Interpreters Can Play a Key Role

Bridging the Language Barrier

By David James

David JamesThe two most useful phrases in international business negotiations are “I do not understand” and “what do you mean by that?” Yet these phrases are not used often enough, especially when the first languages of the negotiating parties are different.

Time and again negotiators agree to something that one or both of them does not fully understand, and later a contract dispute or a strained relationship brings the misunderstanding to light.

When I hear of people who spend days on end negotiating a promising business relationship only to see it fall apart later due to a language-based misunderstanding, I don’t say, “Get a life.” I say, “Get an interpreter.” And I think of my two useful phrases.

There are funny stories;  Like the man who... There are funny stories about misunderstandings: like the man who negotiated for the lease of 200 Singer sewing machines for a garment factory and the next day found a choir of 200 singers on his doorstep. But there are also serious stories about companies that signed contracts binding them to prices, quantities, or quality standards that they never understood or intended.

In contrast, there are times when more is understood than one party intends. A friend of mine tells the story of a negotiation with a Malaysian company where two of its executives were chatting away in Bahasa Malaysian about the proposed deal and assuming that he did not understand a word they were saying. He understood just enough of their conversation to interject a relevant comment in English, and for the rest of the negotiations the two Malaysians said nothing more in their own language.

Where there is a language difference, the best approach for entering into negotiations, even if the they will be conducted in your own first language, is to have on your team a native speaker of the first language of the other party. This person can act as an interpreter of phrases and concepts under discussion, can warn of possible misunderstandings and can suggest approaches and phrases that will avoid confusion. He or she can also help you read the body language of the other party (and sometimes overhear a revealing aside in the other language).

The ideal is to have bilingual employees of your company as negotiating team interpreters. They will have a full knowledge of your company’s organization, products and objectives and will have an accurate command of relevant technical terms in both languages. More importantly, they can be privy to your negotiating strategy and help lead the discussions in the right directions.

A secondary approach is to hire a professional interpreter. . .

A secondary approach is to hire a professional interpreter for your negotiations. There are many highly qualified people who can provide this service, and there are translation agencies that can supply just the right person for your needs. Often these interpreters are available in the city where negotiations will be held. The caution here is that interpreters need to be carefully screened and tested, to make certain that they fully understand your objectives and can accurately translate and interpret all the technical lingo and idioms relevant to your business.

When negotiating with interpreters, the best policy is to identify them as a neutral party in facilitating the discussions, even if they are an employee of your company. It's important that an interpreter earn the trust of both sides.

For important negotiations, an unacceptable approach is to rely on the interpretations and translations of the other party. These might be provided entirely in good faith, but they can be inaccurate or misleading in some significant way and harmful to the interests of one or both of the parties. Often problems that arise in this way are caught before a contract is signed, but they sometimes leave a residue of suspicion and resentment.

Language differences, however, should never be considered a "problem." Accommodating them should be as routine as providing meeting facilities that will assure productive negotiating sessions. Indeed, overemphasis can appear to be patronizing. One U.S. company, at its first negotiating session with a Chinese group, thoughtfully presented elaborate translations of written materials into Chinese and an oral introduction in Chinese by a interpreter, but they failed to check on the language ability of their Chinese counterparts. It turned out that their counterparts were fluent in English and felt somewhat slighted that they were assumed not to know English.

Some businesspeople think that interpreters unnecessarily prolong the length of negotiations with their repetition of statements in the other language. To the contrary, I think they tend to focus the discussions, prevent time-wasting misunderstandings and avoid pursuit of tangential issues. They are also well practiced with my two most useful phrases, "I do not understand" and "what do you mean by that?" 

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