The strange lunacy of translators in airliner cockpits

Singapore is now completely infatuated with China, and the average Straits Times has about seventy-six pages of news from China. I am really good friends with two of the ST correspondents in Beijing, so I will mention that much of this coverage is of the highest standard. Now that I am done sucking up to journalists for the day, I was interested to see an article in today’s (unlinkable) ST on China’s shortage of pilots.

Anyone who has flown domestically in China will have experienced the fallout (no pun intended) from this problem, as it’s quite clear from the vertical takeoffs and spleen-rupturing landings that many of China’s pilots are actually professional longshoremen or swineherds who are simply moonlighting as pilots for extra cash, or to make time with stewardesses.

Like many nations with shortages of pilots, and in order to minimize the number of swineherds in the cockpit, China has looked overseas for qualified personnel. The article notes:

There are now more than 50 foreign pilots from the United States, Canada, Switzerland and Hungary flying for Chinese airlines today. But they do not speak Mandarin, which makes it difficult for them to communicate with air traffic control.

…and with their co-pilots and with traffic control and with their passengers, it scarcely needs be added. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but in this era of congested airports and skylanes, and considering Beijing’s shroud of visibility-reducing pollution and southeast China’s constant supply of typhoons, the ability to communicate smoothly with air traffic controllers would seem to be…well, “friggin’ mandatory” is the phrase that springs to my mind.

But fear not. The rocket scientists at the CAAC, China’s civil aviation authority, are on the job:

In July the CAAC issued regulations governing the employment of foreign pilots by Chinese airlines, which included a rule stipulating that a qualified English-Mandarin speaking interpreter must be on board an airplane flown by a foreign pilot.

I am overcome by a warm sensation of security and bliss. But that is because I am still feeling the effects of the Valium I took before my flight on Singapore Airlines this morning. If that had worn off I would now be running in circles and gibbering in terror at the thought of having to rely on translators in airliner cockpits.

Look, when you’re barrelling along at 300 knots in zero visibility, let’s say during your typical browned-out summer approach to Beijing Capital Airport, and the shit suddenly hits the fan (or turbine blades) for some reason, I should think that every second counts. Do you really want to wait for your air-traffic control instructions to be filtered through a translator on their way to the pilot?

Furthermore, in my industry we handle a lot of translation, both of written materials and for live speeches and interviews. There is a huge amount of what we in the industry technically refer to as “shit translation”. Now, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, that’s no big deal. We edit or clarify, and no harm is done. But, with rare exception, we in the PR industry are not landing 747s (although we do deal with the aftermath when someone else fails to land one). If I was asked to pick the one time out of that one hundred when it is a big deal to have instantaneous, one-hundred percent accuracy with no exceptions, it would be in commercial airliner cockpits. Or, possibly, nuclear reactor control rooms. It’s a toss-up.

It really doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to envision how the scenario of cockpit translators could go wrong, especially in a moment of extreme stress:

Pilot: “Air China 138 heavy on approach.”
Translator (to tower): “Air China 138 heavy on approach.”
Tower: “138 heavy turn two seven zero and descend to 2000.”
Translator (to pilot): “Turn to two seven zero and descend to 2000.”
Bang!
Pilot: “Air China 138 heavy declaring an emergency. Port engine has ingested a goose, is on fire and has lost power. Clear the runway!”
Translator (to tower): “Air China 138 Heavy is anxiously requesting roast goose! Our sexual prowess is dimished! Please empty the promenade!”
Tower: “138 Heavy, how much goose do you want?”
Translator (to pilot): “Why do you want goose at a time like this? We are doomed!”
Pilot: “Motherf*cker!”
Translator (to tower): “138 Heavy extends warm greetings to your parents!”

Perhaps I’ll take the train.

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