Interpretation, Perspective

C.J. Phillips: Across Cultures and Millennia

By Michael Schubert

After working as an interpreter for over 25 years both in Taiwan and in California, NCTA member C.J. Phillips retired at the beginning of this year. Her résumé is a long and distinguished one. She worked as the chief translator and editor at the National Central Library and National Museum of History in Taipei, Taiwan, from 1980-1985, and as a freelance translator and editor before starting work in 1997 as a registered Mandarin interpreter for U.S. District Court in San Jose and for the Santa Clara County Superior Courts. C.J. translated statements made by Democracy Movement leaders following the Tiananmen Massacre for the San Francisco Chronicle in June 1989, and also did work for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, among others organizations. Visit C.J.’s website,, for more on her amazing career.

While an interpreter, C.J. was an active member of NCTA, as well as the Bay Area Court Interpreters (BACI) and the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), and is known among her colleagues for her mentoring of younger Chinese interpreters, her presentations at workshops and lectures on interpreter issues, and her work for interpreters’ benefits and rights. C.J. is married to Chinese scholar and author J.H. Huang. They have one daughter, Deborah.

Is your imminent retirement to be a clean break, or do you anticipate still dabbling in translation and/or interpretation?

C.J. Phillips: This should be a clean break from court interpreting, although I still have a few old cases and good clients that will keep me from going completely to pasture. I have some private translation work that will keep me busy, too. This mainly will be translation of classical Chinese works.

What has been the proportion of interpreting to translating over your career, and which activity do you prefer or find more fulfilling?

About 50-50, and I enjoy both types of work very much. From the standpoint of immediate gratification, I got a lot of pleasure out of working as a court interpreter, since I was able to work directly with people. From an intellectual standpoint, translation is wonderful because it gives me time to think about my work and hone it until I’m satisfied with the results. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve worked in both fields from the very beginning.

I have heard Taiwanese acquaintances say that the simplified written Chinese, dominant on the mainland, is ruining the Chinese language. Do you see it in such stark terms, and do you believe traditional written Chinese can survive whatever eventual reunification there is between China and Taiwan?

I don’t know whether simplification will stand the test of time, but both forms are widely used in the Chinese-speaking world. However, even though government-mandated simplified forms remain the standard in Mainland China, they generally are not understood in the areas that still employ traditional characters. Some of this has to do with politics, but much of this has to do with how a culture evolves. One thing many people forget, though, is that not all the characters were simplified; in fact, only less than ten percent, or around 2,800, so it is only a small fraction.

The Chinese government has a new policy now of “yong jian, ren fan,” meaning that while simplified characters should remain the norm, people should begin to recognize the traditional forms, too. The problem is that while the evolution and sources for traditional script remain very clear, the synthetic creation of the simplified forms cut the language off from its cultural roots. China’s 5,000-year-old history is too closely intertwined with its written language for the traditional forms to be blithely discarded. And the Chinese people I know generally agree with this.

What I’ve found encouraging is that more and more people—particularly the intelligentsia and the young—have returned to traditional script. I’ve even seen everyday people come to the U.S. from Mainland China and start picking up traditional characters so that they can read the paper, watch Chinese television with the subtitles on, and be more a part of the local Chinese community. Of course, the media and the Internet have helped a great deal, too. But I haven’t seen this interest flow in the other direction!

As to which form will last, perhaps the two forms will evolve together into a new form. Who knows? Only time will tell.

I see on your website that you have experience in movie subtitling. Does the recent boom in Chinese martial arts/fantasy cinema represent the kind of Chinese cinema that is also popular in Asia, or are these films directed more toward a Western audience?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a hit, as have been films in the same vein such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Cross-cultural action movies such as the Matrix series, Shanghai Knights, Tarantino’s films, and so forth have also proved to be big at the box office, but then again, so have all the other big movies we’ve enjoyed here in the U.S.

I imagine you have traveled widely. What are some of your favorite places on Earth?

In no particular order: San Francisco, Chinese Turkestan, Xi’an, Tainan, Beijing, Vancouver, and the Big Apple.