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"His masters' voice"

  • Bruno Gensburger's story with China started generations before he was born. His ancestors traveled from France to China to do business in the late 19th century, and his father was born in China in 1924. While some of his forebears lived through the turmoil that China went through before reform and opening-up, Gensburger has seen at firsthand the momentous changes in the past 20 years or so. A former interpreter for high-level officials, including former French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, Gensburger has now joined those helping to shape China's ties with Europe. He was elected vice-president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China in April. For three years he has chaired the chamber's pharmaceuticals working group, drawing on 25 years of contacts with Chinese officials. He is also a member of the French chamber's executive committee in China.

    Growing up, Gensburger was surrounded by talk of China, so it seemed natural that at the age of 20 he should choose to study Chinese at the French National Asian Studies Institute in Paris. He made his first trip to China in 1985 after graduating, and spent two years representing French aeronautical companies. "At the end of 1986 I knew that I didn't want to become a businessman. It was very difficult to do business at that time. People were totally dependent on their Chinese interpreters. The rules were totally chaotic. "I saw foreigners get mad and I didn't want to get mad," he says. He liked the country, the people, the language and the culture. So he decided to become an interpreter. After studying at the notoriously strict Ecole Superieure d'Interpretes et de Traducteurs in Paris, Gensburger spent 10 years working as a freelance interpreter. He says he has worked for scientists, ministers, artists, murderers, philosophers, dissidents, businessmen, policemen - "basically all the layers of the society". In 1999 he was recruited to work at the French embassy in Beijing as commercial attache, political counselor and interpreter for all the high-level official delegations. There he got to work for Chirac and Sarkozy. "Chirac loves China. He has a long love story with China. For Sarkozy, China was kind of new. Chirac was very eloquent; Sarkozy is much more matter-of-fact. "With Chirac, we were kissing each other every day. With Sarkozy it was like crisis management everyday. You never knew what was going to happen." Of all the well-known people Gensburger worked for, Chirac is the one who impressed him most.

    "I was very impressed by Chirac - his style, his warmth, his passion, his ability to get along with Chinese leaders. He would talk to you like a brother. As a man, as a human being, he was amazing." As an interpreter for both leaders, Gensburger would often have to put across views diametrically opposed to his own, but far from being frustrated, he found it inspiring. "When the president says something that you totally disagree with, you still have to translate as it is. You can't say, 'You are crazy.' No," he says. "I'm not here to moderate his words." Once, though, Gensburger "went beyond my interpreter role", with dramatic effect. When he was a freelancer in Paris, he was interpreting for a young Chinese woman charged with murder when he became uncomfortable about certain elements of the case, including police evidence. After a lot of research, he says, it turned out that there was no serious proof of her guilt - and the defense decided on the eve of the trial to radically modify its strategy. "Then she was declared innocent by the court after more than four years in jail." As an old China hand, Gensburger is now tapping into his experience to improve the business circle that he walked away from more than 20 years ago. "The EU working group is addressing the concerns of the pharma companies, trying to get the Chinese side to get along with the healthcare industry. It's also gathering the concerns of 1,500 members. "We are working with them to get along with the Chinese government. I've worked in many fields, basically everywhere. Although I'm not an expert, maybe I can understand a little more than an absolute newcomer... which may sometimes be helpful."

    Publicated in China Daily on 2012 October 14th