Thursday, 22 June 2017

Interpreting from Chinese (China / Italy)

As a south-east Asian who’d only been exposed to mainly southern accents in Singapore and Taiwan, and then some mainland Chinese accents in London since 1977, I’ve always worried about interpreting from Chinese to English, due to the vast range of regional accents.  

A planned interview on the 1988 film shoot in China, with the protagonist of the motorcycle travelogue “coming across” a peasant who’d become rich on the Responsibility System of 1979 (initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of 1978), had to be abandoned because I couldn’t understand a single word of what the peasant said.  The local guide/interpreter’s English was too poor to make it viable as we’d have to get her to render the peasant’s Chinese into standard Chinese for me, and I’d then have to render that into English, which would take up too much time and film stock for it to be worthwhile.

Last year, intermittent student Daniel wanted to take advantage of Mr Zhang’s presence at the Milan Trade Fair to hold a meeting with him over various matters.  Mr Zhang is the manager of the factory in Shenzhen where Daniel gets his product made.  Daniel wanted to thrash out some issues and it was cheaper to go to Milan than to China.  I was asked to go along and interpret.

Mr Zhang is from central China.  He’d brought along a young man in his early 30s from north-west China to interpret for him at the trade fair.

During the negotiations, there were a couple of words Mr Zhang said that I could not quite place: gēngsī and gēngzuò.  After a while, I worked out that he meant gōngsī (公司 / company) and gōngzuò (工作 / work).

I asked Mr Zhang’s interpreter, “Do you understand everything he says?”  He said, "No!"  

What chance do I have if even his own interpreter, who’s from mainland China as well, doesn’t always understand him!?!

(China, 1988 / Italy, 2016)

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