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Communicating in Chinese: 10 practical tips for speaking through an interpreter

A growing number of younger Chinese managers and government officials speak some English. But for formal meetings and negotiations in China you will almost always need to use an interpreter.

Your interpreter is key to successful communication. If s/he has not understood what you have said, your message will be completely lost on your audience. It is crucial not to underestimate the interpreter's role.

Here are 10 suggestions and recommendations for working with an English/Chinese interpreter:

Who should interpret? The Chinese will usually, but not always, provide one interpreter for their side. But when possible, both in China and in the UK, try to have your own interpreter available to assist with discussions. Interpreting is tiring. Long discussions really need two interpreters, one acting for each side. One interpreter working for both sides from Chinese to English and vice-versa again may tire easily and start missing the meaning or detail of what is being said. With your own interpreter, you should also have some feedback afterwards on the nuances behind what was said.

Brief your interpreter. The secret of good interpretation is to have someone whom you know well and to brief them beforehand. Even if it is not possible to get to know your interpreter well in advance, try to involve him/her at every stage of your pre-meeting arrangements. The quality of interpretation will improve greatly if you provide adequate briefing on the subject matter. Ensure your interpreter understands what you are aiming to achieve.

Speak in manageable sentences. Speak at an even pace. Don't ramble on for paragraph after paragraph before pausing. Your interpreter will find it hard to remember everything you have said let alone interpret all your points. Conversely, don't speak in short phrases and unfinished sentences. Your interpreter may find it impossible to translate the meaning if you have left a sentence hanging.

Use clear language. Avoid jargon, unless you know your interpreter is familiar with the terminology. Some interpreters may be more familiar with American English and have a little difficulty at first with British accents. Make sure your message is getting through clearly and in a tone that will not cause resentment. But be prepared in the response for the propensity of the Chinese language to be ambiguous.

Listen to your interpreter. Listen to how your interpreter interprets what you have just said. If you have given a lengthy explanation but the interpreter translates into only a few Chinese words, it may be that s/he has not fully understood. Or it may be that s/he is wary of passing on your blunt [too direct] message in such terms. Check that the interpreter has adequately conveyed your point to the Chinese side.

Consecutive or simultaneous? Consecutive interpreting means you speak and then your interpreter interprets; the usual form for meetings, discussions and negotiations. Simultaneous interpreting is when you speak while the interpreter interprets simultaneously; but special equipment is required and is expensive to hire. Simultaneous interpreting is used usually only for large seminars and conferences. There are always at least two interpreters, who interpret in 20-minute sessions to avoid stress and tiredness. Simultaneous interpreting is skill requiring professional training. Do not expect even fluent bilingual Chinese/English speakers to be able to undertake simultaneous interpreting. This also applies to consecutive interpreting. Just because someone is a fluent English/Chinese speaker, it does not mean s/he is a good interpreter.

Speeches and presentations. Remember that the need to interpret everything will cut your speaking time approximately in half (unless using simultaneous interpreting). Whoever helps arrange the interpreter must ensure that s/he is able to cope with the technical or specialised terminology of the presentation. More importantly, the interpreter should always be given the text well in advance. But if later you change your speech, make sure your interpreter is forewarned, otherwise s/he may just stick to your original text rather than follow what you actually say. Last minute ad-libs from the text may well not get interpreted. If you decide to bring an interpreter with you (for example an overseas Chinese from Hong Kong or Singapore), ensure that they speak clear and comprehensible Mandarin.

Counting in Chinese. Large numbers are particularly tricky and often interpreted wrongly, sometimes leading to a mistake between millions and billions. For example, 10 million translates into Chinese as "1,000 ten thousands"; 100 million has its own character as 'yi'; and 1,000 million or one billion translates as "10 yi". There is plenty of scope for confusion.

Avoid jokes and witticisms. Although the Chinese and British senses of humour are similar in many ways, jokes and witty asides do not interpret easily from English to Chinese. Even if your interpreter has understood, the joke may well fall flat in translation and your interlocutors may just laugh politely without understanding the punch line.

Name cards and materials. Try to have at least your name cards and perhaps some of your most important promotional materials translated and printed into Chinese, using simplified characters. Printed matter prepared in complex characters for the Hong Kong and Taiwan markets is not suitable for mainland China. Great care should be taken in choosing an appropriate Chinese name for yourself, your company/organisation and/or product brand name. Transliterating Western names into Chinese is a very subjective and imprecise art. Ensure that your interpreter is aware of any Chinese name(s) used previously, otherwise s/he may create a totally different name.

Excerpts from UK Trade & Investment