Steak Tartare and Coca Leaf Tea – the Trials of a Mandarin Interpreter, By Charles Qin

Travelling back and forth to China and Canberra are well-beaten paths in my profession of Mandarin Interpreter.

But over 25 years in business, my interpreting career has taken me to some other unexpected places. Back in 2001 who would have thought Mandarin would be one of the major languages at a conference in Chile. I hear you saying – “What’s Charles’s Spanish like?” My reply: “¡No español!”

Shortly after it was Athens, and before you ask: “Δεν μιλούν ελληνικά!”

So what was I doing in Chile?  Well, I did take some time to see the sights at Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and La Paz but the main event was an international parliamentary conference in Valparaiso, Chile. Politicians from around the world gathered in the ancient city and teams of interpreters flew in from the four corners: Japanese, French, Spanish, Mandarin and French.  We were all on duty for the 4-day event. How can I interpret all of these languages as well, you are no doubt wondering.  Well in Simultaneous Interpreting mode at most conferences the language combinations always involve English – so Spanish-English, Japanese-English, Mandarin-English, and so on.  There were many presenters speaking Spanish and Japanese – so what happens in our soundproof booth is that we wait for our Spanish or Japanese colleagues to interpret their language into English and from there we take it into our own language (called relay). Works really efficiently in most cases!

We were all on duty in the booth observing  a Japanese parliamentarian deliver his address on the second afternoon. Was the equipment malfunctioning?  We looked anxiously at our Japanese colleagues around the corner – finally someone knocked on their door: “Why aren’t you interpreting for us (relay)?” The response came back “He’s speaking English!”  A good lesson right there for presenters to stick to their mother tongue and leave the linguistics to the capable interpreters!

Anyway, getting back to my language expertise – I was at a restaurant the night before this event was to start only to find zero English on the menu and in the staff; phrase book left in the hotel room. This was way before internet or an app might have given us a clue – we resorted to animal noises and actions to try and decipher it.  When what seemed to be steak tartare arrived, I was a little shocked; I passed it on and went for the chips – they were well cooked! Imagine travelling 20 hours to Chile only to come down with gastro – that was too much of a risk.

But not the coca leaf tea. Growing up in mountainous Yunnan, China had prepared me well for altitude, I thought. Wrong! I was confined to bed and sick as a dog for several days. Drink the coca leaf tea they said. So I guzzled it down until I had lost control of my senses completely. Luckily that was several weeks before the conference but it did mar my appreciation of Machu Picchu as I staggered around in a bit of a daze.

It’s as true today as it was then and we still hear the chant: “they all speak English” no matter where you are, and that might be true in some larger cities to some extent, but it won’t wash if you are visiting on business and trying to sell your goods to the locals.  It’s a big investment and a big opportunity to do business overseas, make sure you underpin it with good translation and minimise your risks too. These days that restaurant would likely have menus available in other key languages or be out of business.

More about my Athens experience next time!


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