We'll just call and get a translator," said one of colleagues and off she went to find a phone. Visibly shaken, she returned about a half hour later. The agency had promised to try but couldn't make any guarantees. Something about Japanese translators being very difficult to get at short notice, and bidirectional translation (no, "interpretation," the woman at the agency had called it) and needing more than one person for the job. "Well, maybe they speak more English than we think," said Rita, refusing to give way to panic on the eve of this important event. Well, no, they didn't ! Sound incredible? It is, and also true! True and representative of a national blind spot. Americans not only do rather poorly in studying and speaking a foreign language, but tend to ignore the fact that most of the world doesn't speak English. And it's costing the US billions in lost sales and opportunities. Compare the American lack of linguistic sensitivity to the savvy of the Japanese or Germans. Siemen's AG, located in Munich, employs a staff of 200 translators and interpreters. And the japanese are well known for their multilingual and culturally aware marketing efforts.
What the Europeans and Japanese have long known, Americans are now discovering. If you want to sell abroad, if you want to reach around the global you must somehow bridge the linguistic and cultural chasms that separate most countries on earth. And one essential link in that bridge is the professional interpreter you choose to convey your message from one language to another.
An old Italian saying goes: Traduttori traditore. ("Translators are traitors.") Indeed, a translation is, of necessity, always slightly, ever so slightly in the best cases, different from the original. And it's true that you can be betrayed by a translator or an interpreter. But you can also be your own worst enemy, a traitor to your own cause, if you're not up on how to choose and work with an interpreter.
Translators and Interpreters Are Not the Same
First, what is the difference between an interpreter and a translator? A translator works with the written word, and translates letters, reports, brochures and proposals. He or she labors over each word, weighing one turn of phrase against another, realizing full well that that translation may be pulled out later in a contractual conflict or in training a worker to run a potentially dangerous machine. The translator may neither add to nor delete from the original, and the document must be absolutely clear. After all, Verba volant, scripta management. ( "Words fly off, but the written text remains!")
In the river of words which both translator and interpreter inhabit, the latter, who "translates" oral communication, goes with the flow.
Without a moment to look up a technical term in a dictionary, often without prior knowledge of the exact terminology to be used, the interpreter walks the tightrope from one language to another without a safety net.
In performance, interpreters depend solely on their wits and their memories. Interpretation requires a gruelingly high level of concentration, and highly specialized training.
Stephanie van Reigersberg, chief of the Interpreting Division at the US State Department, likens interpretation to the digestive process. The interpreter takes in information as your body takes in food. In both cases the "raw material" has to be transformed in order for it to be used. That transformation is not at the level of a parrot but rather at the much deeper level of ideas. The idea must come out in another language, transformed in syntax and form, and sounding not like a translation but like natural spontaneous speech. What is important is the message," says van Reigersberg, and that search for the essence of meaning makes interpretation one of the most demanding of professions.
It is simultaneous interpretation that demands the highest level of professional training. Simultaneous interpretation, used most frequently in conferences, involves listening to a speech in one language and repeating it back, with a few seconds delay, in another. Anyone who needs further evidence of the difficulty of such a task should try repeating someone's words, with a few seconds lag time, while the other person continues to speak. Add to this the mental gymnastics of jumping from one language to another and you'll have an approximation of the work of the simultaneous interpreter. Simultaneous interpretation, used in meetings or conferences and whenever multiple languages are involved, requires the use of headsets and a specially equipped booth for the interpreters. Because of interpreters' high level of training and the necessary equipment, simultaneous interpretation costs more than its counterpart, consecutive interpretation.
Consecutive interpretation best fits the small group format, especially when those groups move around. In most consecutive interpretation the speaker pauses after every few sentences to allow the interpreter to render the words in the other language. High-level consecutive interpreters, having learned a special note-taking technique, are able to allow speakers to go on at length before "translating" into the target language. This skill, though, is generally not necessary in the more informal atmosphere of the business meeting, where, au contraire, speakers may well use their interpreters' frequent interventions to plan their next move.
Whisper interpretation provides yet another wrinkle. Are there just a handful of people in your group who do not understand the language? You may wish to assign each of them a personal interpreter who will whisper a simultaneous interpretation to the listener. This way you avoid the extra time required by a consecutive format and the cost of simultaneous interpretation from a booth.
Once you've determined the need for an interpreter, how do you go about finding one? As usual, there are right ways and wrong ways. The wrong ways are usually a variation of "My secretary studied French in college so we asked her to interpret." Interpreters are professionals with specialized training. Not even native-level fluency in a foreign language qualifies a person to act as an interpreter.
How to Find the Right Person
One right way is to contact a translation/interpretation agency. Your interpreter may be only as good as your agency's expertise in selecting and evaluating their interpreters, so, as ever, caveat emptor. It's very difficult to find an interpreter on your own," warns Susan Johnson, marketing manager of Berlitz National Interpretation Center in Washington, D.C. (Tel: 1-800-4236756). "You have absolutely no quality control. And that's what you pay an agency for. A good agency must test and evaluate their interpreters and know their strengths and areas of expertise."
Gregory Zaretsky is president of The Corporate Word, a translation agency located in Pittsburgh, Pa. He says that if you're using an interpreter for the purpose of contractual negotiation to make sure the agency which provides the interpreter is ready to back him or her up with translation service and office support. Any changes and revisions reached in oral negotiation should also be translated. Zaretsky cautions, "Please note that interpreters do not always make good translators and vice versa."
The best way to locate a free-lance interpreter may be to ask an interpreter with whom you have worked in the past. Other sources of information are
The American Association of Language Specialists (TAALS), located at 1000 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 9, Washington, D.C. 20036 (Tel: 301762-6174) and the Geneva-based Association Internationale des Interpretes de Conference (AIIC), which publishes a list of certified interpreters from around the world. AIIC is located at 10, Avenue de Sacheron, CH 1202, Geneva, Switzerland. You may also be able to get help from the American Translators Association (ATA), 109 Croton Avenue, Ossining, N.Y. 10562 (Tel: 914-941-1500), which also publishes a directory of translators and some interpreters. Alan Garratt, PR manager of MCI International, suggests that embassies and consulates are a fount of information when it comes to international business." These sources may help, but it's wise to have found and established relations with a reliable agency if you expect an upsurge of international business, as interpretation needs often seem to come up at the last minute.
Plan Ahead to Achieve Best Results How can you help your interpreters do their best job for you?
Make arrangements at the earliest possible date. "People so often call in total desperation," says Blair Treisman at ATI Translation in San Francisco (Tel:1-800-443-2344). Try to arrange for consecutive interpretation a month or two in advance, and simultaneous interpretation several months to a year in advance, depending on the size of the group. Bear in mind that conferencelevel interpreters book their schedules months and sometimes years ahead, and that setting up conferences is a highly complex business.
* Pre-translate all visual aids, adds Zaretsky of The Corporate Word. "Interpreters interpret spoken words, but find it difficult to translate what's written on a screen. By having all visual materials translated in advance, it not only helps the interpreter, but you'll also have a far more efficient and smooth-running presentation."
Let the interpreter know ahead of time the major issues of any business discussion, recommends State Department chief of interpreting Stephanie van Reigersberg.
"Any written documents in either language relevant to the discussion should be provided to the interpreter beforehand," she adds. Anything you can make available to your interpreter, special terminology lists, working documents, pertinent correspondence, or other documents, will make for a smoother, more accurate interpretation of the proceedings.
"Respect standard working conditions if you expect sensitive and accurate interpretation," advises Berlitz's Susan Johnson. Conference interpreters always work in pairs and in one language only. The booths from which they interpret must be properly ventilated and lighted and spacious. Van Reigersberg also advises that the consecutive interpreter be placed so that he or she can both hear well and see the speakers. Protocol may well be a question in determining who sits where at the conference table, but proper placement of the interpreter at the table is crucial to accurate transmission of the message.
Watch your own language when you know you're being interpreted. "Americans, Canadians and Australians speak in absolutely unforgivable slang," says van Reigersberg. Your interpreter may well understand your football metaphors, but they'll be "lost in translation" and may even cause confusion. Americans tend to speak too fast and not distinctly enough. An interpreter cannot invent a mumbled word if he hasn't understood. Van Reigersberg also recommends that speakers using consecutive interpreters not go on for too long, but rather pause frequently to allow the interpreter to speak.
Respect your interpreter as a highly paid and specially trained professional. One interpretation insider told the story of the Texas oil baron who was having a party with a handful of French guests in attendance. "Yeah, I want to really impress these French people so I want to have interpreters dressed up like French poodles. They won't have to work very hard, just serve drinks and mingle with the guests!" The Texan oil baron may be beyond the reach of efforts to educate in this area. But it would behoove us all to keep in mind the interpreters' professional skills and earning power. The current rate for free-lance conference interpreters is about US $375 a day. If required to work alone they get more than $500 a day. Free-lance Japanese interpreters command rates of between $500 and $700 a day. And at the high end of the scale conference interpreters who work for live broadcast can go up to $1500 for a few hours' work.
With rates like that for one interpreter, costs for conference interpretation can be significant. As Susan Johnson says, "Interpretation can be expensive. There's no doubt about it. We're not talking about nickels and dimes. But it is so necessary. And it is a small percentage of the total cost of a large meeting."
Overlooking or underestimating the need for interpretation can be even more costly. How much did our high-tech American company forfeit in lost business because no one thought to ask, when there was still time, "Wait a minute ... do these people speak English?"