by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, PhD Anthropology
If you ever have to work with people who don’t speak any of the same languages as you, you will probably have to use an interpreter to make yourself understood. Interpreters are a highly valuable resource for cross-cultural communication — but when things go wrong, they can go very wrong.
For example, U.S. President Jimmy Carter made a diplomatic visit to Poland in 1977. Carter said he was glad to be in Poland, and his interpreter said that he was happy to have abandoned America. Carter later made a comment about his interest in the Poles’ desires for the future, which was interpreted as a comment about Carter’s desire for the Poles.
These kinds of errors are not only embarrassing, but they may actually undermine the work you are traveling to do. These five tips will help you work well with your interpreter and avoid misunderstandings.
1. Learn about your interpreter’s background.
Your interpreter’s background may have a bearing on your work. In particular, the way people perceive you may be affected not only by your ethnicity, age, gender, social status, and religion but also by your interpreter’s.
Your interpreter’s professional background is also important. How well do they speak the target language? How well do they speak English? Do you need them to know technical or specialized vocabulary?
2. Get to know your interpreter.
Before you work together, you’ll need to be comfortable enough together to ask questions freely. That way your interpreter can check in with you if they’re not sure about a word or phrase.
Build rapport with your interpreter as you would with anyone else, by discussing topics such as family, sports, or food. Show interest in their home life, career, education, and aspirations.
3. Prepare together before every conversation or meeting.
Since your interpreter shares responsibility for your message, preparing together is especially important. Brief your interpreter on points to be covered and the name and status of your audience members, as well as any written documents you plan to use. Discuss specialized terms and concepts. Ask for advice about how to explain or adapt such terms for the audience. If your interpreter is a native of the region, ask them to brief you on culture, customs, and current events.
4. Use the first person.
Speak directly to your audience, not to your interpreter. Always address your counterpart as if the interpreter weren’t there. Look directly at your counterpart, and use the words “I” and “you” rather than saying things like, “Tell them….”
5. Speak in short, simple sentences.
Think about what you want to say and then create a logical “chunk” consisting of a few concise sentences. These chunks need to be short enough that the interpreter can easily relay them to your counterpart. A good rule of thumb is to stick to one thought at a time.
With these tips, President Carter almost certainly wouldn’t have found himself in such an uncomfortable situation. It might have been discovered that Polish was his Russian-born translator’s fourth language, for one thing! While the translator was equipped to translate from Polish to English, he was less skilled in reverse. And if he had felt more comfortable asking questions, he might have avoided some of these gaffes.