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Mystery Mandarin expert is one of a kind

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

EPOCH CITY, Xianghe, China –

Let's be frank. Covering the prepared remarks of senior officials on the closing day of trade talks isn't exactly the most scintillating of assignments.

So as China's top trade negotiator Vice Premier Wu Yi and U.S. Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson read their statements to a room full of Chinese and western journalists at the end of the China-U.S. Strategic Economic Dialogue, I amused myself by comparing the original comments to the translations that followed.  

The English translation of Wu's Chinese-language speech was more or less on the mark. But as I jotted notes down in my pad, listening to the Chinese translation of Paulson's remarks, the inflection of a phrase caught my ear and I glanced up to take a look at the interpreter.

Somewhat to my surprise, it was a westerner who was translating Paulson's speech into fluent Mandarin.

I racked my brain, trying to remember whether I'd ever seen a Caucasian interpret Mandarin at a high-level Chinese diplomatic function. 

Now I'm not suggesting fluent Mandarin-speaking westerners are rare. Far from it, I'm repeatedly shamed by all the non-Chinese around me whose Mandarin is so good they can mimic regional accents. But normally interpreters at high-level official events are ethnic Chinese.

Mandarin, after all, is a tough language to master. For one, it's tonal, not phonetic. (Mandarin – considered China's national language – has four tones. So each character has four ways to pronounce it and thus at least four different meanings. The popular southern dialect, Cantonese, has nine tones!)

It's character-based, using ideographs instead of an alphabet. (To be able to read a newspaper you need a command of at least 3,000-4,000 characters.) And the grammar, which appears deceptively simple at first, can actually be quite tricky.

The mystery interpreter

My curiosity piqued, I wondered who the fellow was? Where did he learn his Mandarin? Did he think in Chinese? Was he a part of Paulson's staff?  (Wow, I thought, Paulson really does want to build trust with the Chinese and clarify perceptions and increase understanding.) What did the Chinese officials think of him and his language skills? Was he used to getting, well, the kind of reaction I was having to seeing him translate?

A few days later, after a round robin of e-mails to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and several State Department bureaus in Washington, I was nowhere closer to answering any of those questions. But I did learn a few things. 

The interpreter's name is Jim Brown.

Apparently Jim is quite shy.

And apparently there aren't many like him.

AFP - Getty Images

The interpreter Jim Brown sits behind U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, left, as he speaks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 13.

There are three levels of expertise for translators, Brenda Sprague, the Director of the Office of Language Services for the Department of State, patiently explained to me over the phone in the early hours of my morning. (The Office of Language Services and its staff, said Sprague, "support the President, the White House, the State Dept, and provide assistance to rest of federal government – just the very highest level of work.")

The first level of skill is "simple consecutive" translation. "Although it's not that simple," explained Sprague. Interpreters have to be able to translate on the spot after each remark or statement.

The second level of expertise is "simultaneous seminar-level," which, as its name suggests, is simultaneous translation in a less formal environment like lower level meetings or training courses. "And in theory, you can stop to catch up or take notes," said Sprague.

And the third level is "full-blown consecutive" translation, in which interpreters can work in both simple consecutive and simultaneous translation, but at very senior-level meetings or diplomatic functions. 

'Only one Jim'

So presuming Jim Brown falls into the third category, I asked, are there many more like him?

"In Jim's category, there's only Jim," replied Sprague.

Is someone like Jim – a white guy speaking fluent Mandarin – rare in her experience?

"I can only think of two or three like Jim," said Sprague.  "Most people [who interpret or translate Chinese] are ethnically Chinese or heritage speakers, immigrants who moved to the United States and became bilingual."

Sprague noted that even heritage or naturally bilingual speakers have to train rigorously to become top-tier interpreters. "You rarely find an interpreter who's any good who's under 30," she added. (With graying hair and distinguished professorial mien, Jim looked over 30.)

"We have very tough tests and follow strict guidelines for interpreters," continued Sprague.  "There aren't very many of them. Probably 40 staff interpreters at conference-level in all the nine languages we train."

That's not a very high number, considering that the State Department has a stable of 1,500-1,800 translators and interpreters (both staff and contractors, for written and spoken languages).

Most of these are based in Washington, D.C., but a handful are stationed in Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo – representing the volume of work and the importance of those countries to the United States, according to Sprague.

So there's hope. Maybe one day I will run into Jim Brown here and finally get some answers to my questions…in English.