Across the Strait, or the Main Takeaways from an Interpreting Trip to China
Kirill Sharkovski, Interpretation Track
Author’s note: this one is not by ChatGPT, I swear!
My group mates are well aware of my affinity for sharing anecdotes from across the Strait. While they might be experiencing a degree of fatigue, this publication was spared from this pleasure, at least until now. After all, my experience interpreting in China is what led me to enroll in GPTI in the first place, which is why I hold it so dear.
My original title for this article was ‘Behind Enemy Lines’, which might seem exaggerated, but that is exactly how I felt stepping on Chinese soil for the first time in three and a half years. Post-pandemic PRC is very different, but the key differences lie in small details. Crossing the Chinese border was never a blast, yet the moment I realized something was off was when the border authority detained me for having Taiwanese border stamps in my passport. Admittedly, I was perfectly content with it by the second time it happened, but the initial occasion was the omen of things to come.
It is well-known that, in the second half of the previous decade, China’s development reached its zenith, as did its international standing. Shenzhen, with its shining skyscrapers and the general polish of a newly opened hospital, has always been the perfect showcase for the country’s staggering growth, and as fate would have it, it was exactly where I was headed.
A Potemkin village, Shenzhen is certainly not, but as economic problems ramp up, cracks begin to show on its previously spotless allure, and it is not merely about cracks in the pavement or deteriorating infrastructure. Just as the entire country looked towards a brighter (economic) future, so did Shenzhen’s often younger and up-and-coming residents keep their hopes up. Now, despite state propaganda efforts, things are just not as good as they used to be — and it shows. Many enterprises in the economy heavily reliant on exports had to shut down, and many lost their livelihoods as a result. Even some of the companies I visited on work trips ceased to exist, which again underlines the extent of economic issues. Concurrently, conversations with locals mostly revealed that their expectations for the future were not as rosy as before, and while this is not an objective indicator, it is not, in my opinion, to be immediately discarded.
Anyone who ever had the honor to partake in the fabled process of doing business in China knows its peculiarities perfectly well, particularly in the area of hospitality that locals tend to exhibit to potential partners (perhaps, this might be the case in Taiwan as well due to common cultural influences, but I am not knowledgeable about that). Factories there may often be quite disorderly, but it is a must for any Chinese boss to impress you culinarily — simply put, by throwing a feast in the visitor’s honor. I remember my initial trip back in 2018, where I marveled at the amount of food on the table, and the ordeal was repeated upon every visit to a different supplier. At the time, it was common to order twice as much food as could be reasonably finished — apparently, when you are trying to impress, anything goes! Compared to five years ago, the lavishness of this treatment has greatly diminished, perhaps due to laws designed to combat food waste or the far-reaching consequences of economic downturn. However, even dinner is not the time for interpreters to finally relax — the round shape of dining tables makes it important to facilitate communication, not least to avoid awkward silence or the feeling of exclusion for one of the parties involved.
An important discovery for me was that it is possible to interpret simultaneously face to face, without a booth present. The need for that arose due to the obvious constraint of the consecutive mode — that is, the time delay in transmitting information, which is often unacceptable, as time is money. Ultimately, I ended up interpreting my employer’s words in Chinese as he spoke and vice versa, effectively doing SI in both directions, and the involvement of a plurality of technical terms made this an overwhelmingly challenging task. It is, indeed, possible, but perhaps there is wisdom in working in just one direction with ample pauses after all.
My language combination during this work trip was Mandarin and Russian, with only occasional English here and there. Even though Russian is one of my mother tongues, due to different (and often less rigid) grammatical structures, lack of training, lack of habit, or all of the above, I felt very challenged when interpreting in this language. This makes me wonder whether I will be able to get my performance on par with my other languages anytime soon.
Finally, I was pleasantly surprised by the friendly attitude towards Taiwan and how little the Chinese I conversed with knew about it. Besides the usual clichés such as 「寶島台灣」and having listened to 阿里山的姑娘 sometimes in their childhood, Chinese people I encountered knew very little about this island, but were very eager to learn more about it. No matter how heated politics may be at the moment, it is heartwarming to see that most people still maintain a friendly attitude.
September 25, 2023