Lost in Translation: Ten Top Level Tips For Using Interpreters In International Research

By Anne Orban

  • Your US based project team has a market research project for site visits and focus groups in Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul. Two SquarePegRoundHolemembers 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?

 You’ve never worked with interpreters before ….Help!

Professional interpreters are vital for effective communication in Asia. These scenarios are replicated daily in today’s global market economy in most of Europe.

So far, the only interpreters you’ve seen were on TV sitting in booths at the United Nations in New York.  Then you remember also seeing some anonymous person standing discreetly between the Presidents of Russia and the US listening intently – was he an interpreter, too?  And now you are in the world of international cross-cultural communication and you don’t want to get lost in translation. Here are 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 because people generally confuse the terms. A translator denotes 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; they are someone that you would contract with for real-time communication in a foreign country.  Use the correct terminology when referring to your interpreter.
  1. Interpreters communicate what you mean in 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’re likely to have experienced the problems associated with such literal translations. And there are plenty of stories in marketing research of these pitfalls. It can often be very funny, and sometimes have really serious consequences as well. One example of failure to understand this pitfall was when the Chevy NOVA launched in Spanish-speaking countries.  The name (and sales) became a joke because no va means “no/won’t go”.  Certainly, you don’t want anything like that to happen to you.  So, the second tip for using an interpreter is to 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 –its integral to the ethics of the profession.
  1. Prepare yourself and your team for the consecutive translation format. The team going on customer/supplier site visits in Shanghai (or anywhere else I the non-English speaking world) will use the interpreter in a consecutive interpreting format.

Consecutive translation is also the format you will typically use in focus groups for two reasons. Not many facilities have the simultaneous interpreting equipment and it 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 listeners in content. Remember that your listeners want to know what you are saying as quickly as possible. Think of the 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.
  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 are using communicate the meaning you want relayed to your listeners.
  1. Maintain eye contact with your 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 be able to be understood 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 from what is said. 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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