Though Steve Barru only recently started his China Business Hand Blog, I am already a big fan. Steve is just back in the United States after 25 years in China and it would be no exaggeration to call him a China hand. I spoke with Steve for a spell a few weeks ago and at the end of our conversation I asked if he would do a guest post on our blog focused on something key to doing business in China well. The below is Steve’s post.
By: Steve Barru
Recently in the China Law Blog LinkedIn group, a discussion about problems Americans have negotiating with Chinese quickly morphed into a discussion about problems with translation. I was reminded of sitting through more than a few meetings and conferences in China that were savaged by poor quality translation. In some cases bad translation resulted in deals that did not happen because both parties had no clue what the other was talking about.
An American friend who used to manage a joint venture in China estimated that anywhere from 10% to 20% of any given meeting he sat through was lost in translation. In addition to straightforward mistranslations, he noted that nuance and tone tend to disappear from translations. Keep in mind, cultural differences make it tough for both Chinese and Americans to read each others’ non-verbal signals and body language, creating more room for misunderstanding.
Encounters across two languages are never going to be perfect, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself against losses caused by incompetent or untrustworthy interpreters. Most importantly, come up with a plan for how you are going to handle language and translation issues before you get involved in meetings with Chinese. The following five tips for good translations at your China meetings can help.
1. BYOI – bring your own interpreter. Never rely on your counter party’s interpreter. Would you ask your counter party’s lawyer to determine if the partnership agreement you want to sign is a sound deal? Of course not. So, why would you base what you know about a meeting on what your counter party’s interpreter tells you?
2. Bring a second Chinese speaker. In addition to an interpreter, you want a second Chinese speaker accompanying you to meetings. First, this person is there to intervene when inaccurate translations threaten to derail a meeting. Second, they are there to keep interpreters honest. The last thing you need is an interpreter who adds his or her interpretation to your message. Or an interpreter who, unbeknownst to you, is colluding with the people across the table to wring concessions out of you.
Rather than participating in the back and forth discussion, this person can follow the flow of a meeting and be a source of invaluable insights.
You need somebody you know and trust in this role, even if you already have a full time interpreter working out of your existing China office. If you are going to pick up a temp interpreter from an agency in China, a set of bilingual ears at your side is all the more important. Hire and pay to bring along someone from the United States if necessary. You will not regret it.
3. Remember that English is a foreign language for Chinese people. Help your interpreter get it right. Whenever possible, use simple, grammatically correct sentences and teach yourself to speak clearly and to enunciate each word. “How are you doing?” not “Howyadoin?” Speak two or three sentences at a time and then pause for translation. Even the best interpreters will have trouble with long, rambling monologues. Lastly, remove Americanisms from your speech. Bilingual China meetings are not the place for expressions like “can you ballpark that for me” or “we need to get our ducks in a row”.
4. Test the interpreter before the meeting. Sitting down at your first meeting with an interpreter you met twenty minutes earlier is a recipe for trouble. Before you hire an interpreter from an agency, quiz the candidate. Have a (non-confidential) discussion about your business and your industry. Work with a Chinese staff member or the Chinese speaker who is accompanying you to test the interpreter’s bilingual language skills. Do your best to ensure that your interpreter is familiar with general conditions and terminology in your industry before you head out to meet anybody.
5. Your interpreter is not necessarily your friend. Temp interpreters are just that: temps. They may speak great English and “feel” like someone you can trust, but this does not mean they are trustworthy. It is a mistake to make assumptions about personal character based on foreign language ability. Be cautious. Tell temp interpreters what they need to know to be effective in business meetings. But do not let them sit in on your strategy sessions or give them access to your confidential business information.
Translation disasters are mostly avoidable. A bit of advanced planning and a dose of common sense are all it takes to get it right.