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Tips for using an interpreter

by Mike Bellamy in the book "The Essential Reference Guide to China Sourcing"

Translation during negotiations

As many factory owners may not be fluent in your language, using interpreters efficiently will be essential. Here are some best practices to employ:

Bring your own interpreter (or hire one). Interpreters representing the factory will give you the information that they want you to hear rather than conveying all that is being said at a given time. For example, in a meeting with engineering, sales and management teams present, different teams may have different opinions. If you have your own interpreter, representing your best interest, that person should be explaining the internal dialogue taking place. Factory interpreters, especially if they are on the sales team, have their own agenda.

Typical example If you have been to China you may have experienced something like this: You the foreign buyer asks a simple question like “how long is the lead time”. The Chinese side talks amongst themselves for 10 minutes then the interpreter (who happens to work for the sales department) says in English “no problem, just 15 days lead time”. If the interpreter was working for you, they would let you know what happened during the 10 minutes the factory staff was talking amongst themselves. It may have been something like this:

    Sales team: “We really want this order, the client wants it in 15 days, let us do it in 15 days.” Production team: “We have been having trouble with our sub-suppliers and are looking for a new sub-supplier of the raw material, but we have not found one yet. To be safe we should say 45 days and even that cannot be guaranteed. General Manager: “Why does this foreigner care some much about the lead time, I need to play golf and do not have time for these petty negotiations today. I am not interested in this project anyway because it is so small of an order”

As you can see, there may be a lot happening which is not being conveyed to the buyer, unless the translator has your best interest in mind.

3 practical tips

    1. Assuming that you have your own translator, do not let the translator replace you as the chief representative. Because it may take more effort and time to have the interpreter convey the details of the entire conversation sentence by sentence, many foreign buyers make the mistake of letting the interpreter negotiate the details with the supplier and simply translate a summary of what has been discussed. That is very dangerous because the buyer has lost control of the dialogue.

    It is much more effective to agree on a general strategy in advance, but force yourself to slow down the pace and speak in short, simple, direct sentences which are translated in full back and forth. You may spend a longer time in the meeting room that day, but this sacrifice will pay dividends in structuring a better long term position.

    2. If your translator is new to your organization, and especially if your negotiation will have a lot of technical or industry specific jargon, it is wise to create a vocabulary list and go over it with your translator in advance of the factory visit.
    3. Keep it simple and do not use analogies or slang. For example, “just give me a ball park figure”. Only a really experienced Chinese interpreter would know that you are asking for an estimate.

Mike Bellamy is an Advisory Board Member & Featured Blogger at the not-for-profit China Sourcing Information Center. He is also the author of "The Essential Reference Guide to China Sourcing" and founder of PassageMaker Sourcing Solutions.

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