Translation services in interviews

My team recently completed a set of non-English interviews in Beijing, Moscow, Munich, Paris, Seoul, and Tokyo. To facilitate these meetings, our client arranged translators. Having one was indispensible, but it cost time; and more time than we initially thought.Serial translation cuts time in half
Most of the translators we used spoke serially, waiting for the speaker to finish his or her thought before translating. Different languages compress at different rates, but on the whole, it cut content time roughly in half; for an hour of clock time, we could get in a little over 30 minutes of Q&A. You can compensate for this by asking richer questions, but be prepared for more synthesis of what you heard afterwards. Alternatively, you can ask for a little more time for the interview than you normally would. We did a little of both.

Multiple interviewees can further erode efficiency
In companies and cultures with deep respect for their hierarchy (or a biding interest that the “right” things be said) we would be interviewing two or three people at a time, i.e. an information worker and a supervisor or two. To be polite, we tried to make sure and ask everyone in the room some questions, but this threatened to slow things down too much. Once we identified the right person, we focused our questions there.

Limit your vocabulary to avoid confusion
Since we were hearing interpreted answers to our interpreted questions, we took special care to ask after what might have been tricky vocabulary words or culturally-dependent phrases. This, too, added a bit of time for the sake of clarity. Still, some answers took us by surprise.

For example, when we asked one fellow if he had internet access at work, he said no. Then when he later mentioned that he would use a search engine to answer questions he had, we asked what his connection speed was at home. He clarified that this was at work, and what he meant before what that he doesn’t use the internet for personal reasons at work. To avoid crossed wires, you may need to ask critical questions in a number of different ways, and this takes additional time.

Buy some time back with earpieces
Our Tokyo translator provided earpieces, and I can’t recommend them enough. While our interviewees were speaking, she would translate simultaneously, speaking softly into a small microphone she held. This near-instantaneous translation saved us some time, allowed us to establish rapport by looking at the interviewees faces, and allowed us to connect their gestures and expressions to what they were saying. Though they cost a bit extra, we highly recommend them. Plus it doesn’t hurt that you get to look like a better-dressed CIA agent for a little while.

Does anyone else have good advice or experiences to share about working with translators?

Chris Noessel

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