Speaking in Tongues (or Interpreting & Translating in China)

Related entries: Business Issues, General, Services

Further to the recent post on translation and interpreting services, we decided to go into some more detail about the practical aspects of managing these essential services, and have called on some of our expert resources to report from the coal face. Details can be found below about 1) interpreting and 2) translation.

1. Interpreting
We asked Clara Zhou (interpreter to leading lights in the Shanghai government, as well as many international businesses), to enlighten us about how to ensure that interpretation services are successfully delivered. It is clear that the best results rely on issues such cultural sensitivity, careful preparation and clear delivery – and that just from the client’s side!

    Working in a different culture outside your language capabilities is not easy. This is where an interpreter may help. Interpreters are expected to bridge the gap in oral communications in the form of either simultaneous interpretation or consecutive interpretation. How to have a better chance of having an interpreter follow you and turn your words of experience and insight into the target language correctly?

    First, go out to find a competent interpreter. Interpreters are not simply people who speak more than one language. There is a certain technique and art in interpretation. Although you do not always have a chance to meet your interpreter in person beforehand, you can at least check the following:

    1. Training background, for example, a postgraduate degree in interpretation;
    2. Experience, including years of working as an interpreter on the whole, and experience related with your required setting and specific subject matter;
    3. Overseas exposure, which enables an interpreter to be more sensitive to cultures and nuances;
    4. References from credible sources, including peer recommendations;
    5. A good interpreter has natural curiosity, a quick mind and strong learning capabilities, but these are difficult to observe before you meet him/her, so stay with the previous four points at the beginning.

    Second, help the interpreter so that he/she may help you better.

    1. Provide background information, such as speech text, ppt/pdf slides, talking points, video script, speaker bio, glossary of terminologies, etc. Professional interpreters abide by the rule of confidentiality.
    2. Avoid directly reading from a written script with long, complex, involved sentences as far as possible, particularly when the same thing was not given to the interpreter days beforehand.
    3. If you cite figures, do it clearly and slowly. Refrain from rushing out a load of figures. Feel for yourself how much you have actually got after listening to ten figures in a row even if it is delivered in your mother tongue.
    4. Share your jokes with the interpreter beforehand and listen to his/her comment about the joke. Be aware that humor is appreciated across cultures, yet expressed in various ways.
    5. Talk to your interpreter for a few minutes before the function, familiarize him/her with your style and accent, check if he/she has any questions, whether or not he/she is comfortably positioned (for example in a place where he/she can have eye contact with you and other speakers, can read the words on the screen clearly, can hear properly, can take notes easily, etc.).
    6. Better control your speed while speaking. Whenever you say, “In the interest of time, I have to go through the remaining part of my presentation fast”, the spontaneous response from your interpreter is “Alas!”. In fact, for better communication with a foreign audience, you have to be even slower – and don’t be afraid of repeating your key points.

    Finally, hold realistic expectations. Interpretation is a solution to a problem. By nature, it is not perfect. Your interpreter may have a good vocabulary, but it seldom contains the breadth of diction you have cultivated in your native environment. Similarly, no matter how diligently an interpreter prepares himself/herself in three to seven days before your function, he/she can never reach the level of technical expertise you have developed over the years.

    Scientists are looking into neurons to find out more secrets about human language capabilities, while we, at China Business Services, are eager to share with you our practical experiences of using interpreters in China. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

While some of the same issues apply, translation (and localization of marketing materials) is a different matter. Our expert resources Roy Graff and Christian Arno provide the following notes and advice:

    By now you know to differentiate between Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.

    Written language is again different in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

    Each industry or sector has a specific vocabulary.

    Different media use different styles of writing (eg. Website, magazine, newspaper or brochure).

    For Simplified Chinese translation, you should always give your translation work to a native Mandarin speaker who lives or comes from Mainland China and has studied translation. They should also have previous experience in translating similar works (i.e. in the same sector). A westerner who studied Chinese will not be able to write fluently enough to satisfy Chinese readers, while a Chinese who has lived many years outside of China will not be familiar with the current usage of the language, and new words that have entered the vernacular (see our recent posting on iPods for a case in point).

    Here is a simple example of how tricky this can be. A travel website translated from English to Chinese has an article with the title ‘dot travel’. This refers to the new web domain listing ending with “.travel.” The Chinese was translated as 多特旅游 (duote travel) – a transliteration of the sound ‘dot’. The meaning was lost on the translator, possibly due to a lack of relevant experience. Correctly translated this will be .(点)旅游 – the character in brackets meaning ‘dot’. As most professional translators in China tend to deal with recurring themes of law, economy and technology, it is very important to ensure they have the right expertise for your needs. Proof reading by someone from within the industry comes highly recommended.

    Tailoring your message to speak the buyer’s language.
    The simple fact is that you need to address users of your service in their own language. Although English is the international business language, research has shown that even fluent English speakers are much more likely to buy from a company whose website has content in their native tongue. Producing and maintaining multi-lingual content has become even more important in the last couple of years, as Internet growth in emerging markets has reduced the market share of English online (based on page views) from over 50% in 2002 to under 30% now.

    As with all marketing copy, web content selling travel products must be closely tailored to the potential buyer’s needs and desires. This is more important when selling an intangible experience (such as travel), which must be exciting, luxurious and different enough to get the prospective buyer to make a purchase. The task becomes even more challenging when you are seeking to attract buyers from different countries, all of whom have different cultural backgrounds and have different buttons to push.
    The localisation of copy is a necessity in order to target your message appropriately. As more people the world over use the Internet, it is vital that your message bridges any cultural and linguistic divides which might separate you from your target customers.

    Managing multi-lingual content
    Professional translation and localisation are now a necessity for international businesses seeking to do business in China. But having all this material in a foreign language can pose its own challenges.

    How do you ensure that foreign character sets appear appropriately on your website?

    How can you avoid your staff having to copy and paste material in a language they don’t know into your content management system (a recipe for disaster, if our experience is anything to go by!)?

    How do you ensure you are using translation technologies effectively to keep costs down?

    We have seen companies try to manage their translated content in-house, and we’ve witnessed some well-intentioned but horrendously inefficient attempts to take a perfectly good website and make it multi-lingual.

    It is not a simple matter, and it’s something translation service providers are best placed to handle in consultation with client companies. As with other web projects, it is best to plan how a multi-lingual website will work well before it is actually constructed.

    Translate and they will come?
    Of course, there is little point having a slick, multi-lingual website if you aren’t able to attract enough of the right visitors to make a good return on your investment in foreign language content. The key is to establish where you need to appear online, be it through search engine listings or on partner websites, in order to drive targeted traffic. To achieve this, you really need to have an understanding of the online scene in each of your target markets, and a partner who can help you achieve the positioning that will generate returns. It’s also important to measure both your successes and failures in online marketing, as this will enable you to optimise your campaigns over time. In the online marketplace, those companies that seize the initiative to build well-targeted, highly visible and manageable, multi-lingual sites will reap the rewards now and for years to come.

    China Business Services provides a full range of interpreting and translation services in different locations, and for different sectors, in China. Please contact us to discuss your needs.

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