A growing number of younger Chinese managers and government officials speak English to a good standard, particularly in advanced sectors such as ICT. But you will usually need to use an interpreter for formal meetings and negotiations in China to prevent the discussions being hampered by misunderstandings. A good interpreter is the key to successful communication. If they have not understood what you have said, your message will be lost on your audience.
There are two forms of interpreting. Consecutive interpreting means you speak and then your interpreter speaks and this is the usual form for meetings, discussions and negotiations. Simultaneous interpreting involves the immediate translation of your words as you speak them. This requires special equipment and can be expensive. It is generally used only for large seminars and conferences. Interpreting is a skill requiring professional training. Bear in mind that just because someone is fluent in English and Chinese it does not necessarily mean that they will make a good interpreter.
If you are giving a speech or presentation, remember that the need to interpret everything will cut your speaking time approximately in half (unless using simultaneous interpreting). It is essential to make sure that the interpreter can cope with any technical or specialist terms in the presentation. It is better to be slightly restricted and speak close to a script than to fail to sell yourself. If you are giving a speech, give the interpreter the text well in advance and forewarn them of any changes.
If you decide to bring an interpreter with you (for example an overseas Chinese from Hong Kong or Singapore), ensure that they speak clear and comprehensible Mandarin. If you are travelling to an area where there is a regional dialect, it is also essential to check whether your interpreter can also speak and understand this.
To get the best out of your interpreter:
Hiring a well-briefed professional interpreter is the best policy. Though this is likely to be expensive, it will be money well spent.
The Chinese will usually, but not always, provide one interpreter for their side. It is advisable to have your own interpreter available to assist with discussions, when possible. One interpreter working for both sides may become tired and start missing the meaning or detail of what is being said. Chinese partners often spring interpreting on junior staff who have studied English but are neither experienced at interpreting nor pre-briefed on the topic of the meeting. With your own interpreter, you should also have some feedback afterwards on the nuances behind what was said, and just as importantly not said, during the meeting.
Try to involve your interpreter at every stage of your pre-meeting arrangements. The quality of interpretation will improve greatly if you provide adequate briefing on the subject matter. Ensure your interpreter understands what you are aiming to achieve.
Speak clearly and evenly with regular breaks for interpretation. Don’t ramble on for several paragraphs without pause. Your interpreter will find it hard to remember everything you have said, let alone interpret all your points.
Conversely, don’t speak in short phrases and unfinished sentences. Your interpreter may find it impossible to translate the meaning if you have left a sentence hanging.
Avoid jargon, unless you know your interpreter is familiar with the terminology.
China has no single number for ‘million’ or ‘billion’ which are translated respectively as ‘one hundred ten thousand’ and ‘ten hundred million’. However they do have unique numbers for ‘ten thousand’ and ‘one hundred million’ - ‘wan’ and ‘yi’. Therefore the chance of mistranslation of large numbers is high so make sure you clarify numbers by writing them down.
Listen to how your interpreter interprets what you have just said. If you have given a lengthy explanation but the interpreter translates it into only a few Chinese words, it may be that they have not fully understood. Or they may be wary of passing on a message that is too blunt and will not be well received by the audience.
Make sure your message is getting through clearly and in a tone that will not cause resentment. But be prepared in the response for the propensity of the Chinese language to be ambiguous.