Whilst I can boast over 30 years international trade experience and worked in over 120 countries I remain a typical Englishman. I cannot speak a foreign language. It is not without trying! At school even after private tuition I failed French. After attending numerous language courses either privately funded or supported by my employers I could only manage the basic formalities of greetings in a few languages. I am certainly not proud of this lack of achievement but assume mother nature left a cog out when constructing my brain.

This has resulted in my dependence on using professional interpreters to assist in not only being able to communicate properly in any country but also to be able to understand completely what is going on around me.

In my early days of foreign business travel, I would rely on the courtesy and English language skills of my hosts. Whenever I apologised for my lack of language skill, I would get a universal response ‘no problem, this will allow us to practice English’ However as time went by and I gained market experiences I discovered at least two issues.

 Firstly they did not always mean what they say – they were just being polite and trying to say the right thing. Clearly in some countries inability to communicate in their language is either disrespectful or reduces the status of the visitor in their eyes. I think this is quite understandable. So if like me you cannot converse in their language do be aware of potential real sensitivities.

Secondly what became increasingly clear that I was only getting a limited verbal understanding of what was going around me. If, for any reason, my host stopped translating or speaking English to me, I had no idea what was going on. If my host rightly spoke, in his language, to his colleagues, customers or any other local people I would be outside of the conversation. Being flippant one would never know if they were talking about you and, if so, negatively or positively.

I roughly calculated that maybe in certain country visits I would understand  a small percentage of what was being said – a very poor return for an expensive market visit.

I therefore decided this situation must be remedied to both maximise my understanding and enhance business relationships. In those countries where the normal business language was not English,  I started selectively using local interpreters and bringing them to key meetings. I would offer the same simple reason to meeting participants and to my host – It is your country, do business in your normal way and I can positively assist by using a third-party

At the outset there were hiccups in my own skills of using interpreter particularly when I was talking and providing him with a reasonable number of sentences to translate yet keep the flow of a discussion or presentation from being too staccato. I tried to reduce the amount of jargon to ensure easier and speedier translation. Now I have a set procedure when using any interpreter. I meet with them first and agree a procedure on how they normally work including seating positions, the number of sentences and so on.

A good question to raise is how my trade partners reacted when I started using interpreters? The short answer is there were mixed feelings. My explanation was both simple and honest – ‘this is to help both you and me. In meetings it allowed me to positively contribute more as I knew what everyone was saying, participants were able to proceed more quickly by conversing in their native language. When working in the market with others such as visiting customers or Government officials it speeded up the interaction.

A particular benefit was gained when accompanying salesmen on their work. Bear in mind many salesmen in many countries speak no language other than their own. One could  now readily understand the interaction between themselves and their customers. As important one could converse directly with them on their work.

For many, using an interpreter was seen as a novelty but the majority subsequently all agreed it enhance the quality of my visit and my ability to work with and support them. Where I made regular visits to a market it soon became normal custom and practice to work this way. Certainly most contacts appreciated the effort being made to facilitate good business conversation.

Where do I find these interpreters? For market visits such as meeting trade partners and customers, I generally book in advance  through the hotel at which I will be staying to provide a suitable person. Only rarely have I been disappointed.  If the hotel cannot assist then I have also used the recommendations from the local UK Consulate/Embassy. If my visit will entail a lot of travel between locations such as hotel to offices, I seek the services of an interpreter/driver to give me a greater freedom to act and not be bogged down waiting for people.

I have also over the years carried out many training sessions and presentations to foreign audiences where, again, I use an interpreter  I have found that to deal with large audiences and particularly where you wish for interaction, a professional interpreter is required. They need to possess the additional skill of speedily translating delegate responses or questions to you, and reciprocating with your answers.

My normal practice, in these situations is to present any visuals in the language of the audience so with the help of an interpreter I can appeal to both the sense of sight and of hearing.

There is, of course, a cost to doing this. Frankly the benefits far outweigh these costs. In this short article I have cited only the more obvious areas of work which are enhanced by interpretation. There are numerous side benefits as well. I genuinely believe in many markets this practice has given me a competitive advantage in that I have learnt more and be more involved than my competitive visitors.


Written 23rd May 2013 by Dick Brentnall S&H LLP Associate/ Trainer

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