2001 Volume 4 Issue 1

Language, Culture and Global Business

Language, Culture and Global Business

The interpreter as a tool for effective cross-border communication.

The choice of an interpreter may be one of the most important choices you make when conducting business globally.

A Polish manager and an American investor while negotiating a joint-venture were struggling over the most basic of terms and conditions. Following a particularly frustrating session, the Polish manager pulled the interpreter aside and asked whether the company they were forming would be “profitable” or “honest.” The interpreter instantly replied “I think this company is going to be both profitable and honest.” It was the key turning point in the negotiation.

When you dream of building a global business, you rarely consider that the details of this dream are framed from your own perspective and written in your own language — in my case, English. While English is widely-used in the business world, you can never be sure whether the meaning that is so critical for successfully negotiating a business deal or managing a local sales force is shared. Often your partners or employees will feel more comfortable using their own language to communicate important issues. If you conduct the business in English, you may not learn that your partner did not understand you until something does not turn out as expected. If you find yourself needing to cross language borders in order to conduct business, how do you proceed?

There are now electronic translators to help with email and websites, although the accuracy still leaves much to be desired, and natural language patterns are lost. But these do not help you with real-time, face-to-face business. You may also choose to learn the other language. This is an excellent alternative but rarely feasible when dealing in multiple countries or with limited time available. When face-to-face communication in two languages is required, you may have to rely on an interpreter, and selecting the right interpreter can impact the successful completion of your objectives.

Language is socially constructed and therefore embedded in the culture. Understanding the embedded meanings requires mastering the language, a process that can be extremely time consuming and difficult. Misinterpreting the words or the cultural meaning associated with them may negatively affect the entire interchange. In the case of a business deal, it may be a deal-breaker. In this situation, a good interpreter can become a major asset. He or she may even construct bridges and open doors that would not be opened to an outsider — or at least that could not be opened without a great deal of effort, pain, and time. On the other hand, the poor choice of an interpreter can actually create additional obstacles even if he or she is fluent in the language.

So, if you should find yourself with a golden business opportunity and the need for an interpreter, where do you find one? And what do you need to consider in the selection of one?

To answer the first question, many people probably find this type of help as they do other services: networking and asking for suggestions from business associates. Other options include checking with language departments at universities, either at home or in the country of interest. In the United States, one resource could be the Monterey Institute of International Studies which has a graduate school of Translation and Interpretation. You could also check with companies such as Berlitz that specialize in languages and communication. Then, there are associations of professional interpreters and translators. Yahoo! has a page listing some of them. In particular, you might want to check on the American Translators Association. While it does not accredit interpreters, only translators, there is a list of interpreters in their service directory. You might also look within your own company to see if someone has the skills you need. However, if you do so, you need to be certain that person not only knows the language but meets the other criteria listed below as well.

Once you have names of possible interpreters, what do you need to consider? Obviously the interpreter must possess a core set of language competencies to avoid misunderstanding and the transference of inaccurate information. These competencies include

  1. A command of the basic language, and all necessary technical terminology, in both languages;
  2. An aptitude to communicate information at an appropriate pace; and
  3. A sophisticated talent for interpreting the responses of the other party for the purpose of conveying accurate meaning and responding appropriately.

Command of Both Languages:

Ideally, the interpreter should have extensive experience using both languages in similar business deals. A native speaker of the other language may be preferable to a native speaker in one’s own language in many situations. It is critical that the interpreter have immediate and deep understanding of the potential business partner’s message. The interpreter needs to be able to correctly translate the meaning, not simply the words.

Be aware that regional, educational, economic, and even generational differences in dialect may exist, and colloquialisms can add to the complexity. To be a native speaker in a particular language (e.g., German or Greek) does not necessarily mean that an interpreter has adequate knowledge of the respondent’s specific language. Also it is rare for one language to translate directly into another. The more removed the origins of the two languages are, e.g., English and Chinese, the more complicated the translation becomes. Even among languages that are from the same language family, direct word-for-word translation is rarely elegant and often conjures up quite different feelings in the listener than were intended. The interpreter must know how and when to make adjustments in the translation so that the message received is the same one that was sent.

An understanding of the technical “jargon” of your business area is as important as understanding any of the other dialects. However, if you find someone who understands the nature of your business and its terminology, the chances are that same person may also interpret for other companies in your business area — your competitors. It is important, then, that you exercise due diligence in the selection of this person. Check references. Make clear your expectations regarding keeping proprietary information confidential. If you don’t have a feeling of trust, keep looking until you find someone with whom you do. It is very important. This is one reason to look within your own organization for someone with the appropriate language skills. However, interpreting involves much more than just understanding the words. Don’t be tempted to neglect these other considerations just to keep the project in-house.


Especially in the introductory, “getting acquainted” and trust-building phase of the relationship, conversations may involve a variety of topics. To encourage these exchanges, an informal, natural flow of discourse often can be helpful. The faster the interpreter can accurately translate, the better the flow and the less attention to the unnatural nature of the conversation. Simultaneous translation, where the interpreter translates concurrent with the conversation, increases the pace and produces more of a “real time” feel, but it may bring difficulties. First, it may be difficult for the interpreter to always grasp and communicate the finer details of what is being said in simultaneous translation. Second, it may be distracting to the parties in the conversation since two people are basically speaking at once. In the end, it may depend on the interpreter’s and your preferences and inclinations.

Reading the Reaction of the Respondent

At certain critical points during business communications a combination of competency in the language and human intuition are required to assess the reaction of the other parties and to assist, if necessary, in clarifying hidden implications and potential misconceptions. The intonations and wording of responses may give important clues as to the implied meaning, as may body language. The sincerity and genuineness of a response may be evaluated more accurately from subtle inflections of words than from the words themselves. A good interpreter can help read these intonations and steer the conversation accordingly. Emphasis can be conveyed either during the translation or through supplementary interpreter comments to help you absorb the meaning behind the words.

The measure of the success of an interpreter for your business objectives goes beyond his/her skill in translating. All three interpreters that I used were competent in skilled translation but my experience uncovered several other key issues that were critical and should be considered, including: (1) personality, (2) the status with the host culture, and (3) whether the interpreter is available for the duration of business interaction.

Personality: The personality of the interpreter may be important in establishing trust with your business partners or employees and in providing a bit of sanity and perspective for you. The personalities of participants impact all interpersonal exchanges, and interpreters are participants in these exchanges. At the least, you want an interpreter whose personality will not antagonize the other party. Ideally you want someone whose personality harmonizes somewhat with your own. Two aspects of personality that are often particularly important are humor and warmth or empathy.

Humor: Appropriate humor is a very difficult thing to learn, far more difficult than language per se. In many cultures humor is critical for building trust and thus it may be important to have appropriate humor in business transactions. For it to be useful rather than detrimental, the interpreter must have a keen sense of not only what is appropriate humor in the other culture, but what is appropriate in this particular situation. A good interpreter can warn you if your sense of humor is out of line or can break the tension by using his or her own humor.

Warmth: Warmth is something felt from the heart and transferred to others through verbal and non-verbal clues. The strangeness of the new situation can be mitigated through the warmth of a good interpreter. A reassuring tone or voice and body language can greatly assist in breaking down barriers and building trust, especially in the initial stages of the negotiation. The first words the other party understands are those of the interpreter. His or her personality can be crucial here. On the other hand, a business interaction is not primarily a social occasion, and the interpreter must be able to convey a sense of professional reserve when it is appropriate as well.

Status Impacts Understanding

The perceived status of an individual in another’s eyes greatly impacts the willingness to engage in dialogue. It is status within the host culture that matters. Characteristics that confer a certain level of status in your own culture may not have the same effect in the host culture. Be aware!

Higher status is not necessarily more conducive to open communication. In fact, it may be that a high status individual is intimidating or threatening in some contexts. Insufficient status, however, may demean the exchange and discount the entire conversation. Several factors impact the status that is perceived. These may include age, educational level, economic level, manner of dress, family of origin, nationality, and other group affiliations. High-level managers may require a higher-status interpreter to command the appropriate degree of respect and to encourage their participation. An entrepreneur in a small town who has little formal education may be intimidated by the same individual and decide not to do business.

Age, as one example, implies a certain level of experience and knowledge. Body language and reactions to things that are said by the persons on the other side of the business transaction may be a result of the age of the interpreter. Similarly, educational level and financial position are sources of power and respect in most cultures. They may also be sources of resentment and distrust. Both may present significant barriers to open communication if deemed inappropriate by the target group.

Consistency Maintains Trust

Both long-term business relationships and short-term business transactions are likely to be much smoother when there is a level of trust established. The interpreter is a part of that trust factor. Once a good relationship is established, consistency is important in order to maintain trust and move the business forward. Therefore, once you have established a good working relationship with the target group through the use of a particular interpreter, think carefully before making any change. This is an issue that should be considered at the onset of the selecting an interpreter so that the climate of trust is minimally impacted by changes – unless they are needed because of an unfortunate initial choice.

In Conclusion . . .

While there is a comfort level in staying within your own language and cultural parameters, you may miss some wonderful and profitable opportunities if you do so. In this global economy, opportunities often exist world-wide, even for smaller businesses. But you must be prepared to move beyond the comfortable environment of your known world. Working through an interpreter can be a challenge, but if you choose wisely, a good interpreter can be a business asset, making your “dream” of global expansion a “reality.”

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Author of the article
Jennifer Roney, PhD
Jennifer Roney, PhD
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