Joint Press Conference Double Speak
Because of the disjointed setup with respective language translators, President Obama's joint press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao was often interrupted for translations of remarks and questions into both English and Chinese. But it also allowed an opportunity for bilingual speakers to pick up nuances from the original remarks.
Hu, true to form, came well prepared, particularly with numbers and statistics, as befitting a former engineer. He handled all queries comfortably, even though as the head of a one-party dictatorship, he's never obliged to face a blistering free press at home.
On one occasion, Hu did flash noticeable annoyance, even a slight temper, when asked why congressional leaders are snubbing him at the state dinner tonight. He tersely concluded his remarks with "that's a question for him," and pointed to President Obama. It was a moment reminiscent of John McCain's contempt during a debate in the 2008 presidential election when he pointed to Obama and barked "that one."
Hu did not say "President Obama" as the English translator did, and he was not at all amused, even offended by such a snub. And at least partially he blamed Obama because he must have believed that Obama should have held sway to prevent an incident that would be viewed as a colossal "loss of face" for him at home.
Obama, on the other hand, kept his composure and handled the questions deftly, with skillful dancing on the inevitable and contentious issue of China's human rights record. His one light-hearted moment, though, was also lost in translation.
When asked of a potential challenge from Amb. Jon Huntsman for the presidency in 2012, Obama quipped that the fact that he and Huntsman (a former Republican governor of Utah) work so well together has to help Huntsman in the GOP primary. But the Chinese translator did not get the joke and spoke as if Obama meant it sincerely.
The technological problems have to be seen as somewhat of an embarrassment for the White House. With the leaders of the two most powerful countries meeting in a summit, the U.S. appeared ill-prepared for something as simple as a press conference. The quality of the translators (both for English and Mandarin) is also questionable, as both spoke with a slight accent.
Maybe it's time to boost the ranks of fluent Chinese speakers in the U.S. diplomatic corps. These summits with China's leaders will only increase in frequency for the foreseeable future.