Barack Obama

Press conference lost in translation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am

Journalists were hungry for answers at Wednesday's joint press conference by the two presidents but translation problems just left the two leaders hungry, with President Hu Jintao's lunch at the State Department delayed until after 2.30pm.

However, US President Barack Obama and Hu still managed to project an aura of mutual understanding at the 'lost in translation' press conference, where an apparent breakdown in the simultaneous interpretation system stretched answers to four questions into a one-hour marathon.

The glitches kicked in with the first question by a US journalist on China's human rights. Obama gave his answer, which according to some Chinese journalists was simultaneously translated, but Obama was told that the answer had not been translated, and his translator stepped in to translate it again through the stage microphone.

'I apologise, I thought we had simultaneous translation there, or I would have broken up the answer into smaller bites,' Obama said after he realised what had happened.

Hu stood beside him looking blank as the translator continued with a long monologue on human rights. While the question was also aimed at Hu, he didn't answer, shocking some of the American journalists present.

When a second American journalist asked Hu the same question, he said he hadn't heard it the first time.

'First, I would like to clarify, because of the technical translation and interpretation problem, I did not hear the question about the human rights,' Hu 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.'

All questions and answers ended up being consecutively translated, doubling the length of the press conference, with a Chinese journalist asking the consecutive translators to translate his questions correctly given the 'on-and-off translation from the simultaneous booths'.

That wasn't the only technical glitch. For a few seconds in the morning it appeared that a US guard was unable to open Hu's limousine door as he arrived at the White House South Lawn. It did open.

Still those were minor compared to five years ago, when the US announced China's national anthem as being that of the 'Republic of China' , Taiwan's official name. That South Lawn welcoming ceremony was also marred by a Falun Gong protest.