If you do not share a common language with the people you will be working with, some special challenges await you. The subtleties of working with an interpreter take some practice, and combining them with cultural sensitivities is a real adventure.

But even if you do share a language, there are going to be some communication issues. Is your native language their primary language, or did they learn it as a second language in school? What role do gestures and body language play in communication?

Translators and Interpreters

A translator converts written text from one language to another, while interpreters handle spoken messages. The skills of a translator and an interpreter are not necessarily interchangeable.

You may need a translator to give you access to key documents that you do not understand, or to make key information available to your client. A good translator can be valuable if they can point out problems in cross-cultural communication and avoid possible embarrassment. But most of the time, an interpreter is called for when you work directly with clients.

It is ideal to use a professional interpreter or a person who has had experience serving in that role. It is also best if the interpreter is a neutral third party. In practice, you often have a friend or relative of the client.

Regardless of the interpreter you use, it is important to separate your role from the interpreter's role. You and your client control the interaction, and neither of you should delegate any part of your job to the interpreter.

Here are some guidelines for a meeting using an interpreter:

  • Prepare your interpreter before the meeting. Tell the interpreter what you want to accomplish and the general outline of the meeting. Ask the interpreter to interpret as accurately as possible all that you say, and ask for clarification if they do not understand what you are saying. Encourage the interpreter to let you know when he/she senses a cultural misunderstanding that is impairing the communication process.
  • Ask the interpreter how they indicate to you or the client to stop speaking in order to allow time to interpret.
  • Plan more time than you would expect for the meeting — possibly twice as long.
  • Position yourself directly facing the client. The interpreter is to the side of each of you.
  • Allow plenty of time for introductions. This is more of a cultural issue, and the custom in many developing countries is for lengthy introductions!
  • Speak a few words in your opening remarks in the client's native language. See the Learning the Language section below. This is an excellent way to break the ice.
  • Avoid idioms, such as “break the ice.” See Low Hanging Fruit.
  • Speak directly to your client.
  • Address your client directly in your sentences. Say “Do you have production delays?” rather than “Is he having production delays?” or “Ask him if he is having production delays?”
  • Speak at a normal volume.
  • Speak at a normal pace, if your interpreter can understand you. Be sensitive and switch to a slower pace if required by your interpreter.
  • Use short, simple sentences. Practice speaking in short sentences before your meeting. Do not use baby talk. Just keep your sentences short.
  • Some people teach by using analogies or stories. Sometimes they are humorous. But a story or a joke, interpreted into another language and heard by a person from a different culture, rarely is understood the way you intended.

    Jokes are not used in the Japanese workplace. If you persist (as Clint did) the response may be an organized group laugh. Your interpreter may have translated your joke into “our colleague has just made a joke. We will all laugh ... NOW!”

  • Negatives are tricky. Double negatives are deadly. Some cultures use a gesture or hand motion to accompany a spoken negative. If possible, use this motion when speaking a negative in your language.
  • Encourage the client to ask for clarification. If the meeting goes for a while with no review or clarification, ask the client to explain, in their words, what they believe you have said.
  • If you need to discuss anything directly with your interpreter, explain what you are doing to your client.
  • Never make a remark on the assumption that “nobody understands it anyway.” Many people understand a little English, even if they cannot speak it!

If you are giving a group presentation with the aid of an interpreter, the same guidelines apply. If you have notes, provide them to your interpreter ahead of time. This is especially important if you have slides or overheads, as the interpreter may not be able to see the projected images when they are interpreting.

Body Language

Gestures and body language are an integral part of communication. The first time you are immersed in another culture, this will be dramatically apparent.

Nodding your head in India comes in many flavors, and you have to know where a person's family comes from to interpret the motion correctly. Vertical head nodding (“yes” for Americans) means “yes” or “no” depending on where you come from on the Indian sub-continent. Head-turning (like our “no”), head-rocking (like trying to get water out of your ear), and a figure-8 head motion (like what a chiropractor might do) indicate various forms and degrees of yes and/or no, all depending on where your family originates. Whenever Clint said something in a presentation, he was met with a sea of incomprehensible head bobbing, swaying, and rocking.

Learning the Language

Whether or not you share a common language with your clients, it is always a good idea to learn a few words in the native language. You can do this before the project, and the appreciation of your effort and consideration is well worth your trouble.

The Say Hello to the World and the TravLang web sites can teach you a few words in many languages. They also gives lots of other cultural information.

However ...

Keep it simple. Do not improvise. Practice often. If not, you may end up as John F. Kennedy did in 1963 when he told a German audience “I am a jelly donut.”


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