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Speaking Through an Interpreter: Try to Avoid Lawyers
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Dan at CLB just posted on this subject with his experience dealing with Chinese, Russian and German interpreters. I can only speak to Chinese, but it is an issue I've dealt with personally, and through clients, for over ten years now.

If an interpreter is really good, he/she fades into the background. During a negotiation or business meeting, it's like the interpreter wasn't there at all. This is extremely difficult, but the really good ones can manage it.

I don't think I've ever come across a lawyer, their language skills notwithstanding, that is also an exceptional interpreter. Well, perhaps one or two exceptions. Generally, lawyers are too headstrong and knowledgeable to allow themselves to merely be a conduit, even junior associates translating for a partner.

Lawyers will almost always get involved in the conversation, interject their own opinion, or otherwise interrupt the flow. It's incredibly annoying. Although I tell every single lawyer I've ever sent out to a client meeting, Board meeting, negotiation, etc. for the purposes of translating that they should not be an active participant in the discussion unless absolutely necessary, they almost always do so.

Nothing gets a client more pissed off than when their translator gets into a five minute discussion with the opposing party in a negotiation and fails to let the client know what's going on. Moreover, when both the opposing party and the translator are Chinese nationals and the client is a foreigner, they almost always think that something untoward is going on and that they are somehow conspiring against the poor foreigner. Silly, perhaps, but is happens very often.

This isn't to say that I wouldn't love, and prefer, working with an interpreter who not only knows the language very well, but can walk the line between giving valuable advice to the client on the one hand and being as unobtrusive as possible on the other — I just don't see those kinds of skills that often.

In fact, the more intelligent an interpreter is and the more experience they have with business or law, the more likely they are to be an active participant in the discussion. It's tough to hit the sweet spot.

Dan also reposts a Ten Do's and Don'ts list for Chinese/English interpreters that is kind of interesting. Of the ten items, I find the first one weird:

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.

I think something got lost in the translation here, 'cause I don't understand that at all. First, I'm trying to figure out when I would use "have fun" in a business context anyway. Can't think of an example.

Second, Chinese people talk about "fun/play" very often, so the "does not translate" is puzzling. In fact, in English when we might say "I'm going to the mountains this weekend to go hiking," a Chinese person might say "I'm going to the mountains this weekend to have fun." Maybe I'm missing something here?

Third, and most bizarre, is the notion that "Chinese people don't value fun as much as an English speaker might." Huh? I think this makes no sense at all, but if anything, I think Chinese people value fun more than some Westerners. I know some industries in America where people having a lot of fun (e.g. vacation time, time out of the office) is frowned upon and seen as a weakness. One example would be American lawyers, unfortunately.

Anyway, good topic. Everyone over here has a good interpreter story to tell. By the way, the folks who are licensed to do simultaneous translation are amazing. I have always kind of been in awe of that ability — it appears to be insanely difficult.

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© Stan for China Hearsay, 2010. |
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