Working with Interpreters and Translators

When preparing for an important trip to China (or Korea or Japan, for that matter) people focus on getting their data in order, double checking their financials and researching their market position.  However, one of the more critical items to consider that is often left to the last minute is how to handle the translation.  Here are a few tips to make that easier:

Know the difference – Translators essentially give you a word-by-word repeat in the other language while interpreters (normally more expensive) will give other kinds of feedback about the context of the comments and the subtle touches on the communication. The more critical and nuanced the communication, the more valuable it is to use interpreters.

Do not have a team member handle it – Even when the lead negotiator is fluently multi-lingual, it’s often better to have a professional in the room in order for the members of the team to keep their minds on the meeting or negotiation, not on the language issues.

Speak in short bursts – Resist the temptation to give a monologue or a long passage which pressures interpreters/translators to both remember the entire section or, in an attempt to keep the flow of the meeting moving, shorten the translation to what they feel are the “essential points”, often dropping subtle key commentary that might be important.

Maintain eye contact – Remember that when using interpreters the communication is still directed at the party on the other side of the table.  Eye contact and body language must be directed towards them, not the interpreters.

Pay attention to body language – When speaking, don’t be so preoccupied with your own words that you don’t take the time to observe body language.  Using translators and interpreters will allow you to have the time to observe people’s physical reaction to your thoughts which, in turn, provides clues to their emotional reaction.

Get a second opinion – If you ever sense that there is even a slight misunderstanding, stop, repeat, and ask for further amplification of remarks. Even skilled interpreters/translators are not perfect and may from time to time miss a critical nuance.  Members of the team who have some language skill should be empowered to speak up if they think that a concept did not come across as planned.

Establish a long term relationship – If you find interpreters or translators whom you work well with, make plans for long-term engagements, perhaps on a retainer basis. The longer they work with you, the better they will understand your style, language preferences and even your products and thus become valued team members in your quest for success in Asia.


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