How to Speak Through a Chinese Interpreter

My business requires I spend huge amounts of time speaking with others through an interpreter. I have actually gotten pretty good at using really good interpreters to hide my own flaws. Within my office, we have people capable of translating/interpreting English, French, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Sanskrit (never used), Vietnamese, German, Spanish, and even a bit of Turkish.

I have been working with my firm’s Russian specialist for about a decade and though I speak enough Russian to tell a (as in one) joke and to order beers and make a compliment or two, for everything other than that, I rely on our Russian paralegal, Oksana. Oksana knows the law, is articulate in both English and Russian, and fully understands both American and Russian culture. When speaking with Russians through Oksana, I hardly worry about what I say as Oksana will “clean” it up with her transmittal. But what I still always find funny is how much Oksana always reduces what I say. If I give a long explanation as to why I think our argument will prevail, Oksana just might translate me as having said, “I think we will win.” She insists Russian clients want answers not explanations.

When talking with Russians I love using sayings, particularly those relating to hunting. Whether there is a corresponding one in Russian (amazingly enough, there usually is) or not, the Russians always seem to understand and appreciate them. “We are going to have to kill a few coyotes before we can even start thinking about slaying the bears.”

Our German clients are very different, or so I am always being told by our German (and Spain) licensed lawyer, Nadja Vietz. When meeting with our German or Austrian clients, I will say a short sentence and then five minutes later Nadja will be done. I might say something like, “we need to really pound on this company” and Nadja will then give a long explanation in German as to why, based on our past experiences and the existing law, the appropriate strategy is that we pursue our claim with vigor. Our German and Austrian clients tend to want huge amounts of detail as to what we have done and will do.

No matter what the language, there are certain best practices to use when speaking through an interpreter and there are also certain particular practices that make sense when speaking into particular languages or to those of a particular culture. I thought of all this today when I came across an article, entitled, Translating from English to Chinese [link no longer exists]. This article provides the following ten tips for those speaking in English to a Chinese audience, through an interpreter:

1. DON’T say have fun. The phrase “having fun” or any other derivative of it, “have fun” “had fun”, does not translate into Chinese. Culturally, it’s simply not a concept that resonates with Chinese people. It’s not that Chinese people don’t enjoy a good time, it’s that they don’t value fun as much as an English speaker might.

2. DO speak in complete sentences. Grammar structures vary between the two languages therefore sometimes you have to flip flop a sentence around in order for it to make sense. Consider the sentence: Smoking in the elevator is prohibited. In Chinese, I’d have to translate “prohibit smoking in the elevator” for it to make sense. Go ahead and say the complete sentence so the translator can have the freedom to rearrange the structure before delivering the message.

3. DON’T use names, places, or any other words that require capitalization unless you can be certain they are something/place that is well known across both cultures. I know the Chinese name for Abraham Lincoln, but not Boise, Idaho.

4. DO stay within normal parameters of the English grammar and avoid slang. Play on words is fun when you’re speaking to other native speakers, but they do not translate well. For example: “The biggest mistake of my life was hooking up with that girl.” I can translate the meaning, that you had a relationship with this girl, but I won’t be able to convey whatever sentiment behind the usage of the phrase “hooking up” very well.

6. DON’T use sarcasm. Sarcastic humor is largely a western phenomenon. Chinese people for the most part can’t appreciate sarcasm and will take what you say literally which may easily result in offense.

7. Do tell light hearted anecdotes of human experiences which transcends both cultures. Tell stories that you know Chinese people can relate to. For example, everyone can relate to silly antics of toddlers. This will lessen the pain of listening to a translation and immediately build a connection.

8. DON’T use idioms. There are a handful of idioms that are in both English and Chinese, but unless you are extremely well read in both languages, you’re not going to know which ones they are. Instead, try conveying the meaning of the idiom you’d like to use. It may be less interesting, but what’s the point of being interesting if the audience won’t even understand the meaning?

9. DO pay attention to basic respect and civility in your words. It is very hard for me to translate for somebody who is saying something degrading about Chinese culture. The things in Chinese culture that irritates most likely will not irritate the Chinese, so a message about the discomfort of crowds will not translate well, and is simply disrespectful.

10. DON’T use affectionate words too much. Chinese people express love much differently than Westerners. I can only translate “I love you, God loves you, I love my Mom” so many times into Chinese before it starts making me squirm before my Chinese audience.

Oh, and speak slowly.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Stan Abrams at China Hearsay did his own post on this topic, Speaking Through an Interpreter: Try to Avoid Lawyers,positing that lawyers make lousy interpreters. Stan may be right about this, but one thing I have found is that just about everyone makes a lousy interpreter. With rare exceptions, whenever my firm deposes someone in a foreign language we bring someone from our own office who is fluent in that language so as to monitor the translation of the interpreter. This has given me countless stories of interpreter mistakes.

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