English please, we all lose in translation

Editorial | Mary Ma 5 Jul 2018

What a waste of time it was for the chief executive to get herself mired in a controversy over the obvious need to answer media questions asked in English in the same language.

That had been the undisputed standard practice in Hong Kong - until Tuesday, that is.

It was a stupid gaffe on Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's part that justified an apology.

In doing so, Lam stressed she didn't mean her time was being wasted, but that of other reporters if she had to repeat in English an answer she had already given in Cantonese.

If that was really her intent, it was absolutely unnecessary for her to worry, as she could be assured reporters wouldn't view it as a waste of their time.

Direct quotes or sound bites for the electronic media - rather than an on-the-spot interpretation - are always the preferred source of information. That's why journalists are always expected to get their interview subjects to speak as often as possible in the language to be used in news reports.

If anything, it was hypocritical of Lam to try to pass the blame onto reporters in an apparent attempt to shift the focus.

I'm rather concerned about her dismissive attitude in the outburst during the media scrum prior to the Executive Council meeting. It was supposed to be an established arrangement that the chief executive would have been well familiar with.

Why her sudden outburst then?

It wasn't simply a slip of the tongue.

At best, Lam was probably getting tired.

At worst, she might have been sick of following the well-established arrangement that government officials are expected to reply to media queries in the language they were asked in - be that in Cantonese, spoken by 89.1 percent of the population, or in English used by 4.1 percent of local residents, or Putonghua mastered by 1.85 percent.

Could the outburst before the Exco meeting be a reflex action by Lam? If so, it might mean she was losing her patience, which would have a negative implication on the pluralistic values to which everyone of us attach so much importance.

In this regard, I have to praise "Four O'clock Hui Sir" - police chief superintendent Steve Hui Chun-tak - who hosted the daily media briefings during the Occupy Central protests in 2014.

Hui performed his duty admirably. Although he was bombarded with media questions in three languages or dialects, he answered them one by one without complaint or impatience. It is a good example for Hui's colleagues in government to follow.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Journalists Association made a good point in its rebuff of the Lam gaffe.

Hong Kong is an international city due to its use of English as one of the official languages. Lam and her senior officials would miss an opportunity to address the international community directly if they rely on interpreters to convey their messages to the world.

Of course, they can certainly blame poor translations for their mistakes. But then this would be a waste of time too.

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