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Doing business in China: Bring your own interpreter

By Matthew Alderson

Use your own interpreter or don't bother.

You’ve come all the way to China to talk to a prospective business partner. Maybe it’s an investor or maybe it’s a buyer. China is a big market. And you’ve heard there's a lot of money here too.

After you arrive in town the Chinese are so helpful. They know you can’t speak their language. They provide an interpreter because one of their people is bi-lingual. The interpreter is nice. You think the meeting is going really well. You’re told how much they want to “co-operate” with you. They want to invest in your business or buy whatever it is you’re selling. Like, right now. They just need some more detailed information about your offering. Some more documents to look at. Some more specifications. You’re asked to prepare an MOU. For some reason it needs to be signed before you fly out. For some reason this seems alright to you.

You get a bit carried away. The meeting isn’t what you think it is. There’s a lot of discussion about you but you don’t realize it isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to hear. It’s about what to do with you. You converse with the interpreter and then watch helplessly as the interpreter converses with the others on the Chinese side. Those carefully worded points you think you’re making don’t seem to be getting across. Your witticisms are falling flat. You don’t understand that it isn’t always a good sign when Chinese smile at you in meetings. You have no idea what’s going on. None at all. Worse still, maybe the leader of the Chinese side doesn’t know what’s going on either. Perhaps both of you are in the dark. The Chinese boss is so proud of the clever interpreter but they’re running their own racket. Right under the boss’s nose that helpful interpreter says all sorts of things you’ve never said. They want someone else to win the boss’s business. Someone who’ll look after them better. Don’t laugh. If you don’t believe me, take a meeting in Beijing and pretend you don’t speak Chinese. You’ll soon find out what’s really going on.

This is how it should go down — as you look your interlocutor straight in the eye he or she addresses you in Chinese from across the table. Sitting closely beside you, your own interpreter translates simultaneously sotto voce. You don’t look at your interpreter. The Chinese side can’t tell what your interpreter is saying to you. It’s just a murmur. Your rhythm is undisturbed. You’re really communicating now. You notice how careful and attentive the interpreter on the other side has suddenly become. They aren’t talking among themselves any more. You’ve just shut down all the games. Now you have a chance.

Simultaneous interpreting is a valuable service. It requires artistry beyond the mere mastery of two languages. Proper use of an interpreter is also an art. Usually, the value of the service and the art of using it are not appreciated. The result of not taking the role of an interpreter seriously is that foreigners often don’t know what’s going on. A good interpreter is invisible. They don’t initiate or hold a conversation. You don’t watch them have a long discussion in Chinese and then rely on them to give you a little summary afterwards. They do not play a central role in a meeting. They’re not one of your executives. They’re not doing the talking. You’re the presenter. Do you think the interpreters you see on the news sitting behind world leaders at big meetings get a say in things?

Should your interpreter be a native speaker or will a fluent foreigner do? Decide that one for yourself. Just know that Confucian proprieties won’t prevent a foreign interpreter from speaking frankly to someone in a position of seniority. Your foreign interpreter won’t be asked whose side they’re on right in front of you. They won’t be invited to dinner that night to discuss a few things without you around to spoil it. Or, if they are, they’ll probably interpret these little gems for you along with everything else.

If you want to do business in China right, use your own interpreter.


Mathew Alderson is an international transactional lawyer and corporate advisor with a focus on entertainment, technology and creative industries. He leads Harris & Moure's China media and entertainment practice from Beijing.

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