What the American Interpreter Got Wrong at Tense US-China Talks in Alaska

Mistranslations by the American interpreter could have made the U.S. officials sound more aggressive than they were.
March 22, 2021, 9:57am
American interpreter mistranslation china
Some nuances might have been lost in translation. FREDERIC J. BROWN / POOL / AFP

Top diplomats from China and the United States traded verbal attacks in an unusually combative meeting in front of cameras in Anchorage, Alaska, last week, as the two countries clashed on topics ranging from human rights to foreign policies to running overtime in their opening remarks.

But the confrontation between the officials of the two countries, meeting for the first time since Joe Biden became president, might have been exaggerated for a reason that has nothing to do with geopolitics: mistranslation.

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At the end of the opening session, China’s senior diplomat Yang Jiechi protested against the “tone of the U.S. side.” Although Yang is a fluent English speaker and former translator himself, the American translator made at least seven mistakes that could have made the U.S. officials sound less nuanced and more aggressive than they were. 

In comparison, China’s translator made only one obvious mistranslation, when she toned down Yang’s criticism of the “slaughter of the black people” in the U.S. by simply referring to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Here are the seven mistranslations or omissions by the American interpreter.

1. Threat to global stability 

When Secretary of the State Antony Blinken raised China’s policies regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the U.S., and economic coercion toward American allies, he said these actions “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” 

“That’s why they’re not merely internal matters and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today,” he said.

The interpreter, however, said these actions “cause harm to the interests of the world.” She said, “we are certainly not happy to see the problems. These are not problems for one country, but problems for the world.” 

2. International order 

Regarding the rules-based international order, Blinken said, “That system is not an abstraction. It helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively, and participate in global commerce with the assurance that everyone is following the same rules.”

The interpreter omitted the first sentence, and translated the second one as “we aim for peace, hoping to solve problems with multilateral efforts. I think the world also agrees on these efforts, which is defending the existing rules we are working on.”

3. Intent of being direct 

When Blinken mentioned the competition, cooperation and adversaries between the U.S. and China, he said the U.S.’ “intent is to be direct about our concerns, direct about our priorities, with the goal of a more clear-eyed relationship between our countries moving forward.”

Omitting Blinken’s reminder that he would be direct, the interpreter only said “today our discussions here include introducing to your side about our priorities on various aspects.” 

Following National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s speech, his expression of planning to convey U.S. concerns “frankly, directly, and with clarity” was also omitted by the interpreter. 

4. Strength of democracy

Sullivan said under President Biden’s leadership, America had “made major strides to control the pandemic, to rescue our economy, and to affirm the strength and staying power of our democracy.”

It was translated as “we effectively combatted the pandemic in a very short period of time, and in the meantime revitalized the economy, revitalized America’s power and strength in many aspects.” 

5. Do not seek conflicts

After stressing the importance of protecting the interests of the U.S. and its allies, Sullivan said, “We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends.”

The entire sentence came across in Chinese as “we will obviously face competition between us, and will present our stance in a very clear manner.” 

6. Deep satisfaction 

Blinken mentioned his talks with foreign officials about their concerns over China, adding, “I have to tell you, what I’m hearing is very different from what you described. I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re re-engaged with our allies and partners.”

The interpreter translated this line as, “What I’m hearing is very different from what you described, because they expressed deep dissatisfaction, and they are very happy the United States is back.”

7. Never a good bet 

In a harsh response to Chinese officials, Blinken quoted what Biden said when he visited China in 2011 as vice president, when he met with then China’s Vice-President Xi Jinping. “Vice President Biden at the time said, ‘it’s never a good bet to bet against America.’ That remains true today.” 

The interpreter went for a literal, word-for-word translation that is not grammatical in Chinese, and missed the last line, “That remains true today.”

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.

Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of the Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi as Yang Jieshi. We regret the error.