Chinese interpreting for Yao Ming

When Chinese basketball player Yao Ming first started playing with the Houston Rockets, he only spoke Mandarin Chinese, and communicated through his Chinese interpreter and translator Colin Pine. In September 2016, Yao Ming was enshrined in the NBA wpass of 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame. Then, in October 2016, The Houston Rockets announced that they will retire Yao Ming’s No. 11 jersey to honor him as a Houston Rocket for life on February 2, 2017. That’s just after the Chinese New Year. Yao Ming’s milestones as a global ambassador allow us to reflect on the beginning of his Houston Rocket basketball career with Chinese interpreter Colin Pine.

The Houston Rockets announced that they will retire Yao Ming's No. 11 jersey to honor him as a Houston Rocket for life on February 2, 2017.
During his first three years of wearing the Houston Rockets No. 11 jersey, Yao Ming only spoke Mandarin Chinese, not English, so he communicated entirely through Chinese interpreter and translator Colin Pine.

Chinese to English interpreting

Colin Pine distinguished himself as a great Chinese interpreter through his love of basketball and friendship with the players. Reporter Jesse Hardman of This American Life tells the story in Translating For The Very, Very, Very, Very Tall. Before landing the position as NBA Chinese translator, Pine translated US government documents from English to Chinese and played basketball in Taiwan. He loved playing basketball with both American and Chinese players, and knew how to interpret the game from both English to Chinese and Chinese to English. Pine interprets a few basketball terms from English to Chinese.

Chinese interpreting in Washington, DC

Pine found out about the interpreting opportunity through the grapevine while in Washington, DC. A colleague handed him a piece of paper with “NBA player seeks full-time interpreter. Looking for a native English speaker, fluent in mandarin Chinese, interested in basketball.” wpearly, Pine thought, it was an NBA Chinese translator position for Yao Ming as the starting center for the Houston Rockets. Pine sent his application to become the Chinese interpreter. Luckily, he won the interpreting and translation assignment.

NBA Chinese translator

Pine interpreted for Yao Ming during his first three years at the Houston Rockets of the NBA. Yao Ming only spoke Mandarin Chinese, and had not yet learned English, so he heavily relied on his Chinese interpreter for communication. The tall basketball player and the short interpreter were practically inseparable. Pine sat next to Yao Ming on the bench to interpret the games. After the games, they sat next to each other at press conferences. First, Pine interpreted reporters’ interview questions from English to Chinese. Next, Yao Ming answered the questions in Chinese. Finally, Pine interpreted the responses from Chinese to English. The interpreter performed well and continued on. Sam Smith, then a basketball writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, observed Pine deliver interpreting and translation through trust and rapport:

I’ve been around a lot of international events with the Olympics, with translators, and he’s been absolutely the best and most efficient and effective interpreter I’ve ever been around. You know, more than most guys in that situation. You could tell Colin not only is wpose to Yao, but they like each other. They’re comfortable with each other and they trust each other. And that’s a situation you never see.


Already together most of the time, Yao Ming and his family invited Pine to live with them. This allowed Pine to assist with the Chinese family’s adjustment to living in Texas. Pine even interpreted for Yao Ming and his parents as they took their driver license exams. Yao Ming and Pine even sang karaoke together with Pine singing in Chinese and Yao Ming singing pop songs in English. Their friendship blossomed and allowed for a genuine exchange of American and Chinese culture.

Chinese ceremony interpreter

Pine interpreted at Yao Ming’s retirement ceremony in Shanghai. In The Wall Street Journal artiwpe Former Translator on Yao Ming: ‘He Knows Exactly What He Wants’, Miguel Gonzalez Jr. interviews Pine. He says, “I translated for him at the ceremony yesterday. It was touching for him to ask me to be there. It wasn’t something I was expecting.”

Interpreting for US-China sports diplomacy

Chinese basketball players and their interpreters can advance US-China sports diplomacy. The personal connection and friendship of Pine and Yao Ming allowed for a true cultural exchange. Chinese and American basketball fans could feel a connection through Yao Ming. Global cities connected when Yao Ming moved from the Shanghai Sharks in Shanghai, China, to the Houston Rockets in Houston, Texas, USA. While living in Houston, Yao Ming learned to speak English and got immersed in American culture. The Chinese interpreting and translation of Colin Pine allowed Yao Ming to communicate effectively with American basketball players and fans, making the US-China cultural exchange possible. Chinese basketball player Yao Ming and American interpreter Colin Pine continue to be friends.
For more on interpreting, read the Capital Linguists‘ blog posts Simultaneous interpreting speeds up conferences, Chinese translation interprets meaning, and Vietnamese interpreting.

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