Lost in Translation

Increasingly, many of my clients have business opportunities throughout Africa, Europe and Asia.  This often creates the challenge of delivering speeches and presentations through a translator.

By following a few simple rules, you can significantly reduce the risk of a translator diluting the impact of your presentation.

Unless you are presenting to the United Nations or a similar body, you probably won’t have the luxury of simultaneous translation.  Instead you will have to contend with a ‘stop start’ presentation, pausing whilst your translator relays your presentation in the local language.

Whilst this process is a significant challenge for both presenter and translator, there is one fundamental difference … the translator isn’t paid to have your level of passion or commitment!

It’s unlikely he or she will deliberately dilute or distort your message, but keep in mind they are there to deliver a technically correct translation and they are not under any obligation to “sell” you to the audience.

Rule one:  prepare beyond the norm

Make sure your presentation is both translator and foreign audience friendly. If you are given 30 minutes on the agenda … prepare a 15 minute presentation

Most people forget that translation effectively doubles the time needed.

Pick three or four key points that are essential for you to get across and focus on these.  Eliminate extraneous information.  Through the translation process this will do little more than clutter your message.  Having just used the word ‘extraneous’ … it’s a good reminder to keep your language simple and unambiguous (another big word!)

Rule two:  hire the best translator available

Don’t try to save money by using a friend of one of your business associates.  It may be embarrassing to have to to say no to your colleague … so be prepared. Tell them that from experience you know that you have a number of intricate and technical parts in your presentation, that will be crucial to get across in the right context.  This will require time with the translator prior to the presentation to ensure this can be achieved.  At this point your colleague has a good excuse to withdraw the offer of amateur translation services!

Rule three: meet the translator

If possible, this should happen well ahead of your presentation.  Don’t just focus on the presentation content … use this time to build rapport.  You need the translator to like you!

This is your opportunity to brief the translator on more than just content. Share your overall objective … the crucial points you need to get across.  Create a brief outline to work through. If you are using slides, these will normally work well for this.  Print these in a handout format that allows the translator space to make notes.

Work through the content with your translator to identify aspects that could have the potential for miscommunication.  Remember, over 50% of all English words have two or more meanings.  If the translator accidentally puts the emphasis on a different word in a sentence, the meaning could significantly change.

“We didn’t believe they had stolen our ideas” … “We didn’t believe they had stolen our ideas”

Professional translators will ask for clarity.  They will check the correct interpretation of any slang, abbreviations or colloquialisms. If they aren’t querying anything … get nervous!

A good way to test if he or she can interpret the subtleties and nuances of what you are saying, is to tell a joke or relate a humorous story … watch for the translators reaction. Now ask your translator to tell the same story to a few locals (who don’t speak any English). Watch for their reaction. Odds are if the humour translates well, you are in good hands.

Rule four:  rehearse with your translator.

This will help you gauge how to break your presentation into chunks of information, before pausing for translation.  You can also develop a common gesture to signify each hand over point and the point at which the translators hands back.

If you can get these transitions to be slick, it demonstrates that you are confident and in control. The overall impression is that you care enough about your audience to have spent time preparing.

Rule five:  don’t ignore your translator.

Make sure you include the translator as part of your performance.  Remember this is a double act … translators aren’t simply “hired help” … they are your lifeline to the audience and the more you create rapport with your translator … the more the audience and he or she will appreciate it.

When you have paused, waiting for a section of your presentation to be translated, alternate your eye contact between the audience and the translator.  Maintain a warm expression and show appreciation when he or she becomes animated and expressive in relaying your story.

Rule six:  maintain a credible pace.

This can be a real challenge.  Talk too fast and the translator may struggle to absorb what you have said. Talk too slowly and the audience (despite not understanding your language) will still pick up that fact that you are speaking slower than normal and may feel that your tone is patronising.

Rule seven: (optional) … pictures are a universal language.

Are you using slides to support your presentation?  Could these be simplified so that the graphics tell your story without words?  Perhaps you could also add a few words on each slide in the local language?

Rule eight: don’t try and be too much of a local!

It’s a nice touch to be able to deliver a portion of your presentation in the local language … but keep it very short.  This is for two reasons.

Firstly, whilst your audience may initially be impressed at the respect you have shown them, their mood could quickly change from being charmed to irritated.  It’s the equivalent of following a learner driver doing 30 kilometres per hour! The second reason is perhaps not so obvious.  Let’s imagine that using your best Inspector Clouseau accent your short introduction in French comes across well… too well.  You may find the audience now convinced that you could have delivered the entire presentation in French and they become irritated when you switch back to English.

“Ladies and gentlemen I’m afraid I don’t speak your language” …  may not be the best line to learn and deliver in the local language.  This could be interpreted in so many ways.  “I’m afraid … “ (I am scared)  … “I don’t speak your language … “ (I refuse to speak your language).

You again run the risk of misinterpretation, if the wrong words are emphasised.  Also, why apologise and make yourself look incompetent? It’s better to play it safe. Try crafting a statement in their language that compliments their country, their city or their hospitality.

At the end of your presentation it’s a good idea to offer thanks to your translator, in the local language.  This is a very nice gesture, and it ensures that the last words are your words and not the translator’s.

You end on a high note, in control of the floor.

Some things are never lost in translation.

I attended a wedding a while back, where the bride was from the Czech Republic.  The entire event was conducted in English with a translator doing a superb job of re-creating the ceremony in Czech.

Later at the reception, the mother of the bride (a widow) was swept up in the spirit of the moment and decided to represent her late husband by making the traditional father of the bride speech herself … in Czech … to a predominately English speaking audience!

This wonderful women with no notes and I would imagine no presentation skills training, delivered one of the finest wedding speeches I have ever heard.

No one needed the translation. Her animated gestures, posture, eye contact, facial expression and the passion in her voice, said it all.

Well done Mrs Pavlovich!

So, the final lesson for us all, is to not let the process of translation dilute the magic of our presentation. By being animated and passionate about our topic … the content lives as much in who we are … as what we say. This is the only secure way to guarantee that not too much is lost in translation.


© Paul Tomes 2011

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