The Life of a Chinese Live Interpreter: Interview with Liu Pei
Liu Pei is a freelance interpreter in her second year of postgraduate studies at Sichuan University. Liu, who also goes by Paige, started interpreting as an undergraduate upon the recommendation of professors, first undergoing rigorous training to take part in national interpretation competitions, and then starting professional work. We were first awestruck by her simultaneous-interpretation performance at the Bookworm Intaernational Literary Festival earlier this year where she very well near stole the show. When we spotted her again at the Tony Cragg exhibit talk, we asked if she'd be willing to be interviewed. She's never been abroad, and that was only one of many interesting tidbits we learned when we sat down with her for a chat.
What is your background with English?
We started learning English in junior high school, but I think it was the moment I entered university when I really started to learn English. Because my major is English and American literature so we have to learn the culture behind the language. My parents speak no English. I think my father can speak Mandarin because he used to be in the army. But my mother, not even Mandarin.
But plenty of others have had similar educational background. How did you achieve such a high level in your field?
Before every contest—I participated in three major contests on the national level—we will have two to three months of intensive training. So every day you go to the teacher and stand in front of her for two hours, three hours, or even four or five hours. She seldom gives any compliment so it's really frustrating. I still remember that one day I cried after the training because it was so difficult.
It's not easy to stand in front of so many people and speak English or Chinese in such a composed way because you get nervous, so you have to train and train and train. There's no shortcut. You have to recite a lot of things, vocabulary, expressions, topics. What people see is the best that you present to them. But what they cannot see is the worst moments that you have mentally and physically behind the stage during the training.
How far did you get in the contests?
I think second place in the national round. Including Taiwan, I think I was sixth. In the top six students, we have three from Taiwan and three from mainland China, two from Sichuan University and one from University of Diplomacy in Beijing.
In the final round of one of the contests, it was a dialogue interpreting and there was a word, boomerang. You don't really see boomerangs in China, so it's a really strange word for us. So I didn't know what it meant, and I didn't interpret it. In our training most of the topics are about economy, politics, military, and environmental protection.
What do you do when you have no idea what's been said?
I think there are two ways to deal with this. The first is if you think that piece of information is really important, you will have to ask the speaker to either say it again, or he can explain it in simple language. And the second way is to, "mofu chuli," try to find a way to get around it by touching upon the overall meaning.
In training you have to force yourself to listen to really long and complicated sentences. Like the speech by state leaders. In Chinese the leaders don't have any subject in their sentences. They start with "'Should' do something" or "' 'Do' something is very important." So once you can listen to these, other speakers seem easy.
Do you really understand every subject matter you're translating? For instance, at the Tony Cragg talk, when he was talking about abstract ideas about art.
Well I cannot say that I understand exactly what his meaning is but I try to find the logic, the lines, the clues in his speech. I'm not an expert in sculpture, but on that day his audience comes from different walks of life so the way he speaks is easy to understand comparatively speaking. If there were some experts there of course it would be more difficult. But still there were some points I missed. For example there was a phrase "arte povera." I didn't know that word, so I just said it's a "movement about art." In Chinese it should be 贫穷艺术运动/pinqiong yishu yundong," "poor art movement." But at that time I didn't know what it was.
How does interpretation pay?
In southwest China, I'd say the average pay is less than half of the average pay in coastal cities. For simultaneous interpreting one day, maybe 5,000 or 6,000, that would be very high here. In Beijing, Shanghai, for very good interpreters it would be maybe more than 10,000 per day. Maybe you have one interpreting job one month or even two months, or even three months or half a year.
Has anything funny or embarrassing ever happened during an interpretation?.
Oh, absolutely! I interpreted for an AIDS seminar. They talked about different ways of having sex and organs, and at one point this Chinese professor from Sichuan University, Huaxi campus, he got really excited when he was talking to the participants, and at one point he suddenly turned back to me and asked, "How do you say 'penis' in English!?" He was talking in English but he was kind of a show-off person. The exact way he said it [in Chinese to me] was, "'Penis,' 'penis'—how do you say it in English?" I was really embarrassed!
Did you have to say it into the microphone?
Of course into the microphone! I said, "Oh, 'penis.'" My face turned red. Also at one point the participant from Africa said, "Well, I think lesbians are also at high risk in terms of AIDS infection because if we look at the ways they have sex, and at one point he said "finger fucking."
Who are the rock stars of the interpreting world?
If you look at the top interpreters you have Lin Chaolun in Britain. He's very tall, unlike the usual interpreters. Many male interpreters are not so good-looking. He's kind of like the star interpreter in this field. And another famous interpreter is the interpreters for Chinese leaders like for Chairman Mao. Also for President Hu, he has an interpreter whose name is Fei Shenchao. If you want to interpret for the president of course you have to be very good. He is not very outstanding in terms of appearance but his voice is very good, very pleasant and comforting. And also there's another famous interpreter who interprets for Premier Wen. Her name is Zhang Lv. Part of the reason she is famous is because she interprets for Premier Wen. Another part I think is because she's beautiful. In interpreting community if you are good looking it's easy for you to be famous.
Are there any foreigners who can interpret on a high level?
They're all Chinese. I know in Britain, in United States, you also have Chinese interpreting for the leaders, but in China we only have Chinese interpreting for leaders.
What about bilinguals?
Bilinguals speak in a more natural way because they are brought up in a bilingual environment. When they listen they are not listening for words but meaning behind the words. But many haven't received professional training in interpreting. When you are bilingual, you have a very good foundation, a prerequisite for becoming an interpreter because you know the differences in culture. But even if you are brought up bilingual you still have a lot of things to learn.
Did you ever have to translate something rude?
In business mansion talks, if you are interpreting for two parties, sometimes one side will get angry. I think at this moment the interpreter will try to ease the tension. So you find a way to be polite but still convey the meaning. [One time, I was interpreting for] a welcoming banquet and [one of the foreign guests] from the consulate or embassy of a country—not a very senior official, just one of the staff—was not given the VIP treatment, and he was really angry. I think he shouted at the staff on the Chinese side and then at dinner the government official asked me to tell him "We would never give ordinary staff VIP treatment so if you think you cannot accept this, you can go back to your embassy!" What I interpreted was, "Actually, we have our ways of dealing with foreign guests so we only provide VIP treatment to senior officials like consular generals and people so we hope you can understand it's our way, it's our procedure, and we cannot change this," and then he understands. It's really embarrassing if you say something rude, like "You can go back to your embassy."
The Note-Taking System
How do interpreters remember what they're supposed to say? They have a systematic method for taking notes in shorthand that involves both languages and symbols, some standard and some of their own invention. Paige showed us an example where a circle represented "country," a circle drawn above a line meant "developed country," and a circle below a line meant "developing country." Interpreters in training study books that offer suggested symbols and then pick and choose from them. "The arrangement of your notes on the paper is also very important," Paige explained. "You have to make it clear because you don't really have so much time to really look at all your notes and see what kind of meaning it is. So you have to do the logic at the same time as you are taking notes. I think many beginners focus too much on their notes—when they hear a word they will think what kind of symbol should I use but then miss the following part and fail to understand what the speaker is talking about." And what about when the sentence structure between the two languages is completely reversed? There's a trick for that, too, Paige said. "Some interpreters, they think really quick, so what they do is to reverse the order in their notes. For example if they find that maybe this part when it's translated from English to Chinese it should be said first so when they are doing the note-taking they will put the notes in the front. [But others] take notes according to the order of the original language and try to reverse the order when they are looking at their notes and speaking at the same time."
In need of interpretation services? Paige can be contacted at liupei3030[AT]163[DOT]com.