Stuff Translators Hate

I’ve spent the last two weeks as part of a multinational health sector assessment effort, and we’ve worked through interpreters the whole time. I’ve obviously worked with translators before, but never every day all day for two weeks.  It’s really crystallized my own ground rules for how to work effectively with interpreters. This is what I’ve got:

  1. Jokes almost never succeed when translated. They’re just too cultural and based on language and tone nuance. It’s easiest to avoid them.
  2. If you want to connect with people personally across language, and you can’t use humor, talk about common human experiences. Kids are great if you all have them. I’ve got pictures of kids on my phone and they’re a great icebreaker. I’ve seen other people successfully transcend language and culture barriers by talking about a dislike of mushrooms, fear of snakes and bugs, mocking people who are drunk, alluding to sex, and comparing government officials to babies. I wouldn’t myself be brave enough for an off-color reference, but it worked from the woman who made it.
  3. Take the colloquialism out of your language and use short phrases. It feels awkward at first, but if you can code-switch between talking to your mom, talking to your friends, and talking to your boss’s boss, you can develop an easy way of speaking through a translator. So, break up your thoughts into Twitter-size pieces and be a little more formal.

Some colloquialisms to avoid (that I have heard lately from people who should know better):

  • Big ticket
  • Hard vs Soft (in terms of estimates or rules)
  • Peanuts (to mean small amounts)
  • Small time
  • Take a swing at
  • Out of left field
  • Take a shot at
  • Take a whack at
  • Shot in the dark
  • Rolling in money
  • Drop, fall (to mean decrease)
  • Go off the reservation (also don’t say that because it’s racist)
  • On track


(photo credit: dweekly)

Expensive translation, cheap food: how a pro runs an international meeting

I’ve been to an awful lot of meetings that involve international participants. I’ve seen some go well, and some turn into complete disasters. I spent my last international meeting thinking about what makes some go well, and some go badly, and this is what I came up with:

1. Hire the best translator you can afford. I can’t stress this enough. Do not, under any circumstances, hire language students as translators or expert participants to also translate for others. Your meeting will fail completely if no one is able to understand each other, and I mean that literally. To help the translator, speak in short, clear sentences. If you are using simultaneous translation, speak slowly so the translator doesn’t fall behind. If the translator speaks after you, stop after every other sentence so she can translate. Avoid analogies and metaphors, especially sports metaphors. Anything that requires your translator to stop and figure it out will ruin the flow. Some phrases you may not think of as sports metaphors: gear up, take a shot at it, take a different tack.

2. Some cultures are very uncomfortable introducing themselves, and it can be hard for everyone involved to remember foreign names and faces. If you’re at a table, use placards with names and titles for each person.

3. Have an agenda which explicitly describes each item to be discussed. Think about whether you want to assign a time frame to each item. Meetings intended to share information and form relationships may benefit from being able to take extra time on productive topics and race through dull ones. If decisions need to be made or specific topics covered in detail, a time bound agenda may be useful.

4. Don’t make jokes. They never translate properly.

5. Don’t serve food. Cultural belief on when it’s appropriate to eat, or get up and collect food, differ widely and can lead to frustration or even resentment. Give every attendee a cup and a bottle (or pitcher) of water, and their own little plate of cookies or nuts, and stop there. If you absolutely must have a meal connected to you meeting, schedule it for before or after, and don’t do business during it. Or have coffee breaks and serve snacks there.

6. Know which delegation is hosting, who is chairing the meeting, and who will take the lead on each agenda point. Your chair must be comfortable moving things along to stay with the agenda.

7. Be as candid and informal as your feel comfortable being. Americans are known all over the world for being blunt. You might as well use it to your advantage. Be extremely courteous, but say what you need to say. You don’t have to fit perfectly into the other culture. Just make it very clear you are doing your best to be polite and respectful. Your translator is your ally here; he can make sure your good intentions come through. This is why you paid for the best one you could find.

Photo from John Connell.