China Business: 7 Practical Tips for Working with Chinese Translators

July 18th, 2012

At some point in your business transactions in China, your business will depend upon a Chinese translator/interpreter.

You may have worked with translators before, but you should be aware that translating English – Chinese is much more challenging than translating between English and other Western languages.  Chinese lacks the similarities that Western languages like French or Italian share with English, and further it is considered a “high context” language. This means that each Chinese word has a rather vague meaning until the surrounding verbiage and even situation is taken into context.  Conversely, English is a “low-context” language, meaning that each individual word contains a highly-specific stand-alone meaning.

If you’ve ever watched an old Kungfu movie with English subtitles you have probably already witnessed awkward Chinese-English translations!  It’s no wonder there are numerous websites dedicated to “Chinglish,” the amusing creations that are a result of imperfect translations.

(Before you laugh, know this goes both ways. Many major Western corporations suffered from poor translations in China – most notably Coca Cola’s unfortunate original Chinese brand name which translated as “bite the wax tadpole.”)

Here are 7 practical tips to ensure your business communication is translated accurately & effectively in China:

  1. If you are negotiating or managing a challenging business situation, hire your own translator.  Never utilize a translator from a company you are negotiating with!  Bonus tip: A Chinese company you are negotiating with will prefer that you use their translator, this puts them at an advantage. Avoid everyone losing face by telling them you’ve already arranged and paid for a translator.
  2. In serious negotiation, make sure your translator understands your materials.  Provide him or her with presentations or speeches in advance.  Spend time confirming specialized terms.
  3. Ask established organizations to recommend experienced translators – local consulates, Canada China Business Council, US Chamber of Commerce, etc.
  4. When speaking, use short phrases to allow the translator to easily keep up and not miss key points.
  5. Is there back and forth between your translator and your Chinese counterpart?  Politely ask your translator if you can help clarify something further.
  6. Always speak to your Chinese counterpart, not to your translator.
  7. Make sure you hire a translator who speaks the right dialect!  In most cases this will be Mandarin, but if you are doing business in the south of China, it could be Cantonese.

What other tips can you suggest?

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