How To Speak Through A Chinese Interpreter.

Posted by Dan on February 2, 2010 at 11:48 PM
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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), 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 a couple of beers and make a compliment or two, for everything other than that, I rely on 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 guys" 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" (h/t ChinaHopeLive). 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 over at China Hearsay did his own post on this topic, entitled, "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 the 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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I had the opportunity to speak to COSTIND during my first year of law school, and I had to do so through an interpreter.

I generally agree with your points, but would add the need to break my talk into segments, to allow for natural pauses where the interpreter could speak. I also noted a reluctance to ask questions or to actively participate in the way I am accustomed to from Western audiences. They seemed to especially respond to my disclaimer about the cultural limitations of the findings, and the need to reinterpret things in their specific context.

Additionally, if possible, meet with your translator before the big meeting. If practical, suffer a run through of your presentation so that the translator is briefed as to its parameters and key points. Then, be flexible, as the translator's advice may call for the reworking of the best of presentations. Oh, then, during the presentation, resist the urge to veer from the rehearsed script. Such changes mid-course tend to fry the nerves of the best of translators.

This is what makes teaching in China such a valuable experience. Anyone whose initial experience in China was to teach English has learned each of these 10 points the hard way.

Eventually, English teachers learn how to clarify and simplify their English -- to the extent that it becomes almost like another language (similar to VOA's "special English").

This is a skill that is valuable in any other country as well. Look for it on the resume of any foreigner who wants to work in China.

I will never forget my very first class of Freshman English majors in China. After about an hour of running my mouth, one of the girls raised her hand and said, "Um, excuse me. I am very sorry, but we do not understand anything you say."

It seems those ten tips of how to speak to a Chinese audience through an interpreter are useful if your interpreter is speaking quite literally. If they have as much liberty to adjust the message as your German and Russian interpreters then I don't think they would have a problem with any of those. Interpretation aside, using basic respect (tip 9) is just common sense.

11. Hire professionally-trained interpreters and translators.

Using people from "around the office" for formal translation and interpretation tasks is unprofessional for a law firm or any business. Would you ask Jeff from accounting to fix an electrical problem? No. Hire a professional every time.

I would wager that the interpretation mistakes that your colleagues are hearing in depositions are due to the fact that the interpreter has not been trained professionally. If you use professionals, items 1 through 10 on this list are completely unnecessary.

To your excellent list I would add, "Don't use acronyms." I was once at a conference in China on securitization of mortgages where the American speaker went on at high speed about HUD and REITs and GAAP and CDOs and God knows what else - I could barely follow it myself. The translator (who I was following on one earphone) was utterly baffled, and as a result the speaker communicated absolutely nothing.

Fascinating and very useful, I can see that meeting up with your interpreter an hour or two before meeting clients could make the world of difference.
Explaining which aspects you regard as most important and having the interpretor highlight any potentially difficult concepts to translate must be worth the extra time.

Very helpful list. Thanks.

MaoRuiQi made a very good point.

-If you are making a presentation you really, really need to present it to your interpreter, or at least let them see it in advance.

-On large projects it is sometimes necessary to "put on a show" to demonstrate a hard-line position. If it is your desire and intention to irritate and make the people across from the table angry, you absolutely need to make that clear to your interpreter beforehand.

For example, after about 1 hour of a meeting I saw that our VP was trying to pick a fight and walk out of the meeting.

I asked for a break and we went outside to discuss it. He told me that the owner of the company, who had worked in China for 10+ years wanted to piss off the Chinese side and then walk out of the meeting in a huff.

I suggested that this wasn't the best tactic and I actually called and woke the owner (whom

I know personally) up in the US and asked him.
He laid it out very simply that yes, what the VP said was true.

Long story short, a native mainland Chinese interpreter will _rarely_ interpret for you in this situation. And I will only do it under a bit of duress. After the VP goes back to the US, I still have to work with the Chinese customer and that is very tricky after losing face...

Another point. Talk to the audience not the interpreter. Those not used to using an interpreter, especially in a small meeting setting, find themselves looking and speaking to the interpreter. You have to pause so the interpreter can translate but you also have to pretend he or she is not there.

Do not ask questions in the negative

(i.e. So you won't be in production tomorrow ? ... or So the cost is not affected by our changing materials?)

This we have learned the hard way. There is no word for "yes" and "no" in Chinese .... the closest they have is "dui" and "bu dui" which translates to "correct" and "incorrect".

So when you ask a question in the negative, the response is only affirming or not-affirming what you said ....

In English we tend to answer yes or no based on the intent of the question.

The example:

So you won't start production tomorrow?

English speaking foreigners would respond "no" as in "no, we are not starting production tomorrow".

Chinese answer "yes" as in "dui, correct, we are not starting production tomorrow"

Don't ask for a show of hands. You will receive none.

This can be extended to any expectation of a "town meeting" style group interaction, whereby individuals volunteer information in a dynamic interplay. In other words, generally expect a silent, still, largely unresponsive audience. "The head that sticks up will be cut off." Stick your own neck out. This dynamic shifts dramatically on a one-by-one basis, but if there are two, it all changes, and the "foreigner" will be the odd one out.

It follows that one shouldn't then expect mini-brainstorming sessions to yield much fruit in the way of creative solutions. "Interpret this abstract painting" will likely result in "We can't" meaning "It is frivolous". I guess what I'm indicating here is a business culture of following and siphoning rather than proactive innovation and creative risk. Don't make a game, learn a game, and how to game the game.

Many Chinese can basically follow along in English if the speaker enunciates more clearly and slows the speech. But the tendency is also to appear as if understanding, even when it is clearly absent.

I agree with cutting all sarcasm, irony, and idiom from speech. Think, basic concept in the simplest terms, with the most common descriptors.

The question "Are there any questions" will probably be met with no questions. In China, this is interpreted more like, "Who needs their hand held?" Someone may invariably answer "No" for the group. (Wish I had that ESP). Seriously, six years I asked this question and the only questions I ever received were designed to play my game and give me face. Futile, really.

If you expect clarity and informed rationality, and mutual willingness to self-criticize, you may find yourself the butt of self-serving bias, rationalization, and uni-directional nationalistic criticism. FOCUS ON POSITIVES (and expect confirmation-biased questions designed to reinforce difference and negative stereotype). Let it all slide; deflating one argument will turn the entire audience against you. You abused face; when you are here to take abuse.

You are not American, Canadian, Australian, German, French, Spanish. You are foreign. Therefore you represent all the down and out world and you're lucky to be here.

Six years business English teaching in Shanghai. Take it for what it's worth.