A lost in translation press conference
January 19th, 2011
06:42 PM ET
4 years ago

A lost in translation press conference

Washington (CNN) – The joint news conference with the two presidents started off just fine. President Barack Obama praised a "spirit of cooperation that is also friendly competition." President Hu Jintao told reporters the countries' relationship is based on "mutual respect and mutual benefit."

Then came the "lost in translation" moment that turned the press availability into what felt like one long Chinese-language lesson.

It started when both presidents were asked about human rights in China. Mr. Obama answered but, in a confusing moment, Mr. Hu did not. Instead, the translator began translating Mr. Obama's answer. Then they went on to another question. So another U.S. reporter asked the human rights question again, hinting the Chinese president might have tried to avoid it.

President Hu was not amused: "First, I would like to clarify, because of the technical translation and interpretation problem, I did not hear the question about the human rights," he said. "What I know was that he was asking a question directed at President Obama. As you raise this question, and I heard the question properly, certainly I'm in a position to answer that question."

And he did.

For long stretches in the press conference the two leaders stood by, awkwardly waiting for the translation.

At one point, a Chinese reporter chimed in, chiding the translators: "Because of the on-and-off interpretation from the simultaneous booths, I would like to ask the Chinese consecutive interpreter to interpret my two questions correctly and accurately."

When it was all over, Mr. Obama, his Mandarin language lesson over, apologized: "All right, everybody. Thank you so much for your patience, due to the technical difficulties."

The White House later told CNN that it was the Chinese who requested the type of translation used: "consecutive" in which the speaker says his piece, then waits for it to be translated. All it requires, it seems is a little patience.


Filed under: President Obama • White House
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Comedian Rush Limbaugh mocked the Chinese language today . . .

    demonstrating his civility, good taste and moderation once again

    January 19, 2011 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
  2. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    That's why he's called President Obama, he's as saavy and sharp as they come, knowing what to say and when to shut it down.

    January 19, 2011 07:39 pm at 7:39 pm |
  3. oldguy

    "When it was all over, Mr. Obama, his Mandarin language lesson over, apologized: 'All right, everybody. Thank you so much for your patience, due to the technical difficulties'."

    Where in the heck did THAT come from? The story is about mis-cues. Nothing about mis-interpretation of Mandarin... The quality of the writing and editing on these CNN website stories is really incompetent on a day-to-day basis.

    January 19, 2011 08:34 pm at 8:34 pm |
  4. George

    You ever notice how those Chinese interpreters always "look" Chinese? So how can ya trust em? China has way too many people for them to be nit picking themselves about human rights. They can't afford to have political dissenters running around stirring up trouble, and considering the age of the country and people,if I were Chinese, I would be offended by the infant USA telling me how to run my society.

    January 19, 2011 11:00 pm at 11:00 pm |
  5. J.V.Hodgson

    I am completely at a loss as to why this is considered so important and news worthy.
    Hu Jintao's answer in the end was a perfectly reasonable response.
    Why was it not part of this report.
    Regards ,
    Hodgson.

    January 20, 2011 12:28 am at 12:28 am |
  6. jules sand-perkins

    Like it or not, the USA will be closely related to China for a long time. It's fine with me: I like silk and friendly dogs bred for palace use.
    Instead of throwing ignorantly devised terms like "dictator" at our neighbors, as Harry Reid tried to pull off, it would be to our advantage to examine China's long cultural history in relationship to "human rights," the issue of the "translation" confusion.
    It is helpful to compare
    America's Puritanical heritage, as exemplified by Baptist-church protests against homosexuals at military funerals, to Chinese yin/yang concepts and their often gender-neutral literature in relationship to such human rights issues as gay marriage, the need for population control, and abortion in our separate but powerful nations.
    There's a lot more to China than Mao's Little Red Book: it's enormously helpful to be able to talk to others, and not to dismiss any complex item as "lost in translation."

    January 20, 2011 06:15 am at 6:15 am |
  7. vikingslost

    Thank you President Obama for receiving President Hu Jintao of China in a most gracious and hospitable way.

    This has been the first time in 13 years that China participated in the U.S. in such a fashion.

    Though there are some differences between the countries in human rights, Hu Jintao did say that China is at a different stage in its development than America. President Obama has brought the two countries closer together which in no way can be construed as negative.

    January 20, 2011 07:41 am at 7:41 am |