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China View: Lost in translation

Daryl Guppy
Daryl Guppy9/30/2022 10:30 AM GMT+08  • 6 min read
China View: Lost in translation
The translator or interpreter is your voice. Without them, you are powerless, incomprehensible and stranded when doing business, especially in China. Photo: Shutterstock
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Who can forget this infamous poem? “Eye halve a spelling check her; It came with my pea sea. It plane lee marks four my revue, Miss steaks aye kin knot sea.”

We all chuckle at these spell check error mistakes not picked up by artificial intelligence. It is no laughing matter when similar mistakes are made with translation or interpretation of written documents or conversations in meetings.

Western business survival in China usually depends on somebody else — your translator. Inevitably, you will work with translators and interpreters. Better translation relationships start with the understanding that what is simple for you may be complicated for others in ways you are unaware of, like translation format problems and the way the question is formulated.

What you say may impact broader background issues you are unaware of, including cultural sensitivity, political sensitivity and bureaucratic or administrative barriers. In short, you cannot speak as freely or unthinkingly as you do in your home country because the people you work with do not have common backgrounds or language habits.

There are two critical translation decisions. The first is to decide whether the translation will be literal, formal or interpretative. This choice is applied in both written and spoken translation situations.

In formal document translation, the sentence “the traveller will have problems adjusting to the local time after arriving on an intercontinental flight” becomes much more complicated.

See also: China leaders may signal policy shift to economy from Covid zero

It may read: “The traveller will find their body will not coordinate with local time when they arrive after an intercontinental flight that has passed through several time zones.” These confabulations appear more frequently in written translations, but they are never far from spoken translations.

An interpreter’s written or spoken translation may read: “International travellers may suffer jet lag.” It captures the sentence’s meaning without necessarily using the exact words or the literal translation. An interpreter will give you the speaker’s translation, meaning and intent. An excellent interpreter will also give you the speaker’s implied meaning.

The benefits of a good translator

See also: China: structurally higher risks but timely policy responses can turn it around

Our preference lies with interpretative translation unless there are exceptional reasons for using direct or literal translation. This is often the case in political and official situations or contract verification.

In meetings, it is easy to assume you have agreement and understanding when there is no agreement or understanding. People on both sides of the table tend to nod their heads in agreement, even if they do not fully understand what has been said. It is essential to use a confirmation technique to ensure critical points have been understood. This means rephrasing the question, so the original answer is confirmed.

The Chinese side will use this method frequently, which distracts many Westerners. Westerners complain: “We have already covered this area and agreed’ not realising this is the Chinese side reconfirming their understanding is correct.

Translation survival rests on three pillars. First, you must decide what you want from the translation service. Second, it is essential to help your translator. The third is to respect their professionalism.

Most times, if you are misunderstood, it is because what you said was unclear. The translator or interpreter is your voice. Without them, you are powerless, incomprehensible and stranded.

The translation is critical; how you use your translator determines the dynamics. Here are some tips for every meeting:

  1. Look at the speaker, not the translator. The translator is your voice. You are not talking to the translator. You are talking to your counterpart on the other side of the table.
  2. You must work with the translator before the meeting, but the translator is ignored in the formal meeting. The translator should sit behind you and to one side. Alternatively, the translator may sit beside you and the host.
  3. Speak slowly and in small bites. Avoid using slang or colloquialisms. This feels stilted for a start, but it is easy to get into a rhythm that makes accurate translation easier.
  4. Listen carefully to the translation. It may not be exact, so listen carefully for the confusion of tenses in terms of time. Ask for clarification but do so in a way that does not doubt the translator’s ability. It is better to say you did not hear than to say you did not understand the translation.
  5. Use precise language when you talk. Avoid imprecision because this may be translated in a way that implies precision.
  6. Do not assume others at the table or meeting cannot understand English. They may choose not to reveal this for many reasons. An essential giveaway is watching for involuntary smiles when speaking and before your comments have been translated.
  7. Always give a face to their translator because this also gives a face to the other people. Do not insist on using your translator. They can always brief you on any issues or mistranslations later as necessary.
  8. Allow for a translator-to-translator discussion and clarification. This will help get the best interpretation and avoids confusion.
  9. Give face to your translator by showing you respect for their work, their skill and the effort required. Respect can be as simple as not talking continuously for three minutes and expecting a complete and accurate translation.
  10. Work with a translator because this is a partnership. They are not machines. They are much better than a machine because their translation and interpretation skills will prevent you from making literal mistakes.

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We would use Google Translate in every situation if an accurate translation were easy. Accurate translation of documents or the spoken word is challenging and demands skill. Skimping on translation costs for important meetings is foolish because errors cost money and contracts.

Daryl Guppy is an international financial technical analysis expert and special consultant to Axicorp. He has provided weekly Shanghai Index analysis for mainland Chinese media for two decades. Guppy appears regularly on CNBC Asia and is known as “The Chart Man”. He is a national board member of the Australia China Business Council. The writer owns China stock and index ETFs

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