Beijing (China Daily/ANN) - If you live in China, you're likely to have encountered any number of expats who speak reasonable Mandarin Chinese. You may even know some who, to all intents and purposes, are fluent in the language.
However, there's one group you may not have noticed unless you've attended a high-profile conference or major event: Soberly dressed and almost invisible behind the speakers or in a corner of a conference room, they are the professional interpreters who provide simultaneous interpretation from Chinese into English - or possibly a variety of languages - and back again.
This small group seldom makes an impression on the audience, but their work is invaluable in bridging linguistic and cultural divides. They are highly trained and in great demand.
One of these "invisible people" is Andrew C. Dawrant, who has won wide renown in his chosen field. The Canadian national has provided his skills to CEOs, Nobel Prize winners and politicians, the high point being his work at former US president George W. Bush's speech at Tsinghua University when he visited China in 2002.
Dawrant is a conference interpreter, although that title doesn't really explain the depth of his brief. He provides simultaneous interpretation - not translation, a term used mainly for work on printed documents - at conferences, media briefings, corporate events and even in international courts.
"It is called conference interpretation because of the history of the profession," said Dawrant, referring to the early days of the profession at the end of the 19th century, when large international conferences first came into being. Nowadays, the interpreter's skill is widely used by organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union, and at meetings between heads of state and intergovernmental bodies. However, in general, most interpreters now work in the private sector for multinational companies and similar organisations.
One of the major skills is mastery of pronunciation. When Dawrant speaks in Mandarin, many of those listening would be hard pushed to believe he is not a native speaker. As such, he is one of a small group whose language skills are good enough to move flawlessly between Mandarin and English and qualify as a conference interpreter.
"I think there is a huge gap between what interpretation schools can deliver and what can really succeed in the demanding Chinese market. Every year I meet only a small number of students who are good enough to make it," he said.
The International Association of Conference Interpreters, known officially by its French acronym AIIC, was founded in 1953 and is the only global association of international interpreters. The association encompasses 3,000 professionals in more than 250 cities and 90 countries who are bound by a strict code of ethics and professional standards. Applicants are judged by their peers, who sponsor their entry to ensure that standards remain high.
AIIC currently has roughly 110 interpreters across the globe specialising in Chinese as a working language. A dozen years ago - when Dawrant joined the association as a freelance - the number was only about 20.
Tom Peart, an official interpreter for the Delegation of the European Union to China, who also manages the interpreters' budget, said that two years ago he spent 319 days in Beijing working for the EU. Some of the meetings required the use of two or three interpreters, so he hired a number of freelances to help with these high-level meetings.
"China is one of the world's fastest growing markets for international conferences and high-profile international events," said Martine Bonadona, president of Calliope Interpreters, a leading global network of professional interpreters that has just announced its official entry into China.
At present, 10 foreign interpreters are fully active on the Chinese mainland, but the six freelances among them are usually hired for multinational events, according to Peart.
"We don't discriminate in terms of nationality," he said. "It is simply about ability and experience. We have hired freelance interpreters from the United States, Canada and the EU region, but we also have some excellent native Chinese interpreters."
In many Western countries, the traditional direction of interpretation is from a foreign language into the mother tongue, according to Wang Enmian, chair of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, when interviewed by the Translators Association of China.
"If you compare Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean with European languages such as French, Spanish, English, Italian and German, it is really unfair to say that foreign interpreters are more skilful than native interpreters," said Dawrant.
That's because in the major European languages it is very easy for interpreter training schools to recruit students who are bilingual or very close to being bilingual. There is a huge pool of candidates from which these schools can choose: Many have grown up speaking two languages, have lived in foreign countries for extended periods of time, or have parents who speak different languages. That's a common situation in Europe, according to the experts.
However, the situation in China is totally different, as it is in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. It is very difficult to find people who are truly bilingual, native sounding and articulate.
"Interpretation from Chinese, Japanese and Korean is mostly conducted by native speakers, who have learned an international language such as English at school. These are not languages they have grown up with.
"It's often because Chinese foreign-language graduates rarely have the opportunity to live and study overseas," said Daniel Glon, an AIIC member who lives in China and interprets from English, Spanish and German into French. Glon decided to move to China after working at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and is currently learning Mandarin.
"However, China is such a big country and there is no shortage of geniuses. So you have a lot of smart, motivated Chinese students who study English very hard. So training interpreters should not be a problem," said Dawrant.
Li Yuanxing is one of a group of interpreters who've shown great potential. The second-year postgraduate at the Sino-EU Interpreter Training Centre, which recruits only 10 students a year for its professional training programme, won the top prize in the simultaneous interpretation competition at the All-China Interpreting Contest this year.
"Sometimes I still have language problems, such as when I attended the middle term which is examined by EU supervisors," said Li at a translation forum hosted by the University of International Business and Economics.
The Sino-EU Interpreter Training Centre, along with the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation at Shanghai International Studies University, which uses AIIC members and is supported by the EU, offers interpretation programmes that strictly match the professional criteria. Students may have the chance to train in Brussels. The schools recruit only 10 students each from hundreds or even thousands of candidates.
"Anyone who graduates from these schools has already attained a certain level," said Peart. "We hire not only AIIC members, but also those who represent top quality."
"And we have a lot of people to choose from: those who graduate from these schools or those returning from Brussels."
"For 20 years, we have trained two groups of 10 annually, and most of them are now working for Chinese ministries or the EU. Because the EU uses the most experienced interpreters, we have interpreters in 23 languages. So it is very complicated. We have a huge interpretation department, bigger than the UN, bigger than anywhere else. We have to undertake interpretation into so many languages," said William Fingleton, head of press and information at the Delegation of the European Union to China.
"Ten is a very good number. In good interpretation schools, there are usually fewer than 10 students. When you recruit students, the standards should be very strict so you can ensure they are people who are likely to meet the required graduation standard. The course is very tough, they have taken extremely rigorous exams to ensure they master all the skills quickly," said Peart.
"I am very suspicious of any course that says it has 30 or 40 graduate students a year. Their students are not able to interpret at meetings in the required manner," he added.
At present, 159 Chinese universities offer master's degrees in translation and interpretation, and on average every year they recruit 30 candidates each for postgraduate studies.
"You also have to be realistic when you decide how many conference interpreters you really need and how many can you realistically train," said Dawrant, who was a professor and chair of the department of conference interpretation at Shanghai International Studies University from 2003 to 2011.
Moreover, some graduates are unlikely to make the grade. "I don't think they are qualified enough to work as interpreters. Nor do I think the market needs many interpreters. If you look at training courses, you can quickly learn how serious they are by looking at the curriculum."
He said if graduates are not working as professional interpreters 3 or 5 years after leaving the school, but are instead employed by companies or government departments, one may ask why the training course exists at all. Is the selection of students too lax? Or is the training course not good enough? Leaving aside those questions, it may simply be that the market isn't big enough to support so many graduates.
"It's true that there is a shortage of excellent interpreters," said Peart. "I think the main problem is that there is a lack of understanding of the importance of good interpreters. If you want to have a successful meeting or conference, you need good interpreters. But that's usually the last thing people think of. They will think of everything else and then after all of that they think about the interpreters."
"It is a matter of quality. It is a significant cost, but when they realise, it's too late."