Executive Travel : How to Keep Your Message From Getting Lost in the Translation

In the world of international business, the difference between what you say and what is heard can torpedo an important deal.

English increasingly is the language of international business, but even among those who speak it, not everyone understands it the same way.

That’s where interpreters come in. But using an interpreter effectively is a skill that many business travelers acquire through trial, error and misunderstandings.

And even the best interpreters can get confused. In his book, “The Do’s and Taboos of International Trade” (Wiley, 1994), international business expert Roger Axtell tells the story of when former President Jimmy Carter tried to greet the people of Poland on his first visit there in 1977. The interpreter mangled his speech so that it came out: “The President says he is pleased to be here in Poland grasping your secret parts.”


So much for diplomatic relations.

“Miscommunication is a major problem overseas,” said David James, a San Francisco-based international business consultant. “People . . . whose first language is English tend not to be considerate enough of how difficult it is to understand English.”

Here, then, are some tips for business travelers using interpreters abroad.

The first rule of communicating in a foreign country is to use an experienced interpreter, even if you don’t think you need one. Many business travelers assume that because their hosts speak English, they can conduct all their meetings in English and get their business accomplished smoothly. Or they think anyone who speaks English can interpret for them.


“Just because someone is bilingual doesn’t mean they can translate,” said John Irvine of John Irvine & Associates in Santa Ana. “Look at the misunderstandings that occur between native English speakers.” The chance for misunderstandings is compounded when one person is speaking English as a second language.

Another reason experienced interpreters are important, especially in Asian countries, is that Asian languages and English are as different as languages can be and often lack words that are directly translatable.

James, for example, cites a case in which an American sent a telex to a Japanese executive, saying in English, “We wonder if you would prepare an agenda for our meeting.” When the telex was translated at the other end, the Japanese word gimon , which means doubt, was used for the English word wonder, turning the sentence from a cordial request into an insult: “We doubt that you would prepare an agenda for our meeting.” The meeting was canceled, he said.


One way to guard against such fiascos is to take your own interpreter as part of the team, rather than rely on your foreign host’s interpreters to present your point of view, James said. A good interpreter can also help with cultural points, such as advising you on the best way to present your case.

Whether or not you travel with an interpreter, there are other strategies for avoiding problems.

For example, it’s important to get to know any interpreter you hire in advance so he or she can become accustomed to the sound and rhythm of your voice, accent and phrasing.

When meeting with an interpreter for the first time, try to go over any technical or industry-specific terms you might use. For example, the term pickling, when used by manufacturing executives, doesn’t mean the same thing as preserving cucumbers, although it might be translated as such.


Irvine recommends putting together some notes with central themes and vocabulary to give to the interpreter ahead of the meeting. Be concerned if the interpreter doesn’t ask to see something in advance, he said. “Be wary, because there’s an interpreter wanting to wing it.”

Next, never assume that because an interpreter speaks fluent English, he or she will necessarily understand everything you say. It’s important to speak slowly and enunciate clearly. State your ideas simply, avoid using jargon, and try not to use run-on sentences.

To emphasize this point, James recommends this exercise: Take a passage of your own writing and note how many different meanings your words have and how many different ways your writing could be interpreted by varying the punctuation or sentence structure. Now imagine how voice inflection might change the meaning of what you’re trying to say.

Saying, “What’s that in the road ahead?” has a much different meaning from “What’s that in the road, a head?” he said.

Also remember that although the person you are communicating with is listening to words from the interpreter, he or she is picking up nonverbal cues from you that can underscore the points you are trying to make. Axtell encourages people to use body language, tone of voice and gestures to augment their messages.

Pictures can help as well. Pictures are a universal language and visual aids can help in reinforcing or clarifying the points.

And while you are using expressions and gestures to communicate on your end, also pay attention to the expressions and body language of the person you’re trying to communicate with. Does your message appear to be registering with the impact you’d expect? If not, it may be a problem with the interpretation. Look for signs of confusion too.



Another trick for getting the best possible interpretation is not to have the interpreter translate too much at any time. It’s easier to communicate accurately if the interpreter does it in brief bursts.

Also, nuances get lost in translation when the interpreter has to analyze and condense too much at one time.

Avoid the temptation to use humor. It’s a time-honored American business tradition to start a speech or a meeting with a joke to ease everyone into the business at hand. But most jokes don’t translate well, the experts say.

Finally, when using an interpreter at a meeting, always confirm what was discussed in writing. This is a good way to make sure both parties have the same understanding of what happened and what was decided upon at the meeting.

Just remember: After you put it in writing, check the translation.


Carol Smith is a free-lance writer based in Pasdena.