To the extent Republican presidential candidate and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is known to the public, it is for being “fluent in Chinese.” David Letterman has joked, “Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is fluent in Chinese. ... The last Republican president wasn’t even fluent in English.” A Saturday Night Live spoof of the Republican presidential debates portrayed Huntsman drifting into a stereotyped version of Chinglish while answering questions about his Chinese fluency.
Media reports on the Republican candidates simply assert as a fact that Huntsman is “fluent in Mandarin”—a statement repeated by NPR, the New York Times, CNN, the Boston Herald, the Economist, Esquire, and New Hampshire’s ABC station, among many others. Huntsman’s ads emphasize that he is “Fluent in Mandarin Chinese,” and his website declares (in its Interactive Timeline) that he became “fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien” in 1980. Even the Obama White House declared that “Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.”
But is Jon Huntsman really fluent in Chinese?
The answer seems to be no.
When asked on the Colbert Report to speak Chinese, Huntsman spoke one sentence and then “translated” his words as “I just said you ought to consider being my running mate for vice president.” The studio audience roared in approval. Yet in reality, Huntsman’s mangled Chinese would translate as: “I really want you to do my vice-America president.”
In this brief and simple sentence, Huntsman managed to (incorrectly) insert the word America in the middle of the Chinese word for vice president (fu-zong-tong); made a less-than-ideal choice of verbs; and combined my and American vice president in a way that implies (in Chinese) that Huntsman possesses his own personal vice president of the United States.
On Piers Morgan Tonight, Piers Morgan asked Huntsman to speak in Mandarin, and then immediately proclaimed what he heard as “spectacularly good” despite not understanding any of it. (As Huntsman himself responded, “How do you know?”)
A fair translation of Huntsman’s Chinese response to Piers Morgan would be: “Whatever I say, you don’t, you won’t know that much, you will not be so able to understand. I am Mr. Jon Huntsman. I want to be the up-to-next American president.”
Huntsman himself “translated” the first sentence of this as “Whatever I say, you’ll have no idea what it is.” This isn’t a particularly complicated sentence, yet Huntsman struggled to express it, making three halting attempts and never quite getting it right. His attempt to say “next” president (in Chinese, xia-yi-jie) became the strange xia-lai-de. (I could understand Huntsman only because I knew what he was going to say, but none of the Beijing individuals I checked with could understand this sentence even on repeated listens.)
Probably the biggest goof in this sentence was Huntsman’s self-introduction, “I am Mr. Jon Huntsman.” It is even more bizarre to refer to oneself as “Mr.” in Chinese than in English because of the Chinese cultural emphasis on humility. For example, Americans respond to compliments with “Thank you” while Chinese will typically answer “Nali, nali”—literally, “Where, where?” (A joke I’ve heard in China is that Americans claim to “speak” Chinese no matter how few words they understand, while Chinese claim to be unable to speak English no matter how many words they understand.) Calling oneself “Mr.” in Chinese sounds as jarring as calling oneself “the esteemed Mr.” in English.
These mistakes are all the more puzzling because Huntsman spoke only a few sentences total, was given the opportunity to say anything he wanted, and knew ahead of time that his interviewers often ask him to speak in Mandarin. Considering that he could easily prepare (and memorize) a witty comment in Chinese, it is strange that he makes mistakes at all. To reverse the situation, if a foreigner who claimed fluency in English was given the opportunity to say anything in English, and responded (after having time to prepare) by talking about “vice-America presidents,” we probably would not be impressed.