Found in Translation

Elysia Hung and Chen Guangcheng. Photo courtesy of Elysia Hung.

Elysia Hung ’15 chose Geneva, Switzerland, as her study abroad destination because she wanted to try courses outside her psychology major, and international relations seemed like an interesting topic to her. She had no idea her choice would earn her a brief place in the international spotlight at the 2014 Geneva Summit.

As part of the Smith in Geneva study abroad program, Hung has spent the spring semester interning at UN Watch, a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that monitors the United Nations and promotes human rights.

Her role in the organization varies depending on the events of each month, she says. At the moment, she’s writing a “reprisal report” detailing specific countries’ interference with NGOs’ work to protect human rights; it will be presented in June at a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In March, she attended the 25th regular session of the UNHRC on behalf of UN Watch. But her biggest moment came in February, when she interpreted for blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng at the sixth annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

A former political prisoner who escaped house arrest in 2012, making front pages worldwide, Chen received the 2014 Geneva Summit Courage Award at the conference, which was organized by UN Watch and attended by hundreds of dissidents, activists, diplomats and journalists from around the globe.

Because she’s bilingual in Mandarin and English, it was Hung’s job to be Chen’s interpreter. “I translated for Mr. Chen for six back-to-back interviews with national and international media, such as Reuters and The Associated Press,” she says. “When Mr. Chen received the Courage Award, I did a live interpretation of his speech and the following Q&A session. My interpretation from Chinese to English was then translated to French for French audiences. Throughout the day, I also had the chance to meet with famous human rights activists who expressed admiration for Mr. Chen’s work while I translated the conversation.”

Denise Rochat, Smith College professor emerita and director of Smith in Geneva, says Hung made an “important contribution” to the summit. Her performance was “very impressive,” Rochat says, especially since Hung—who also speaks Taiwanese as well as some French and Spanish—didn’t have any interpretation experience.

“I had to learn the job pretty much on the spot,” Hung says. “It was very nerve-racking, because being bilingual is not enough to interpret for someone. I had to think and analyze the sentences [immediately]. It was very high pressure at first, especially with the videos and microphones. But later on it was better, and I got to learn a lot from Mr. Chen’s stories during the interviews.” The experience, she adds, was a highlight of her study abroad adventure.