15 tips on working with an interpreter when communicating across cultures

Working with a foreign language interpreter

They may seem like an almost anonymous presence at negotiating sessions but the role of an interpreter can be critical to the success of a deal. A good interpreter should be a partner in achieving your goal. In effect, they are your voice when you are communicating with someone who does not speak your language.

But how much time do you actually spend thinking about the interpreter as a human being, as opposed to a mere medium? Putting yourself in the interpreter’s shoes for a moment can make an enormous difference to the success of the deal. Here are some tips for beginners:

1. Hold a briefing before the meeting. Introduce yourself, get some idea of the interpreter’s competency and specialism and establish how you would like to speak through them. It’s more personal for the other party if the interpreter addresses them directly rather than starting every sentence with ‘He says’. It’s also better to use the first person; being talked about in the third person while they are present can make people feel marginalized.

2. Understand the difference between interpreting and translating. An interpreter deals with the spoken word. A translator translates the written word. The two are not necessarily interchangeable, however impressive their level of fluency.

3. If technical language is going to be used in the meeting, make sure the interpreter has the appropriate professional experience to communicate, say, technical engineering, medical or financial terminology.

4. Speak directly to your counterpart in the meeting, not to the interpreter. You must establish a relationship and make eye contact; without looking at them, you will not be able to pick up on their non-verbal communication. This is all the more important when you do not understand the words someone is saying.

5. Slow down; you will need to give the interpreter time to translate what you are saying. Leave frequent pauses.

6. Remember that the interpreter has been hired to interpret everything that has been said at the meeting. Having side conversations in your own language is both confusing for the other party, and the interpreter, and inappropriate. Ask for five minutes outside the room with your colleague if you want to discuss something privately.

7. Think about how you express concepts. They may have no linguistic equivalent in other languages. The interpreter may need to take a more long-winded approach to explain a point. You should certainly avoid using idiom, jargon or slang. Telling jokes through a third party, too, can fall flat.

8. Try to get one point across at a time. Do not fire questions in rapid succession, or change the subject in the middle of a sentence. Talking through an interpreter takes quite a bit of getting used to so you may have to adjust the way you express yourself.

9. Do not ask the interpreter their opinion, even if a debate becomes heated. It is not their job to offer advice. You are not talking to them, but through them.

10. Interpreters can have their own issues. Make it clear from the start that you want every single thing the other side says translated but prepare for the fact that there may be cultural barriers – the interpreter’s religion, gender, their sense of their position in the hierarchy, their sense of saving face – that affect their willingness to communicate certain elements of a message.

11. Bear in mind that a particularly emotional or traumatic subject may resonate with the interpreter, too. This is why you need to know something about the person before you start working with them, and to brief them before the discussion.

12. Try not to get frustrated with the interpreter if the discussion is not going your way. They are the just the messenger, not the source of the message. It is primarily your responsibility to deal with the moods and attitude of the other party, not theirs.

13. Allow the interpreter to alert you if they detect a cultural misunderstanding from the other party. For example, you may be asking a question or making a point that is culturally sensitive or inappropriate. There may be a better way of phrasing it and a good interpreter will discreetly let you know this. A good interpreter will also not be afraid to ask you to clarify a point.

14. When talking through an interpreter, you need to focus harder than ever on the other side’s body language – and make sure you are up to speed on local cultural nuances before the discussion. Nodding, or head wobbling (in India), or a lengthy silence all have their own meaning in different cultures and it may not be what you think. It could mean that the other person is listening, or that they are thinking, or that they are weighing up their options. It does not necessarily mean they are agreeing, disagreeing or searching for something to say.

15. Finally, don’t cut corners. Don’t ask a friend, or a relative, or an assistant to act as an interpreter in a serious business discussion. Interpreting is a professional qualification. You will get out of it what you put in.

For more advice on working across cultures click here.


About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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