Lost in Chinese Translation?

So we all agree that communication is VERY important, right?  But if the key guy on the other side of the table does not speak your language, you need translation to build good rapport and develop a relationship. And that can be very tricky – especially when cultural factors muddy the waters.  Today, most importer translators are readily available at every turn when doing business in China, making communications much easier. However, that hasn’t always been the case.

When CPG got its start in the late 70s, there was very little available in terms of translation services in China. According to the The Translators Association of China, translation was a controlled sector and most government entities, institutions, and organizations had their own in-house translators to meet their needs. As a result, there was little demand or supply of a translation market at all.

Times have changed since China’s program of opening up for foreign business in the 80s. Suddenly, there was a demand for translation services from Western importers now looking to source from China. Independent companies emerged offering translation services to help importers navigate and communicate with their China supply chain. This included vendors, suppliers, partners, etc. State owned enterprises also began offering their translators up to outside clients.

However, translators and translation services have always come at a cost—and a risk. Today, a Chinese translator will cost an average of $200 a day, or $25 an hour depending on the need or situation. Not only are importers opening their wallets, but they are also opening up their business. Translators are made privy to private information regularly, as importers negotiate new contracts or need to develop new products with a supplier.

Not only that, but good communication is about details.  Body language, subtle usage of the right words, timely injection of judicious comments, etc. All of this is very difficult to achieve with a translator.  One fun example is the (true) story of the big company buyer who stands up at the end of a banquet and makes a long, flowery speech.  When he finished, the Chinese translator of his supplier said in Mandarin:  “He expresses thanks.”

Even a good, expensive, instant translator may not help achieve excellent translation.  What you may need instead is someone who understands your needs and objectives and INTERPRETS them in Chinese.  Such an interpreter may not use word-for-word translation but will better convey your meaning.  An extreme example of that approach is when Bob Hope visited China some thirty years ago and he was doing a televised show in a Chinese theater in front of a mixed (i.e. 90%+ Chinese) audience.  His interpreter was excellent, a man who interpreted for Deng Xiaoping.  When Bob Hope made a political joke, the interpreter was a at a loss, so he told the crowd (in Chinese) “he is making a joke but I don’t know the people he refers to, so do me a favor and laugh!” … and the whole theater burst out laughing.  Bob Hope was flabbergasted.

Below are a few common risks and tips to help keep your business and your information safe when hiring a translator:

  1. Risk of Miscommunication: Sometimes, a word used in one language isn’t available in another language. Translators should be skilled enough to get your point across using words that are available in the language they are translating to.
  2. Risk of Cultural Difference: Some words have two meanings in a particular language. You want to not only ensure that your translator is using the correct word and the correct meaning, but also that he or she is conveying the meaning in the correct context. For example, some words may have a positive connotation in one language, and a negative one in another language. To avoid situations like these, you want to ensure that your translator is aware of these cultural backgrounds when it comes to communications.
  3. Risk of Leaked Information: Simply don’t share confidential information orally when you first engage with Chinese suppliers.

Do you have any translators in house? How have translators helped to benefit your China supply chain? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.


By Jocelyn Trigueros

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