ll the world's a stage,"
Shakespeare wrote, and Jeffrey Tao knows that perhaps better than
most. As a senior interpreter in Chinese for the United Nations, he
acts out his own low-profile but crucial role on the world stage.
specializes in simultaneous interpretation - real-time translation
during meetings between the Chinese delegates and their
He sits in a
glass booth, wearing headphones, watching the non-Chinese delegates
speak. His job is entirely oral - he must immediately interpret what
is being said so the Chinese delegation can act upon it.
pre-scripted but the work is very creative," he says, his polite
British pronunciation laced with a subtle Chinese accent. "I'm using
all my intellectual and verbal resources at the same time."
ao concedes that conversation is
difficult in one language, let alone two. He has to listen,
conceptualize and speak all at the same time. Speed and accuracy are
essential. It's very intense.
"You have to
know exactly what's going on, know what you mean exactly and have
the determination to convey exactly what is said," he says.
interpreters often have long careers and Tao, who has 30 years under
his belt, has had one of the longest. He joined the simultaneous
interpretation division in 1971, right after studying Russian at the
University of Sussex in England. He had intended to work in the
U.N.'s Russian interpretation section but jumped at the chance to
use his Chinese when China joined the United Nations that same year.
outstanding performance has earned him tremendous respect from his
colleagues and the Chinese delegation, says Ruojin Wang, chief of
the Chinese interpretation section at the U.N. and Tao's boss. Wang
says Tao is the interpreter of choice for when the U.N. Security
delegates hope he's always there," she says. "When it's tough
subject matter, we make sure Jeffrey Tao is on the council team."
"He also has
some of the requisite qualities to be a very good interpreter: an
open mind, presence of mind, interest in all subject matters and a
conscientious working attitude."
Tao, a native
of Shanghai, says he sees himself more as a performer than a
is not just language in the technical sense," he says. "It allows
you to use the power of speech as a form of oratory."
he man who once dreamed of
broadcasting for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Hong Kong
now loves the job he compares to being an opera singer or a
Tao says he
sees his job as conveying the spirit of what is said as well as the
facts. He's a participant, but transparent to the process - he can't
inject his feelings into his delivery or translation. He works to
sound neutral without sounding dispassionate.
interpreters speak in a very deadpan fashion, Tao says, but he
prefers to put across the spirit of the original material, like an
actor. He says that's truer to the speaker and more effective.
And like an
actor once the curtain drops, Tao says at the end of the day he's
exhausted, emotionally drained but exhilarated. The part he plays in
making international diplomacy possible at the highest level,
though, still challenges and thrills him enough to keep him eager
for the next performance.
||Simultaneous Interpreter, Chinese Section, |
Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Russian,
three-hour meetings per day, up to seven per
How simultaneous translation
The Price of Each Word
The United Nations has set the pay standards
for all translation companies. At the UN, there are two main
types of translators:
(1) Textual translators, who work
with written documents. According to the American Translators
Association (ATA), they are paid a salary of 15 to 25 cents per
(2) Simultaneous interpreters, who listen
and translate at the same time. They get a much higher salary - in
some cases up to $850 per day.
People seeking a career in translation are required
to be fluent in at least two languages. Greater opportunities are
available for those fluent in English and one of the other official
languages of the U.N. (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and
hours per week
Salary after 5 yrs.
Salary after 10 yrs.
|* Based on Princeton Review Publishing
PHOTO: Javier Ruiz