Embarrassed conference interpreters at President Obama and President Hu Press Conference

Have you watched President Obama and President Hu Press Conference (2011, Jan 19) and listened to the interpreters’ English or Mandarin? I have and I feel embarrassed for some of the “professional” conference interpreters working that day.

You see, I think people working at that level (interpreting the words of presidents) should be the best qualified people available. Because misunderstanding can have immediate and sometimes serious consequences.

If you have some working understanding of English and Mandarin, you would have realized that some of the interpreters’ English and Mandarin just sounded horrible and almost laughable.

I don’t know the conference interpreters and the protocols (e.g. if both countries were responsible of hiring and providing their own conference interpreters). I just think some of the conference interpreters that day should feel seriously embarrassed. And they should take some refresher courses to greatly improve their English or Mandarin before they work again and commit any more mistakes.

I do wonder if all the conference interpreters that day were International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) members. If they were all registered members, then I have to question the AIIC admission standard.

Check out the press conference and see for yourself.

P.S. I hope I am not too harsh on the conference interpreters but I refuse to think they were the “best” available conference interpreters.

Feb 3, 2011 2:29pm MST Update: I guess a personal note may help here. I am  a Canadian and am used to fluent translation between French and English. For example, I am listening to the English translation of “Meeting No. 54 INDU – Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology” right now. And the translated English is fluent and flawless!

14 Responses to Embarrassed conference interpreters at President Obama and President Hu Press Conference

  1. Joe henderson says:

    Is this an ad for AIIC? That is nothing but a cartel of self glorified linguists. Who are you to judge the quality of public servants, either Chinese or American? Were you at the conference? How was the audio quality, the setup, are you an interpreter? Some clarity would be appreciated.

  2. kempton says:


    This is definitely not an ad for AIIC. If you read my article again, you would have seen I actually wrote (emphasis added to the last bit),

    “I do wonder if all the conference interpreters that day were International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) members. If they were all registered members, ***then I have to question the AIIC admission standard.***”

    I based my views and comments from the results (the interpreted audio) to the press conference. Some (not all) of the English and Mandarin sounded so unnatural, in the manner they spoke, that I think I have been less critical that I could have been.

  3. George B says:

    Are you a native english or mandarin speaker? Are you a linguist? If the answer is yes then you might be qualified to judge the interpretation quality, but I doubt it. But posting statements like this is unprofessional and irresponsible… Were you at the conference? Did you check the audio quality? Did you actually see the interpreters?

    I also listened and found the quality to be excellent, especially the English to Mandarin. Whoever did that job deserves praise because he ( it was a male voice) had to interpret 2 questions and Pres. Obama’s response all at once because someone apparently forgot to tell Pres. Obama that there was to be consecutive interpretation.

    So before you post comments like this you should find out the real situation. If there really was a problem then I am sure the Chinese or US gove would have taken action.

    The Chinese into English interpreting was good, but was strongly accented, not as good as the English into Chinese. However, neither one was a native speaker of the target language, which is normal practice for diplomats.

    As for AIIC, that organization may have some value, but most diplomats serve their own governemnts, not organizations such as AIIC. IF anyone should feel embarrassed it should be those who post groundless comments this the internet without verifying the actual situation, apparently with a goal to bring down public servants. However, if you are a professional linguist, then please cite your credentials and provide a sample of your work for others to judge the quality of your interpreting.

    George – Tokyo, Japan

  4. kempton says:


    Thanks for taking time to share your comments.

    I wasn’t at the press conference and have no idea what the audio quality the interpreters had to work with. I was making my comments based on what I heard in the clip. Let me make one thing clear, I am not saying the interpreters made mistakes in their translations. I was focusing on how they sounded like.

    I think the Mandarin to English interpreting was accented and not smooth at places (your words “The Chinese into English interpreting was good, but was strongly accented”). And I also think the English to Mandarin was heavily accented/strange and choppy. Have a listen again to the Mandarin starting at ~35:01 and also at ~40:02

    George, I respectively disagree with you that I need to be a linguist, native English or Mandarin speaker. I guess I know enough to tell if someone is speaking fluent English or Mandarin. After all, I am harsh with my comments because I think interpreters working at that level should be best of the best.

    In my mind (you may disagree with me), the best interpreters should speak Mandarin with “Beijing accent”, American English with “Washington DC accent”, and British English with “London accent”, etc.

    Let me share you with an illustrative story I read in Mr. Y.P. Cheng’s new book 《不在香港的日子》. Mr. Cheng was formerly Chief Conference Interpreter of the Chinese Language Division, the predecessor of the Official Languages Agency (Hong Kong).


    Mr. Hui’s interpreter was a Chinese lady that speaks English really well.
    Mr. Cheng asked, “Where did you learn your English?”
    She said, “Beijing University”
    “Have you ever been to England?”
    “You know, your English has really heavy London accent?”

    George, may be I ask for a lot but this is what I call a “professional”.


    P.S. Thanks for sharing your views of AIIC.

    P.P.S. Here is the story in its original Chinese with additional text,

  5. peter wang says:

    interesting debate here, but let’s be clear about 2 things,

    1. There is no “standard” Chinese and no “standard” English. Both languages are used in many countries and regions so who is to say that “Washington” English or “Peking” Chinese is the standard? In Hong Kong we still use Cantonese.

    2. AIIC is like a cartel. It tries to set prices and limits membership to those recommended by other members. The potential for corruption is enormous. And it tends to discriminate among languages, for example, trying to demand higher pay for Japanese interpreters than for Spanish, to use an example. To suggest that the best translators are members of AIIC is an affront to the hundred of thousands of professionals who work independently.

    3. Membership in AIIC or any other group has nothing to do with the quality of interpretation, translation or any other language -related work. The Chinese and AMerican renditions both sounded fine – neither were native speakers but they faithfully translated their leaders’ messages under what appeared to be extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

  6. kempton says:


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. After reading your comments, let me share with you my views.

    1. It is true that Chinese in different regions of China, and English in different regions of UK and USA can sound very different. My arbitrary choice of Beijing, London, Washington D.C. is for diplomatic reason only. After all, those cities are capitals of the respective countries. Sure, President Obama is from Chicago, but I think it may be a bit too much to train interpreters down to that fine a linguistic distinction. Choosing the countries’ capitals is just a personal preference that seems to make sense.

    2. For Hong Kong, of course it makes sense to use Cantonese.

    3. From what you wrote, looks like AIIC may have problems of its own. Anyway, if you re-read my original posting about AIIC and my followup comments about AIIC, I don’t mean to suggest or imply AIIC members are the “best”.

    4. Again, one thing I wasn’t successful in making it clear to you and other commentators is this: these are interpreters for a presidential press conference, they should have been “best of the best”. In this case, I can imagine people doing a better job than them.

    5. I live in Canada. English and French are our official languages. As a result, our parliamentary debates, hearings are conducted in and laws written in both English and French. So our interpreters have to undertand and speak fluent English and French.

    Finally, I guess I am saying these interpreters are just any interpreters, they are the presidents’ interpreters and I just want them to realize there are still some room for improvement.

  7. BKremer says:

    Allow me as President of AIIC to make a few things clear.

    1. AIIC is not a cartel and has stopped setting fees for its members in 1992 (i.e. nearly 20 years ago; your readers like Peter Wang ought to get their facts right before they start writing). Any statement about AIIC being a cartel is libelous and simply untrue. I would encourage you to make this very clear to your readers. Every single interpreter is charging whatever the market, their geographical location, their experience, their language combination and the demad for interpeters would allow; this obviously means that there can be differences in their respective fees (and, as free competition would have it, there should!).

    2. Kempton, your initial remark (and the title of your piece) was very critical of the interpreters for this specific press conference, but in reacting to some readers, you corrected this impression by saying that your criticism was mainly about the way the interpretation sounded. It may have been fairer to state it right away: everyone has their own criteria about what “sounds good” (accent, fluency idiomatic expressions, etc.) but what counts first and foremost is the quality and reliability of the content. Of course, adding to it a nice voice and a fluent delivery cannot harm. But working under stress and in difficult situations may indeed ruin the best intentions of even the best of interpreters.

    3. Finally, I have no information about these interpreters being AIIC members or not. And to be honest, in this specific debate about the (actual or perceived) quality of interpreters, it is neither here nor there. We AIIC members do not claim to be perfect (nor do we think that non-AIIC members are either perfect or worthless); but we are proud of being professional, highly competent in our specific language combination, duly trained in all modes of interpretation and eager to improve constantly in all fields.

    Best, Benoit.

  8. kempton says:

    Hi Benoit,

    Thanks for clarifying that AIIC has stopped setting fees for its members since 1992.

    In my piece, since I wrote “sounded horrible”, I was clear that the focus was on how they sounded. And again, I don’t complain about interpreters often because I know that have a difficult job. But as I hope you can appreciate, I expect only the “best of the best” with almost perfect pronunciation should be selected to work at the presidential level.

  9. kwan says:

    According to what I read in the papers, the Chinese are the culprits here because they insisted on having their way with consecutive translation the last moment despite the earphones, in an attempt to shield their president from sensitive questions. Imagine if the reverse were true, would they let the Americans insist on having their way in China? The translators would not have been embarrased under such a situation as they would be used to such tricks.

  10. kempton says:

    My focus in this post is more of how the conference interpreters sounded like.

  11. Shan Tsen says:

    Hi Kempton,

    Just read this piece. I happen to know the official interpreter for the US side. He is an American and of course Mandarin isn’t his native tongue. The US government has its own rules and requirements for hiring staff interpreters. Interpreting skill is just one of them.

    I’m also a member of AIIC. The official US interpreter isn’t an AIIC member. I do agree being AIIC member doesn’t necessarily mean the best skills.

    It’s interesting to see you use Y.P. Cheng’s passage in his latest book. I was lucky to be in Y.P.’s first class that he taught after retirement. I still have contact with him and his wife, but I have never conversed with her in English. I’m glad to see there are people who still remember Y.P….

  12. kempton says:

    Hi Shan,

    Thanks for sharing your comment here. I think your comments are pretty fair.

    In hindsight, my original harsh words for both the US & Chinese sides shouldn’t really be my license to be undiplomatic/impolite to people from both sides even my standard was really high.

    It must have been really cool to be in Y.P. Cheng’s first class after his retirement! Y.P. is a respected legend to me.

    Please send Y.P. and Mrs. Cheng my best regards.

  13. Tong Trouc says:

    The Chinese official would not have tried to use an American accent because he would not want to sound pro-American. But Overseas Chinese are much better qualified and China should never let a foreigners translate into Chinese because unlike English, which is simply a neutral world language, Chinese, more properly known as “PutongHua” is a country-specific language that needs to be protectd and nurtured by the Chinese nation.

  14. kempton says:


    Thanks for sharing your comment. I see your point re American accent.

    Now, you may not have read my comment dated “Tuesday, 25 January, 2011 at 10:09 PM”. In it, I gave an example of a Beijing University trained Conference Interpreter speaking English with a heavy London accent. I like the old school professionalism of the old days.

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