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Bad interpreters are anti-heroes

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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.

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。


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.

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。

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.

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。

Not only were qualified interpreters as scarce as hen’s teeth, but the gap in mentality was a million miles wide.

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。

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.

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。

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.

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。

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.

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。


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.

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。


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.

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。


Among the Chinese, this would be explained in private by references to the inscrutable (capitalist) foreigners.

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。


Among the foreigners, this would equally be explained in private by references to the inscrutable (communist) Chinese.

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。


This generally created a deeply muddled atmosphere, but somehow life and
commerce went on, albeit at a fairly slow and inefficient pace.

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。


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.

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。


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.

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。


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.

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。


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.

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。


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.

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。


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.

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。


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.

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。

The luncheon banter was friendly and cordial.

席间的说笑气氛友好而真诚。

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.

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。


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.

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。


“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.”

“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。”


Ka-boom!

稀里哗啦!


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.

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”。


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.

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。


The luncheon came to an end, and we were on our way.

午餐会结束了,我们的访问继续进行。

2016-06-23

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