BJCG Article: Lost in Translation

Not being able to speak Chinese might be a problem but hiring the wrong interpreter will make matters worse.

While having an interpreter can be a simple solution to overcoming the language barrier, it is important to be aware of and avoid some common mistakes.

You may be confident about your products or services, and have considerable experience in other international markets, but one of the biggest difficulties for foreign companies eyeing the lucrative Chinese market is the language barrier. The reality in China is that most decision makers are not able to communicate effectively in English. Moreover, the collective decision making approach favored in China means that even if one or two people do speak English, all communication still needs to be conducted in Chinese to ensure everyone receives the same information.

While having an interpreter can be a simple solution to overcoming the language barrier, it is important to be aware of and avoid some of these common mistakes:

  1. Not bringing your own interpreter. Often for reasons of cost saving, you end up in meetings without your own interpreter. You may find your Chinese counterpart’s verbal English is not as good as you had thought, and/or that their interpreter is not translating everything that is being said. You also realize that you have no way of knowing how well your own words are being translated back to your counterpart.
  1. Using different interpreters depending on availability. Using an interpreter merely as a “translation” machine means each interpreter goes into negotiations not knowing the business, the key people and which stage of development the negotiations are at. This can happen with internal interpreters as well as contracted interpreters.
  1. Using interpreters who do not have enough commercial experience or the right personality. A fresh college graduate may speak good English, but how much business negotiation experience, people skills and good common sense he or she has can be questionable. The interpreter needs to make both sides feel comfortable enough to let sufficient information flow through their intermediary role. An inexperienced interpreter may simply translate every word (without questioning the underlying principles), leaving both sides puzzled after the meeting.
  1. Limit your interpreter to only interpreting. Even though it might be very frustrating for you to find your interpreter isn’t translating each sentence, if your interpreter is experienced and trustworthy, you should respect his or her choices. They may be getting something which is not appropriate to translate to you in front of the other side’s interpreter, or may be able to better explain the context by adding their own words. It could also be that your interpreter may sense there is some pressure to finish the meeting quickly and they are hence trying to save time. Your interpreter should share the responsibility of ensuring a successful meeting just like you do. By the end of the day, the goal is to have a fruitful meeting, rather than quant-itative measurements on whether or not each sentence has been translated or not. A good interpreter should however, give you a run down of all the information that wasn’t translated straightway, as well as their view of the negotiations in a post meeting rundown.
  1. Using the interpreter inconsistently. If you want to get the most out of your interpreter, you need to keep them informed throughout the process, which may involve copying them into relevant meeting notes and emails. You can also involve the interpreter by giving them some authority for future follow-up and for them to act as a contact point for your counterpart.

It’s important to invest in having a qualified and experienced interpreter who can also double as a personal assistant, project manager or consultant, rather than just somebody with good language skills. In addition, the skill-set required to build your bridge to China goes far beyond language – your bridge building project needs a whole team of qualified people, lead by a commander with the right mindset.