In her own words: translator to China’s top leaders takes centre stage in Hong Kong

Zhang Lu, interpreter to officials including Premier Li Keqiang, finds herself in the spotlight as she gives talk to university students.


Chinese translator Zhang Lu felt a bit like a rock star on Friday.

She was greeted with cries of “You are a goddess to me!” by women – and even a few men – during her trip to Hong Kong.

Zhang, 39, a regular translator for China’s top leaders such as Premier Li Keqiang and former premier Wen Jiabao, has made just as big an impression for her skills as an interpreter as her attractive looks and demure presence.

Hundreds of Hong Kong university students, who regard Zhang as something of a role model, packed a lecture hall on Friday for her talk at the Chinese University. Some people had even travelled from Guangdong province just to listen to her speak.

Dressed in a perfectly tailored white suit, the tall, lean figure of Zhang attracted the immediate attention of the audience as she walked into the room.


(Photo Credit: South China Morning Post)

“We are both career diplomats and professional interpreters: it just so happens that we have combined these two roles in one,” Zhang said as she introduced her job as a translator at China’s Foreign Ministry.

Unlike her former boss, Fu Ying, or predecessors, such as Zhang Hanzhi and Wang Hairong – two translators that worked for paramount leader Mao Zedong – Zhang’s name is well known in the digital world of the modern age.

She became an internet sensation in 2010 for her seemingly effortless, on-point translation of ancient Chinese literature mentioned by Wen during a speech at a press conference for the annual top leadership meeting.

Her willingness to share details about her career path and experiences with people has made her even more popular.

Yet originally she planned to become a teacher after graduating from China Foreign Affairs University’s department of international law in Beijing in 2000.

Only later did she switch her career focus after being chosen to work in the ministry’s translation and interpretation department.

Zhang has acted as translator for China’s top leaders on numerous overseas trips and high-level international negotiations, including the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 and regular summits of the Group of 20 major economies.


(Photo Credit: South China Morning Post)

She said her duties had become busier as China had expanded its diplomatic agenda in recent years. The year 2015 was her busiest ever, with her making 54 overseas trips with Chinese leaders.

“The fact you work for the state leaders… [means] when you speak, when you interpret, people will not only take your words as the individual’s voice, but also as the voice of authority,” she said.

Zhang’s most memorable experience was as a translator at the Six-party talks, aiming to find a peaceful resolution to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, involving China, the United States, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea, between 2003 to 2008.

“It involved very interesting and challenging diplomatic negotiations,” she said.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the language used by each participating nation was regarded as the official language of the talks, so each delegation brought their own interpreters.

She said every time the head of a nation’s delegation paused while making a speech, all the interpreters of different countries immediately began interpreting at the same time.

“So you can imagine … how long it took for one person to finish a single sentence,” she said.

She told students aspiring to follow her career path that the key to being a good interpreter was not providing a “word-by-word” translation, but rather being able to understand the overall meaning of what a person wanted to say.

Zhang also encouraged budding interpreters to be less self-conscious and more confident.

“Nobody cares about you!” she joked – despite having made a huge international impression herself.

By Catherine Wong, South China Morning Post