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Andrew Dawrant, poses in his translation cabin in Shanghai on August 10, 2011. (Kevin Lee for The Globe and Mail)
Andrew Dawrant, poses in his translation cabin in Shanghai on August 10, 2011. (Kevin Lee for The Globe and Mail)

Interpreter

Alberta native stands at crux of dialogue between China and the West Add to ...

(Today, in casual conversation, Dawrant’s intelligence shines as the subject drifts from history to global affairs to literature to music. Not surprisingly, considering his ear for languages, he is an accomplished musician. He plays piano and sings strongly in both English and Chinese.)

Outside of academia, he spent much of his university years at a dim-sum restaurant. He first had to push the cart of a “dim-sum girl” around the sprawling restaurant hawking siu mai and har gao dumplings. He soon graduated to busboy and eventually to a full-fledged waiter. He became a minor celebrity in Edmonton’s Chinese community for his ability to converse in Cantonese with customers.

“My entire social life in university was based around the dim-sum restaurant,” he says.

Nearing the end of his studies, Mr. Dawrant had two encounters that would forever change his life. His birth mother contacted him after tracking him down with the help of a private investigator; he was inducted into a whole new family that eventually merged with his adopted kin – today, he says, his mother and adoptive mother are “best friends.”

Around the same time, Mr. Dawrant met the man who would help determine his career. Jean Duval was Canada’s top Chinese-language interpreter in the 1980s and 1990s. A large man with a handlebar mustache and a booming voice, he was born in France but was employed by the government of Canada. Some say this intellectual and gregarious character did as much to strengthen Canada’s ties with China as any diplomat – when he visited the country with Jean Chrétien, he would receive just as warm a personal welcome from Chinese president Jiang Zemin as the prime minister did.

Mr. Dawrant met Mr. Duval on a plane headed to China in 1989. The interpreter was reading a book in a language Mr. Dawrant couldn’t recognize (it was Uighur – Mr. Duval was compiling a dictionary). They spoke Mandarin to each other and Mr. Dawrant then switched to Cantonese. Mr. Duval couldn’t converse as well in that language so he retaliated with Shanghainese. They called it a draw, and Mr. Duval talked about his career as an interpreter.

“It was absolutely fascinating to me. It was something I had never really thought about before. I’d been learning Chinese very seriously, but with no end game,” Mr. Dawrant says.

The next stop was a brutal interpreting school in Taiwan where, like a U.S. Marine, Dawrant was physically and mentally dismantled to be built back up as an interpreter.

“It was class, practice and then more class and more practice. We never went anywhere. It was like special forces training for two years,” he says. “They completely reconfigured the way your brain works – the way you deal with language and memory. Constructing a discourse model. Getting inside the speakers head and becoming very flexible with all your languages. It is kind of like torture, basically.”

The newly rewired Mr. Dawrant took a job with the Canadian government in 1996. Though based in Toronto, the position involved constant travel to China, interpreting for ministers, diplomats and civil servants. He travelled not only to the major cities but to Chinese rural villages and communities that had never seen a laowai before.

“I was lucky to be there during a golden period for the Canada-China relationship. Prime Minister Chrétien … did the ‘Team Canada’ trips and I was on all of them, doing simultaneous interpreting for the prime minister. Canada was very big in China. We had a lot of ‘face,’ ” he says, using a term that doesn’t translate well – simply put it means “respect,” but the concept is much more complicated than that.

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For an interpreter, each language has its own challenges, but few are more difficult than Chinese. It is a language rife with homonyms, homographs, homophones and words whose meaning changes dramatically depending on the use of tone. There are also hundreds of words and phrases that simply don’t translate into English. This is where the interpreter truly earns his keep by finding an appropriate substitute, a complex decision that must be made in a matter of seconds.

Worse are the many classical Chinese literary allusions and idioms favoured by many Chinese politicians and executives. Classical Chinese is a different language entirely from modern speech in China, and if the interpreter has never heard and been explained the gist of a classical phrase before, he’s unlikely to have any idea of its meaning. The Chinese interpreter’s greatest nightmare, Mr. Dawrant says, is hearing a client say, “This reminds me of a poem … ”

And yet, incredibly, major mistakes by professional interpreters are exceedingly rare. But when they do occur, the consequences can be extraordinary.

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