Got an email the other day from a China business consultant I know.  The email (modified a bit so as not to hide information) follows:

Hello Dan,

A quick question/insight into the Chinese business mind. We are set to go to China next month with a client and I suggested we hire a professional translator to go with us, but the Chinese company on the other side “blew a gasket,” citing confidential business information and claiming we should not bring a translator because they have a close relationship with the government. I suggested that they find a translator they trust and that seems to have been ignored.

Why the absolute insistence that no translators be allowed? Doesn’t this beg the obvious question. This Chinese company is generally doing what we want them to do overall but we would like some clarity in our discussions and we certainly want more clarity in our correspondence.

They translate for us what they think we need. Just a bit frustrating.

Any curbside thoughts?

Yes. Many. Someone is definitely being played here and there are the following markers of this just in your short email:

  • “Close relationship with the government.” This doesn’t have anything to do with your desire/need to have a translator and I am concerned this is their subtle way of threatening you. Seems they may be saying that if you do bring a translator, they will use their close relationship with the government to prevent your client from doing business in China.
  • Of what are they afraid? Why don’t they want a translator? Honest and legitimate Chinese companies tend to want clarity; dishonest and illegitimate Chinese companies tend to want obfuscation. Our China lawyers oftentimes tell our clients this when it comes to drafting contracts and it applies with even greater measure when all you are seeking is to use a translator.
  • It should be more than “a bit frustrating” that they translate for you only what theythink you need; it should scare the heck out of you.

I know I cannot turn back time, but what you really should have done was to have gone over there with someone to translate and then just introduce that person as someone there on behalf of the company. That person should not be Chinese and should not look Chinese and that person should never speak Chinese in the presence of the Chinese company. In other words, that person should be your stealth translator. It may be too late for you to pull that off, but that would have been my advice to you a few months ago. I can tell you story after story about the great stuff foreign companies doing business in China have been able to learn from stealth translators but I will save that for a later day.

What do you think?

  • Ward Chartier

    What is the law in China about single party consent for recording discussions?

  • Wang Bahasa

    You forget that your foreign translator will be unlikely to understand any regional dialects such as Shanghainese or Sichuanhua. You need a local otherwise your advise isn’t going to work.

  • theAdmiral

    As a former stealth translator for half a dozen manufacturing and engineering companies I say that Dan is 1000% correct. I was always introduced as either “in engeering” or the “technical director”. I saved those companies tremendous amounts of money by letting them know what they didn’t here during meetings and on the factory floor.

  • Hi Dan, please use the word “interpreter” instead of “translator”, since it is not the same job (oral/written). Thanks

    • You are absolutely right, but the problem is that too many businesspeople use translator for both and that is why I too use that word, even though I know it not to be as precise as it should be.

  • Guest

    Excellent advice Dan.

  • Terry Newman

    Excellent advice Dan. And while you are at it, you need to remind your clients about locally hired interpreters routinely taking commissions.

  • Karl Metzner

    The stealth interpreter suggestion is great. Particularly challenging job though, because it’s more difficult to understand third-party conversations and the need for stealth inhibits the ability to track and remember the information. Yeah, you’d have to be pretty careful to avoid detection.

  • Stealth translator is funny. Definitely could help, Honest Chinese translater’s in dialect can be found, We have done it for companies. I have also brought a dumpy looking Chinese person with they ignore and then have him go into their facility and ask around, Also effective.

  • china7717

    i think here you missed some details, you didnt mention that the chinese party have their own interpreter, that’s why they didnt want you to hire another professional interpreter, who can understand well on daily dialogue but dont understand the specific language related to the business both parties are going to negotiate. Most often than not, so-called professional interpreter cannot help negotiate the industry-specific business because he is not in this field, worse, they sometimes misunderstand the dialogue, leading negotiation astray…