Use your own interpreter or don't bother.
Use your own interpreter or don’t bother.

You’ve come all the way to China to talk to a prospective business partner. Maybe it’s an investor or maybe it’s a buyer. China is a big market. And you’ve heard there’s a lot of money here too.

After you arrive in town the Chinese are so helpful. They know you can’t speak their language. They provide an interpreter because one of their people is bi-lingual. The interpreter is nice. You think the meeting is going really well. You’re told how much they want to “co-operate” with you. They want to invest in your business or buy whatever it is you’re selling. Like, right now. They just need some more detailed information about your offering. Some more documents to look at. Some more specifications. You’re asked to prepare an MOU. For some reason it needs to be signed before you fly out. For some reason this seems alright to you.

You get a bit carried away. The meeting isn’t what you think it is. There’s a lot of discussion about you but you don’t realize it isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to hear. It’s about what to do with you. You converse with the interpreter and then watch helplessly as the interpreter converses with the others on the Chinese side. Those carefully worded points you think you’re making don’t seem to be getting across. Your witticisms are falling flat. You don’t understand that it isn’t always a good sign when Chinese smile at you in meetings. You have no idea what’s going on. None at all. Worse still, maybe the leader of the Chinese side doesn’t know what’s going on either. Perhaps both of you are in the dark. The Chinese boss is so proud of the clever interpreter but they’re running their own racket. Right under the boss’s nose that helpful interpreter says all sorts of things you’ve never said. They want someone else to win the boss’s business. Someone who’ll look after them better. Don’t laugh. If you don’t believe me, take a meeting in Beijing and pretend you don’t speak Chinese. You’ll soon find out what’s really going on.

This is how it should go down — as you look your interlocutor straight in the eye he or she addresses you in Chinese from across the table. Sitting closely beside you, your own interpreter translates simultaneously sotto voce. You don’t look at your interpreter. The Chinese side can’t tell what your interpreter is saying to you. It’s just a murmur. Your rhythm is undisturbed. You’re really communicating now. You notice how careful and attentive the interpreter on the other side has suddenly become. They aren’t talking among themselves any more. You’ve just shut down all the games. Now you have a chance.

Simultaneous interpreting is a valuable service. It requires artistry beyond the mere mastery of two languages. Proper use of an interpreter is also an art. Usually, the value of the service and the art of using it are not appreciated. The result of not taking the role of an interpreter seriously is that foreigners often don’t know what’s going on. A good interpreter is invisible. They don’t initiate or hold a conversation. You don’t watch them have a long discussion in Chinese and then rely on them to give you a little summary afterwards. They do not play a central role in a meeting. They’re not one of your executives. They’re not doing the talking. You’re the presenter. Do you think the interpreters you see on the news sitting behind world leaders at big meetings get a say in things?

Should your interpreter be a native speaker or will a fluent foreigner do? Decide that one for yourself. Just know that Confucian proprieties won’t prevent a foreign interpreter from speaking frankly to someone in a position of seniority. Your foreign interpreter won’t be asked whose side they’re on right in front of you. They won’t be invited to dinner that night to discuss a few things without you around to spoil it. Or, if they are, they’ll probably interpret these little gems for you along with everything else.

If you want to do business in China right, use your own interpreter.

  • Ward Chartier

    …and use your own attorney, financial auditor, quality inspector, test engineer, etc.

  • Terry Newman

    Just a little tip here on how working-level diplomatic interpreting is often done. In sensitive national security-related discussions, for example, you can only use your own people and so they are usually fairly fluent junior diplomats, but not necessarily professional interpreters. (Those at the right level of fluency and security clearance are very, very rare.) What happens is that your own native language interpreter will deliver your message in your counterpart’s language and their interpreter will deliver your counterpart’s message in English. Think about this: everything would sound a lot more natural if your interpreter listened to the foreign language and reported to you in English, but instead your Third Secretary or whatever, will listen to your message, which he or she is already intimately familiar with, and explain that in the foreign language. Their interpreter will then deliver the other side’s response in sometimes stilted English; “The Minister wishes to pass on his thanks to your Prime Minister, for during his visit to your country he was so generously hospitalised”. And without missing a beat or cracking a smile the officer on your side responds that “we will convey the Minister’s gratitude”. The point is that you can be fairly confident that the correct message was delivered, even if the delivery was slightly off key.

    When you are engaged in complex contract or even fairly simple, but important, business discussions, it is vital that your interpreter fully understands your position. That is why, if possible, it is better to have a native speaker of English on your side, even if that person’s Chinese is not natively fluent. In any case it is an absolute no-no to have their interpreter do all the interpreting because even if they do not have an agenda of their own, they will NEVER admit to their boss that they only half understood what you were trying to explain. They will prattle happily Chinese in an attempt to appear on top of things, when in fact they are probably saying that you agree fully with your counterpart’s proposal, even when you said you have a counter proposal with which you are quite sure the other side can agree.

    The other thing to be aware of in using local interpreters in China is that they usually see themselves as agents and, even when they are doing a great job of representing you in the discussions, will ask for about 5% on the value of the sale (assuming you are buying some product). This can even happen to you when the interpreter is your own employer, believe me I know.

  • Mike Brew

    I agree with it and will try to use our own interpreter. Sometimes china’s products are good quality, but sometimes are worse. It’s really difficult to recognize it before you place orders. But last time I bought from a chinese online store, the quality is really bad, and the and I can’t refund my money from them. I want to know can I refund money with some legal method ?

  • ollumi

    Speaking from my own experience, you’d better make sure “your own” interpreter is aligned with you in the first place. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to just interrupt the “interpreter” in question and just directly speak Chinese, English, Japanese, German, what-have you to the other party because the “interpreter” from the other party is someone from their supposed joint venture here in China either “wing it”, pull something out directly from their nether regions, or completely miss critical points, either due to incompetence or vested, self preservation agency interests.

    And it’s only gotten worse ever since the whole “certification mob” of unqualified people took over who can take which job associated with media companies as mandated by the ministry, due to them passing a “test” which is so laughable it’s not even worth condemning .

  • You are right while doing business in China it is good to hire personal interpreter or translator.