Ten Tips for Using an Interpreter

If you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and you plan to use an interpreter, make sure the person adds to, rather than detracts from, your messages.

Here are some tips to help:

  1. Screen candidates carefully. Not everyone who is bilingual can serve as an interpreter. Seek references from colleagues, state departments, and embassies. Ask prospective candidates to describe the types of meetings they have interpreted. You don’t want your meeting to represent a learning experience—you want someone skilled, ideally with professional accreditation.

  2. Ask how your interpreter works. Does he say precisely what you say or does he modify words and expressions to best fit your overall meaning and the culture of the listener? Ideally, you want an interpreter who can modify your language to fit the situation, without changing your intent.

  3. Brief the interpreter. Before the meeting, tell the interpreter your goals for the sessions. Answer his questions. Make sure the interpreter knows the outcomes you hope to take away from the meetings.

  4. Use your interpreter as a cultural coach. Ask him or her for advice on local customs and taboos so that you’ll avoid embarrassing yourself or your hosts.

  5. Avoid using idioms or slang. When interpreted literally, these phrases will make no sense to the listeners. Do your best to use standard English.

  6. Speak slowly and distinctly. Don’t rush or slur your remarks. Make it as easy as possible for your interpreter to follow you.

  7. Use nonverbal language effectively. As you speak through your interpreter, look at the foreign executive, not the interpreter, and imagine he or she understands everything you say. When your counterpart speaks, watch him or her. Turn your attention to your interpreter only when he is translating the foreign executive’s message.

  8. Allot ample time.  Expect the meeting to last longer than a single-language meeting. With an interpreter, everything is said twice.

  9. If you are using an interpreter when giving a speech, show him the text beforehand. Additionally, go over any visuals that are part of your presentation.

  10. When negotiating business deals, bring your own interpreter. Don’t rely on the interpreter provided by the other party. Have more than one interpreter present? This shouldn’t represent a problem. Actually, their presence provides an accuracy check.

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