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'Mystery' interpreter reveals disappearing act

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

WUHAN, China – A few days ago we posted a blog musing about the "Mystery Mandarin Expert" who was interpreting at the joint U.S.-China trade talks in Beijing earlier this month.

With a little persistence and the assistance of the U.S. embassy, I was able to track down the interpreter – Jim Brown – and interview him over the phone about his Chinese language training.

The first thing I learned about Jim is that he isn't as shy as reputed. In fact, he's quite assertive, especially when it comes to discussing the U.S. diplomatic service and China.

Early in our interview, he set out to clarify the perception that it's rare for non-ethnic Chinese to interpret at high-level official events, dismissing the suggestion that he's unusual. "It's totally normal and common that Americans do know these languages, and that officials do bring their own staff," he said.

AFP - Getty Images

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


And contrary to popular opinion, Jim said, many American diplomats are proficient in the language of the country in which they're working, "more so than other diplomats." Moreover, explaining why so many more Chinese seem to be proficient in English, as opposed to the number of Americans who speak Chinese, he added, "In the U.S., people can choose from 30 or 40 languages [to study], but in China everyone learns English."

For the 54-year old Jim, the decision to become an interpreter was made fairly early on in life.

The accidental specialist 

A native of Washington, D.C., Jim led the peripatetic childhood of a diplomat's son. "I was very fortunate," he said. "I lived in Taiwan in the 1960s and [then also] studied history and international relations at Fu Jen University" in the island's Taipei County.

His first job after graduating was consulting for Pan-American Airlines in 1978-1979.  "I did 13 trips to China in that one year," he said.

A year later, he was working for the Department of Defense and not long after, in 1981, he joined the State Department. "My original intent was to become a generalist," recounted Jim, who said he'd always been interested in diplomacy. "I didn't want to specialize."

But China was opening up to the world, and the demand for his kind of skills was growing.  "There was a critical need for interpreting [Chinese]," said Jim. He served four years at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Two more tours would follow, each lasting seven years – in the 1980s and then in the 1990s.  He's currently on his fourth assignment in China.

In his early encounters with ordinary Chinese people, Jim said there was a good deal of surprise at his language proficiency. He recalled one experience when he ordered a bowl of noodles somewhere on the roadside in the south in 1978.

"People kept coming over, saying, 'Oh, the foreigner speaks Chinese,'" he said.  The crowd grew so large that eventually it attracted a policeman who told Jim to move on, because he was blocking traffic.

These days, however, "People expect [you to speak Chinese] more and more," said Jim, who disputes the idea it's difficult for non-Chinese to learn the language. "There's nothing mysterious about China or Chinese," he said. 

The challenge of interpreting – in any language

Jim – who also speaks Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and French – said mastering Mandarin is not any tougher than mastering any other language; although he did concede there were one or two challenges unique to Chinese.

"Those four-character sayings [known as] cheng yu," he said, referring to classical Chinese idioms or proverbs. "It's very hard to translate the historical allusions." 

But otherwise, his concerns as a Chinese-language interpreter are the same as in any language. "The most important thing is to be accurate – never insert anything, never edit," he said, even when the situation might be a bit tense, as it was in the U.S.-China trade talks in mid-December

"The job is not to tone things down or change it in any way," he said.

As many of the readers of our previous blog post surmised, Jim's capacity for languages is overmatched by his modesty.  Becoming a good interpreter, he said, "is a gradual process. I think a person is never satisfied. You always think you could be better."

According to Jim, excelling at the job means disappearing.

"Some people call me shy, and maybe I am, but that's part of the job, to keep a low profile. At times after meetings, people have come up to me to tell me what happened during the meeting and I say, 'I was there,'" he e-mailed me after our phone call. "When they forget I was there interpreting, then that is the highest compliment."