Reflecting on a Successful Mission to China. Keys to Good Mandarin Interpreting, with Chief Mandarin Interpreter Charles Qin

Back in 2014 Australia despatched its largest ever trade delegation to North Asia. The companies present on the China leg represented over half the value of the ASX. Then PM Tony Abbott tweeted: “I am determined that the Asian Century will be Australia’s moment too.”

Agreements and MOUs were signed, Trade Minister Robb got his apron on with Dairy Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia and Wine Australia and cooked up a delicious meal, concessions were won on FTA negotiations – PM Abbott did a U-Turn on Chinese investment; even QandA went to Shanghai, and there were so many people at Australia Week in China.

It was a fantastic effort by Austrade, DFAT, Tourism Australia and all participants to pull this off. A special congratulations to the delegates who recognised the value and importance of participation and what a high-level mission can achieve. Well done to those of you who also realised the importance of language and having your materials in Chinese. Our own Chief Interpreter, Charles Qin, was on hand at the Trade Minister’s side, so we thought we’d ask him about his work with the Minister, 800 businesspeople, and the Prime Minister.

Charles, how do you prepare for a visit like this?

Even though I’ve been the interpreter on many visits like this – including the one led by Trade Minister Emerson in 2011 which visited 6 cities in 6 days, each one comes with its own challenges and you’ve got to be prepared for anything really. I obtain as much information as possible in advance: the program, briefing papers, speeches; in addition I research specific terminology and topics.  I must say it is really important to keep up with current affairs. Typically, in advance and during such visits, there is a media frenzy and the commentariat puts forward ideas about how it will play out, the problems and stumbling blocks that come with negotiations, and a myriad of other ideas – so keeping up to date with current affairs and op-eds is pretty important too. You also need to be well aware of the histories of each country, sensitive topics and recent policy positions. There are always private meetings too – and those sensitive topics are likely to be raised – again, being aware of the history and politics on both sides helps a great deal.

How do you build up rapport with your client?

As with preparation, it is important to know the background of the client. In between engagements try and get to know each other a bit. Get a feel for the pace and style of speech delivery and guide the client in how to ‘chunk’ down the text to make it easier for the interpreter. One doesn’t always have the benefit of a written speech unfortunately, so note taking and memory are vital. Understanding a client’s views and interests are very helpful. The more speeches they make, the easier it gets (and for the client) – it builds trust.

Can you tell us about something unexpected that happened and how you dealt with it?

At the Prime Minister’s gala lunch in Shanghai for 1800 guests, I was with the Trade Minister when a Government officer approached me and told me I would need to do the Simultaneous Interpreting for the PM’s address. With Australia and China listening in very attentively to this, it had to be right.

What was the highlight?

The words of appreciation expressed by Minister Robb at a farewell function – very heartfelt: “… single Charles out for his great professionalism…” There are so many jobs you do without a word of thanks.

What can you suggest to young interpreters hoping to work at this level one day?

Study hard, know the subject – not just language – history and politics are vital. It goes way beyond language at this level. I’ve also seen interpreters come unstuck with idioms and proverbs – someone in the audience always knows (even Kevin Rudd on one occasion)! You’ve got to make your client look good, so ums and ahs and errors like that are a no-no. Note taking skills are not negotiable – you must develop shorthand. You need to educate your client too – preparation is really important for any interpreting task. Minister Robb used Australian colloquialisms a lot: “pulling my leg” springs to mind. Someone told the Minister not to use such idioms as they are hard to interpret. I discussed with the Minister and indicated that they were fine. It is not my job to modify his speaking style, it is my job to understand such expressions.  I recall in the Australian Parliament when President Hu addressed both houses for the first time back in 2004, then Opposition Leader Simon Crean said “When you drink water, remember who dug the well”.  I was interpreting simultaneously at the time and hadn’t been provided with the speech, so I had to think on my feet – luckily I knew it in Chinese and I also knew the history of Gough Whitlam establishing Diplomatic Relations with China back in 1972, which he was referencing. The expressions of bereavement delivered by PM Abbott, likewise had to be carefully considered – the correct style and formality of language were really important – so, you may be a native Chinese speaker, but can you deliver formal Chinese? All of these elements need to come together to work as an interpreter in the diplomatic arena.

Any advice for the businesses participating on a Mission – follow up required?

A mission like this is a great platform for businesses to gain access to key decision makers, or to leverage the Minister and Department’s credentials. Failing that, you can wait for another visit and try to establish linkages in the areas you are targeting  and those connections must include Chinese Government officials (Australian Government offices can be a good source of potential contacts). Develop a proposition to show what you can bring to the Chinese and remember they are keen on technology, training and employment. Show how your product/service can help China achieve its objectives – say for example in the latest Five Year Plan. Of course, your proposition must be in Chinese – well translated. I would suggest that you follow up with an email to contacts made (or WeChat) in the first instance, and keep in touch with all your contacts as you develop your China offering. If you have good interest from some contacts, it will be important to visit them again soon.


Got a question? We’d love to hear from you


Level 4, 221 Queen Street, Melbourne 3000
GPO Box 2231, Melbourne 3001

P. 1300 792 446
F. 03 9670 0766

"*" indicates required fields