.

The inception of Chinese-Australian diplomatic relations can be traced back to 1971, when Gough Whitlam, then still the Leader of the Opposition, embarked on a historic trip to China. One of the earliest high-level political contacts between China and the West in the late 20th century, Whitlam’s trip predated Henry Kissinger’s visit on behalf of the United States, and illuminated Whitlam’s determination to reimagine Australian foreign policy. This was achieved in the following year, when Whitlam was elected Prime Minister of Australia and the relationship between China and Australia was formalised.

Yet, under the sensitive international politics context of the time, Whitlam’s venture into China was deemed politically risky. It came about at a time when distrust, anxiety and paranoia was the order of the day when it came to international relations – a result of the Cold War (indeed, the Cold War is frequently referred to as the ‘War of Perceptions and Paradox’). It had distorted the West’s view of the East, and vice versa. Back then, the world looked to the US as a forerunner on diplomatic relations, but it would take another seven years for the US to form its own diplomatic relations with China. As such, the Whitlam Government’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China was received as a bold, and debatably radical, political venture. But opposing voices soon ceased as Australia witnessed the trajectory of China’s importance to the nation steadily climb decade after decade, and by 2007 China overtook Japan as Australia’s largest trading partner, and in 2009 China became Australia’s largest export market.

Despite sharing decades of respectful friendship, communication between the countries came to a halt in recent years, with Marise Payne’s visit in 2018 marking the last trip taken by an Australian Foreign Minister to China. This was exacerbated under the Morrison Government and against the backdrop of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and diplomatic dialogue between the two nations was officially suspended by China in May 2021.  

Fortunately, with the newly instated Albanese Government, Australia has witnessed a gradual comeback in friendly diplomatic relations with China. In 2022 alone, Chinese and Australian leaders have met on four separate occasions including the UN’s National Assembly in New York,  the G20 foreign ministers and the G20 summit in Bali, and, most recently Penny Wong’s visit to Beijing, ending the year on a high with optimism for 2023.

An aspect often overlooked between the meetings of global leaders is the interpreters hard at work behind the scenes. As the intention of these meetings is often to build trust and goodwill, effective communication is key, and this cannot be achieved without the help of good interpreters. Yet, diplomatic interpreters face some of the toughest challenges in the industry, as the dialogues they are interpreting often have the nation’s cultural, social, economic, defence and national interests at stake, and there is absolutely no room for error. As such, diplomatic interpreters often work under high-pressure conditions.

Assignments are under a veil of confidentiality as to the nature of the work and everything discussed. Diplomatic interpreters, therefore, need to do a great deal of preparing and reading. They also need to be well across the news, current affairs, world affairs, people and hot topics, across multiple industries and have an understanding of the many interest groups. Further, the protocol at this level is that the interpreters always interpret for their country – so in Australia’s case, interpreting from English into Mandarin. As such, much more than any other kind of interpreting, high-level proficiency in both languages, and the ability to deliver speech in a high-pressure context, is an absolute requirement for diplomatic interpreting.

When it comes to diplomatic meetings, in recent years in the interest of time, simultaneous interpreting is preferred over consecutive interpreting. With simultaneous interpreting, the speaker does not pause between utterances to allow time for the interpreter to translate (as is the case in consecutive interpreting), but rather, the interpreting is done in real-time and the interpreter translates while the speaker is talking. Simultaneous interpreters usually work in soundproof booths, and they receive and deliver utterances through a headset. As simultaneous interpreting requires the interpreter to digest the sentences, translate them, and concurrently listen to the following utterance, it requires utmost concentration. Conversely, in consecutive interpreting, the interpreter often sits next to or behind the speakers, and relies on note taking to ensure all crucial messages are captured in between pauses.

As helpful as interpreters are in bridging language barriers, there are some challenges that are inherent in interpreting. For example, jokes and puns are some of the most difficult to translate, yet they are ever-present in our dialogues – even in top-level political meetings. The G20 summit saw one such instance when Albanese’s playful joke about Australia’s changing of prime ministers took a few minutes to register in translation with the Chinese delegation who, thankfully, then laughed! Another example is when a pun was made to an electricity minister from China, “You must be a powerful person”. When dealing with these arguably untranslatable concepts, the interpreter’s comprehension and understanding of each country’s cultural nuances is put to the test – something that not every interpreter can do.

In summary, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Australian-Chinese diplomatic relations, a toast should be raised to our diplomatic interpreters. Thanks to their professionalism and dedication, the special relationship between China and Australia can continue to flourish and grow.

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