Global Business Basics

Dec. 21, 2004
A language barrier can be breached with skillful interpretation.
Una persona que habla dos lenguas vale dos personas. (A person who speaks two languages is worth two people.)-- Spanish aphorism Well-educated executives should learn at least one foreign tongue. But no one can master the multitude of languages that global business requires. When you must communicate with someone, and you have no language in common, it's time to hire an interpreter and/or a translator. A translator and an interpreter are not the same thing. A translator translates the written word, while an interpreter translates the spoken word. The two skills are related but not interchangeable. (In fact, many interpreters are insulted when they are referred to as translators.) Translators often conduct their business without ever meeting their clients. Material to be translated often is sent via mail, fax or e-mail. Interpreters, on the other hand, work directly with you, often spending hours at your side. It's important for you to be comfortable with your interpreter -- and to know the proper way to treat him or her. A good interpreter tries to become as inconspicuous as possible. The people conversing talk to -- and face -- each other; the interpreter stands or sits to one side, translating. To an outside observer, it would look as if the interpreter is being ignored. Nevertheless, the interpreter should be treated with consideration. Because the interpreter's job is difficult and stressful, he or she also needs frequent breaks. Because of the intensity of the job, an interpreter cannot work more than about 6 1/2 hours per day. There also are different levels of interpreters. At the top are conference interpreters, who are the interpreters we associate with the United Nations. They sit in a booth and translate simultaneously to people listening on headphones or earpieces. They must be highly accurate and very fast. For this expertise they are the highest-paid type of interpreters. Ranked somewhat below conference interpreters are technical interpreters, who specialize in specific fields, such as computers or banking. Their expertise includes their industry's jargon. At the bottom of the totem pole are escort interpreters. These are a cross between interpreter and tour guide. They may meet and greet foreign guests at the airport, get them to the hotel and the office, and join them for social events and tours. Always select the right interpreter for the right job. Escort interpreters usually do not have the expertise to conduct important business negotiations. And many conference interpreters would be insulted if asked to do escort work. Different styles of interpreting include consecutive interpretation (after the other person has finished speaking) as well as simultaneous interpretation (at the same time that the other person is speaking). Simultaneous interpretation can be done remotely, with the interpreter sitting in a booth and translating into a microphone, or with the interpreter present. The latter is sometimes called a whispering interpreter; he or she stands nearby and interprets in an undertone. A whispering interpreter speaks quietly, and cannot be easily heard by more than two persons. Interpreting is a highly skilled profession. Not surprisingly, it can be expensive: $600 per day plus expenses is not unusual for a conference interpreter; escort interpreters earn about half that. As in any business, supply and demand determines the price. In the United States, it is easier to find interpreters who know Spanish than Japanese, so Japanese interpreters earn more. A technical interpreter in an obscure field can demand higher pay -- but might be employed less often. Some interpreters now demand to be paid for a day's research in a technical specialty before they ever begin interpreting. And keep in mind that you might need more than one interpreter per day. Simultaneous conference interpreting is so mentally rigorous that U.N. interpreters work in pairs, switching off every half hour. Qualified interpreters may be contacted through trade organizations such as the Translators and Interpreters Guild, which offers a referral service. These translators and interpreters are carefully screened for proficiency; only a small number of Guild members make the cut. The Guild can be contacted at 800-992-0367. And in an emergency, an interpreter is as close as your telephone. AT&T offers its Language Line Service 24 hours a day in some 140 languages, and no appointments are necessary -- 800-628-8486.

Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway are the coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries, Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America, and their newest book: The 1999 World Holiday and Time Zone Guide. For further information about Getting Through Customs' seminars, online database, and books, phone (610) 725-1040 or fax (610) 725-1074. E-mail: [email protected]. Mail: Box 136, Newtown Square, Pa., 19073. Enter their Web site book contest at

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