Tonight I was out after dinner with some of my colleagues from Japan. With the help of translators we were discussing both personal and work things and I noticed that the conversations were more focused than they might be when everyone speaks the same language. We have some absolutely wonderful bi-lingual folks in our offices, some of who are full-time translators, and some who often serve as translators, in addition to their regular jobs. Over the past years they’ve helped me become more adept at working with translators and be a more effective communicator.
Since as IT we are often working with our customers or users, you could almost say that we are always working with translation. The things that make working with a separate translator and a person who doesn’t speak your language will also help in your communications with others who speak your language, but not might be part of your “culture” (IT).
Having a translator in the conversation changes the way you listen, think and express your ideas. I believe that we could learn from this and improve our regular (non-translated) conversations. When there is a translator, you especially learn to do four things: listen carefully, think about what you want to say before you say it, consider how the idea might be received by the listener and try to avoid ambiguous or unclear thoughts that might lead to is-understanding, and articulate your ideas concisely and directly.
Listening is key. You must focus not only on the words being spoken by the translator, but before that you also need to listen to the other speaker, while the translator is listening. Watch and listen to the speaker, not the translator. Understand the body and facial language of the speaker and get a sense from them about which ideas (in the sequence) are most important. While they are speaking, pay most of your attention to them, not the translator. When the translator begins speaking, pay attention to both the translator and the speaker, working to keep everyone involved in the conversation.
When it is time for you to respond, but before you speak, the most important thing is to make sure that you have a completely formed thought (or just a few) that you want to express. You need to think about the idea and how to communicate it clearly, before you open your mouth. You shouldn’t be trying to expand on or complete your half-formed idea while you’re in the middle of a sentence. Before you speak, know what you want to say, and how you want to say it.
Now that you know what you want to say, you have to decide how to say it. Plan your sentences, plan the sequence of ideas, and consider how to avoid ambiguity or misunderstanding. This is where knowledge of the other person’s language, culture, (business) environment and your relationship with the other person is especially helpful. If I absolutely know a specific word in the other language that helps express the idea completely, I may use it to help in translation or understanding. If there is a term that I know has a special meaning or is used in the office or the company in a special way, I might want to use that word or term. If the other speaker and I have a common background, such as prior conversations or projects we’ve worked on together, I may reference those.
Finally, it is time to open your mouth. Be concise. Speak in reasonable-sized, self-contained “sound bites”. Don’t go on too long without stopping to a) give the translator time to translate and b) look for the other person to want to speak. No long-winded sentences, no rambling thoughts. Don’t waste the translator’s efforts, don’t expect them to remember a complete five minute monologue with eight bullet points before they begin translating, and don’t make it impossible for the other speaker to interrupt if needed. While you are speaking, pay attention to the other speaker as much (or more) than the translator, looking for their reaction. This will help you understand if your ideas are being understood and how they are being accepted (or not). All three of you are in the conversation, but it is primarily a conversation between the two speakers.
The things you need to do to effectively work with a translator can also improve your communications with other people speaking the same language: Listen well, form one or a few complete thoughts, think about how you want to say them, and express them concisely.