10 Tips for Effectively Using Interpreters

By Anne Orban, M.Ed., NPDP

For many marketers, the only contact they’ve had with interpreters is seeing them on TV sitting in booths at the United Nations in New York. Or perhaps they’ve been glimpsed standing discreetly between the p residents of Russia and the U. S., listening intently.

But in our increasingly global economy, marketers may suddenly find themselves facing situations such as these:

  • Your U.S.-based project team has a market research project for site visits and focus groups in Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul. Two members of the MR department are supporting a team of senior and middle management on this important initiative.
  • Your American-based company wants to export product to the emerging economies of central Europe? What should they lead with?
  • Your consumers in the States love your new snack but how will it be received in Spain?

To avoid getting lost in translation, here are 10 tips for effectively using interpreters for market research activities at all levels of your company.

  1. Interpreters work with the spoken word; translators work with the written word. The first tip is to understand the difference between a translator and an interpreter. People generally confuse the terms so be sure to use the correct terminology. A translator is someone who takes a written text in one language and turns it into a written text in another language. An interpreter works with oral communication. You would contract with an interpreter for real-time communication in a foreign country.
  1. Interpreters communicate what you mean in the hearer’s language, not a literal translation of your words. In spoken as in written communication, you want to avoid the pitfalls of direct and inappropriate literal translation. If you’ve ever read a tourist brochure or menu translated from any language into English, you’ve likely experienced the problems associated with such literal translations. And there are plenty of stories in marketing research of these pitfalls. So realize what you’ll get is not a literal translation—it’s the appropriate rendering of your meaning in the other language.
  1. Prepare your interpreter with the context and special terminology of your, business. Your interpreter will want to prepare for your special communication needs. Send a briefing document about the purpose and context of your activities and include any acronyms and special terminology that you’ll be using. Plan for at least five minutes before the first meeting to introduce yourself and your colleagues and review the context. Please know that you can expect confidentiality from your interpreter. It’s integral to the ethics of the profession.
  1. Prepare yourself and your team for the consecutive translation form at. The team going on those customer/supplier site visits in Shanghai, for example, would use the interpreter in a consecutive interpreting form at. Consecutive translation is also the format you will typically use in focus groups, for two reasons. Not many facilities have the simultaneous interpreting equipment which enables you or one of your team members to moderate. Remember to modify your expectations of what you can cover in an hour because you’ll be doing everything in two languages. Sometimes your interpreter may use a format that is between consecutive and simultaneous translation. This means she’ll be speaking at the same time as soon as she understands what the primary speaker is saying. At first this may seem intrusive but everyone will get used to it very quickly and it does save time! A professionally qualified interpreter is trained to do this—but do not expect it from your bilingual colleague.
  1. Pause regularly for the interpreter to do the job of involving the listeners. Remember that your listeners want to know what you are saying as quickly as possible. Think in terms of a sound bite and pause after a few sentences so your interpreter can engage your listeners in what you are saying. If you speak for too long without a pause, the interpreter will find it more difficult to render your meaning and your listeners will get bored or lose focus.
  1. Use straightforward language—avoid slang, plays on words and attempts at humor. Since the goal is effective communication and the interpreter is there to facilitate communication, do everything possible to ensure that the words you use communicate the meaning you want relayed to your listeners.
  1. Maintain eye contact with you r counterpart, not the interpreter. The interpreter is a facilitator and when the process is working well, the interpreter will become invisible in the conversation. To accomplish this, avoid the temptation to talk to the interpreter. Maintain eye contact with the person you are addressing and use your ears only with the interpreter.
  1. Address your foreign counterpart directly in the first-person and use a natural pace and volume. Monitor your speech patterns to avoid use of the third person such as “Tell him…” or “Does Madame du Bary think…” Talk directly to your counterpart as if you understood each other perfectly. Remember too: don’t ratchet up your volume or speak more slowly as a psychological compensation for a foreign listener.
  1. Everything said in front of your foreign counterparts must be out in the open. Remember that conversations in English between you and fellow team members if conducted in front of your foreign counterparts must understandable by everyone. Don’t forget to conduct those conversations with the same protocol as you use when addressing your foreign counterparts directly.
  1. Treat your interpreter well. Remember that if you ask your interpreter to work with you through a meal, allow them a chance to eat and drink. Always ensure that the interpreter is in a position to hear everything clearly. Give your interpreter some breaks. Don’t embarrass your interpreter or work against him/her linguistically or with non-verbal cues.

There is a great deal of satisfaction, for both you and your interpreter, when things go well. With these ten tips, you will gain the respect and cooperation of your interpreter and good communication for all will be achieved.

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