How to use an interpreter

With more and more international deals being conducted in English, the need for professional interpreters seems to be less relevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are seeing more inexperienced people being thrown into negotiations than ever before. And even if our foreign will speak English with us, having an interpreter present can be seen as a tremendous courtesy. It allows our counterparts to occasionally use their mother tongue, and it shows an investment and consideration on our part.

The top 10 nuggets for using an interpreter correctly are:

1) Pay them. Use your own interpreter.
Don’t use your counterpart’s interpreter. When that happens, you have no control over what you are hearing, and what the other party is hearing. Editorializing is the enemy here. And the costs associated with using an interpreter are usually minor compared to the costs of completing your transaction. If the other parties bring interpreters to meetings, that’s fine. The more there are the more accuracy you can expect

2) Pick a pro.
Just because someone in your company speaks Polish and English, doesn’t mean she is an interpreter. An interpreter’s job is to faithfully and fully interpret everything she hears. A true interpreter has been trained, has experience, and is a master at providing service. All too often we hear of firms who may employ a Chinese engineer, and ask him to interpret (and sometimes even negotiate) for them. This is an enormous mistake. And if that engineer does need to be present at the meeting, he has his own business objectives to accomplish.

3) Train them in your business
Even though you may be dealing with a professional interpreter, who is fluent in your language and the host’s, this individual will need training.
Your interpreter needs to understand your business. How does your company prosper, what are your competitive advantages, and what taboos may exist in your corporate culture? Technical jargon should be discussed in advance.

4) Train them in your style
Your style is another area you need to discuss with you interpreter. Are your negotiations loose and casual, or formal and prescribed? Do you use humor (which rarely translates)? Are you gregarious and friendly?

5) Train them in your goals and objectives
You need to let them learn your objectives in the negotiation, as well as fall back positions you need to take. What do you hope to accomplish in the meeting, and what will you do if you can’t? Are you dealing with a situation of conflict, formality, or exploration?

6) Determine which style of interpretation suits your personality.
There are those that interpret simultaneously, and speak as you are speaking. And there are interpreters who wait for you to finish phrases, sentences, or even complete thoughts, and then translate. Try both methods and see which fits you.

7) Feed them, rest them, and treat them well.
Interpreters are people. They get tired, hungry, need breaks, and need positive reinforcement. Interpreting is a difficult job. If an interpreter gets distracted in a meeting for even a few seconds, the consequences can be disastrous. Make it clear to all parties that frequent breaks are needed. And if at all possible, have more than one interpreter for long meetings.

8) Clearly explain your expectations to the interpreter.
Discuss the long hours that may be needed, the fact that you may need him during times when business entertainment is happening. Discuss his availability for travel. Brief him on the personalities of the people he will be interpreting for. When eating together, remind him to take frequent but small bites of food during dinner! Your counterpart will often bring up social or business issues while the interpreter’s mouth is full!

9) Make certain you like and trust your interpreter.
You will be counting on her to get your message across clearly. You will be trusting her with inside knowledge about your business. You will at times be putting your safety into her hands. Beyond this, you will be spending a tremendous amount of time with her. You may be starting in the morning and working well into the night. You may be on planes and trains with her for hours. If your interpreter is difficult, untrustworthy, or just plain annoying then find another one. An interpreter is almost like an appendage.

10) Learn from her
While an interpreter shouldn’t be changing what you say or what you are supposed to hear, they can give you tremendous insight into the culture and personality of whom you are dealing with. In one instance, my firm concluded a negotiation in Ukraine. My interpreter took me aside and suggested we drink a ceremonial Vodka shot. When I asked her to order it, but she explained that a man (not a woman) must request it from the waiter. This cultural lesson only helped solidify my relationship with the Ukrainians.

And if you need to use an interpreter, remember to apologize to the locals for not speaking their language.