Managing Interpreters

I have never employed a bad interpreter, and I have used a lot of them in different markets.

My first experience of working with an interpreter was in Germany in the early 1990s. I was selling woodworking machinery at the time and it seemed wrong and somehow disrespectful to have an exhibition stand at a German international show without being able to communicate with Germans!

I arrived on the stand as soon as the exhibition hall opened to find Marjorie was already there, a German-American, and the first thing she asked was ‘What do these machines do?” So I told her, and when the stand became inundated with customers half way through the morning, she was actually able to hold clients with the knowledge she had gleaned. Recognising that can’t have been a comfortable experience for her, I determined that I would have several contacts with any future interpreters well in advance of their project.

On at least two occasions, interpreters have saved me a lot of time and money.

I was researching the market in the Netherlands for carpet underlay, and commissioned what was then known as a Tailored Market Information Report (TMIR) from UK Trade & Investment. In the late ‘90s the deal with TMIRs (the forerunners of OMIS) was that if you visited the market within 6 months of the report being completed, you would be refunded 50% of the cost.

So that’s what I did, and the Commercial Officer at The Hague asked if I would mind her tagging along to my meetings both to learn about my products and to provide translation where necessary. The result of her work was that we discovered the Netherlands used a different type of underlay, and that our products were unsuitable for the Dutch market.

Then there was Luis in Barcelona. I took him along to several meetings, including one with Enric Miralles the architect who designed the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood.

I met Enric’s partner whose English was embarrassingly perfect, so Luis sat patiently being paid for doing nothing.

Or so I thought. I apologised to him if he felt he had been a bit of a spare part during our meeting, and he replied that he had been listening to the chatter in the office and learned that actually I had no chance of getting my carpet products specified for Holyrood because the job had clearly been awarded to one of our much larger US competitors.

But perhaps the stand-out interpreter was Katya in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Katya worked for our distributors, and the St. Petersburg event was to mark their tenth anniversary in business, which happened to coincide with the city’s 300th anniversary. And no, it wasn’t easy to avoid the vodka! I presented to the company’s nationwide management team of 45 who hailed from all corners of Russia, and had created a very snappy product training seminar.

I had sent a copy to Katya in advance, and we had discussed how the presentation should go. I would say a sentence, and Katya would interpret. Easy huh? Well no not really. It didn’t work out quite like that. I spoke my first sentence, signalled to Katya as agreed who then went off on a soliloquy that lasted about five minutes! Thankfully my audience didn’t seem to mind how long the presentation took, and later that evening I learned two things First, when making a toast in Russia it isn’t enough just to stand up and say something short like ‘This is a toast to all my Russian friends for every happiness and success’. No. They want War and Peace, probably because then they have longer to recover between shots of vodka! The other thing I learned is that most of the 45 spoke perfect English!

But Katya’s star turn was at the British Embassy in Moscow where my colleague Kris and I were presenting to an audience of about 120 Russian architects. I made the mistake of trying to kick off with a bit of humour, which was to tell the gathered professionals where in the UK our company was based, ‘Near Manchester’ I said “Where the football comes from”. And Katya went off on a meandering solo journey through the interpretation of my very brief (and not terribly funny) sporting gag.

The hall fell silent when she finally shut up, and assuming not unreasonably that my football gag had bombed spectacularly, I carried on, unruffled of course.

And as I continued with the presentation, a group at the front started to laugh and talk loudly about Manchester United and Spartak Moscow and “Very funny about the football. We like the football here in Moscow!” A bit slow on the uptake there chaps!

So what did I learn about working with interpreters?

  1. Only use professional interpreters!
  2. Brief your interpreter well. They are a part of your team, and your reputation
  3. Instruct them to listen as well as to interpret
  4. Know something of the culture of the audience you are addressing
  5. Write a few toasts before you visit your Russian distributors!

John Reed