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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 ...

Shuffling down a Shanghai street, he is as inconspicuous as any laowai (foreigner) might hope to be. Fair-skinned, balding, bespectacled and slightly paunchy, he wears an unremarkable dark suit and carries a weathered, brown, leather satchel. It’s what’s inside the bag that’s extraordinary. It is frequently stuffed with secret, sensitive documents, the thoughts and words of presidents, prime ministers, Fortune 500 CEOs and Nobel Prize winners.

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Andrew Dawrant is not a spy. At 40, he is widely considered the top Chinese-English language interpreter working in China today, a position he has held for nearly a decade, and therefore probably the most important interpreter in the world. It has been a most unlikely journey for the Alberta native, a personal rise in tandem with China’s meteoric ascent to become the world’s second-largest economy, at a time when it has never been so important that the ideas of the Middle Kingdom are properly communicated to the West and that China correctly comprehends the responses of the English-speaking world. Mr. Dawrant stands at the crux of that dialogue.

High-level conference interpreting, as it is known, is one of the most stressful jobs in the world, like an aircraft controller’s. A good interpreter doesn’t simply regurgitate words in a different tongue; he constructs a linguistic narrative to re-express ideas, all in a matter of seconds. When Mr. Dawrant is interpreting for the American president on a Chinese visit, he must be up to speed on major issues and tensions in the two nations’ relations, not to mention any number of treaties, economic agreements, trade disputes or legal cases as well as important people and places that could be mentioned.

And the interpreter must be just as cognizant of what is not being discussed. “The tone between the lines is just as important,” Mr. Dawrant explains. “How will you know what is unspoken and what was expected to be said that was not said unless you went in fully informed and knowing the expectancies that preexisted around the meeting?”

And just as if he were a spy, a top interpreter must never share the intimate details of his encounters with world leaders, dignitaries and celebrities. If Mr. Dawrant were to reveal what Barack Obama was focusing on or concerned about before meeting with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Beijing in 2009, he would never work again.

Consider his assignment in February of 2002, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush spoke at Tsingua University on the outskirts of Beijing, being broadcast to hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens on the state network CCTV. It marked only the second time that a U.S. president had given a live speech on Chinese television. The last time, when Bill Clinton did it in 1998, interpreting issues (caused by Mr. Clinton’s habit of veering from his prepared remarks), it provoked a news anchor to suggest that “if U.S.-China relations are going to improve, it will have to start with having better interpreters.”

As Mr. Bush began reading from the teleprompter in his characteristic halting drawl, Mr. Dawrant set to work, listening to the president talk in English, while at the same time relaying his message in Chinese in a smooth baritone.

“That was definitely the most nerve-wracking thing I have ever done.” he says. “You have to project total calm and peace through the microphone but inside you are in an incredibly nervous and anxious state.”

Had he failed, he concedes, his career would have been “pretty much over.” But he was note-perfect. The next day, however, there were no congratulatory e-mails or phone calls from a grateful White House.

That’s the lot of an interpreter: “If you do a brilliant job in something like that, the fact is, people won’t really notice.”

But Mr. Dawrant’s clients hasten to disagree. Michael Ducker, COO of FedEx Express, has been doing business in China since 1992 and calls on Mr. Dawrant each time he goes. “He is in a class by himself as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Ducker says.

Former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell worked with Dawrant on the majority of his visits to China and calls him “the best in the business.”

“He makes sure that if you are trying to say something humorous, people will find the humour in it. He will take something that has a North America slant … and make it work in the Chinese context,” Mr. Campbell says.

On a rainy spring morning in Pudong in 2010, for example, Mr. Campbell, with a large delegation in tow, was trying to convince a group of municipal officials to increase the purchase of B.C. lumber for construction. As Mr. Campbell spoke, the Chinese officials in matching dark suits and coal-black dyed hair sat stone-faced, looking unimpressed. Yet when Mr. Dawrant started talking in forceful, direct Mandarin, gesticulating for emphasis, their eyes instantly widened and they began smiling and nodding their heads in recognition.

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