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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

Confessions of a Chinese interpreter

In the late 1980s, I completed my Mandarin interpreter training in Hong Kong and the night before I was due to fly home, I was summoned to report to the MOD on arrival in the UK.

I duly reported to the relevant MOD department and was told, ‘Thou shalt not proceed on your leave as planned. You are to be the host interpreter for the most senior military delegation ever to visit these isles!’ This was despite the fact that since my examination results were still pending, I was not a qualified interpreter. I might add that I had only had two weeks’ leave in the previous two years, so had looked forward to some relaxation.

To protect the innocent I shall name no names. Let us just call the host officer General K and his wife, Lady K. One evening, I was assigned to act as interpreter at a dinner at the Honourable Artillery Club. I was to sit behind and between Lady K and the head of the Chinese delegation, General H. General H was what was termed ‘a peasant general’. He had risen through the ranks to become China’s youngest ever divisional commander. I had already discovered that he had no interest in culture whilst accompanying him to a concert and a tour of an historic house. I should add, that I was a little peeved, too, that no arrangements had been made to offer me anything to eat prior to interpreting at the dinner. Lady K had wound me up by teasing me for being hungry and suggesting she should throw me one of her bread rolls. That might have influenced what happened next!

At some point she said to General H, ‘I’m so interested in China. It’s been a special topic of interest to me ever since I was given a very beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid jewellery box.’

I didn’t think the general would find that terribly riveting and, moreover, I didn’t know how to translate, ‘mother-of-pearl inlaid’. Instead, I translated, ‘Lady K likes football. She wondered if you did?’

The general almost choked on his food and replied, ‘Are you sure she said “football”?’

‘Of course, sir,’ I replied confidently.

‘Well,’ he said with more animation that he had shown all evening. ‘I do like football and admire Manchester United.’

I translated to Lady K, ‘The general finds that very interesting and would love to know more about your box.’

Lady K was delighted and went off into infinite detail about her jewellery box. My reply to the general was, ‘Lady K supports Chelsea.’

I could see Lady K looking surprised by how short my reply was, so I had to continue, ‘Of course, Manchester United is a very popular side in this country, too, but lady K is from London and that has influenced her choice of team.’

By then I had realised the error of my ways. I was now committed to making up two entirely fictitious conversations of equal length to those actually taking place, but I could not back out now. The next few minutes of conversation filled me with terror lest I be caught out. Fortunately, Lady K moved onto a more mundane subject and I was spared potential branding and dismissal from the Service. However, I often wonder if General H went back to China rather impressed that Lady K was not stuffy and had turned out to be such an avid fan of football.

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