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.
52, specializes in simultaneous interpretation - real-time translation
during meetings between the Chinese delegates and their non-Chinese-speaking
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
very 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."
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.
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
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
Chinese delegates hope he's always there," she says. "When it's
tough subject matter, we make sure Jeffrey Tao is on the council
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."
a native of Shanghai, says he sees himself more as a performer than
a language technician.
is not just language in the technical sense," he says. "It allows
you to use the power of speech as a form of oratory."
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 Shakespearean actor.
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.
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.
Interpreter, Chinese Section,
Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Russian, French
three-hour meetings per day, up to seven per week
simultaneous translation works
Price of Each Word
United Nations has set the pay standards for all translation companies.
At the UN, there are two main types of translators:
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 word.
(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.
Speaking of Careers
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 Spanish).
hours per week
Salary after 5 yrs.
Salary after 10 yrs.
Based on Princeton Review Publishing 1998