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Updated: 23 Dec 2019

Using Interpreters in International Negotiations



Interpreters or translators are valuable and essential tools required to settle many international deals.

‘It must have got lost in the translation’. This is not something an international business negotiator wants to use as a lame excuse when an important deal collapses. Or to have our angry CEO, with beet-red face, waving a lawsuit from our foreign counterpart, and demanding to know what happened. Even worse if it just happens to be a rainy Monday morning, you just know that this is not going to be one of your better weeks.

While a great many of our hard-won international deals are conducted in English, which is commonly viewed as the international business language, many negotiations require the use of interpreters or translators. There are both positive and negative drawbacks to negotiating in English with someone who is not as persuasively affluent in our native tongue. Similarly, there are additional hurdles to overcome as well as prickly issues which can arise through the employ of interpreters.

Are We Speaking the Same Language?

George Bernard Shaw noted that ‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’. Both countries have their own unique vernacular, which is regarded as quaint or peculiar by the other. Imagine then what it must be like to be negotiating with someone who comes from an altogether different culture and value system and is not intimately acquainted with all the subtle nuances that our own language entails.

It’s not especially difficult to negotiate with your foreign counterpart if they’ve been schooled in an English speaking country. The situation changes if English is not a language in which they’re abundantly fluent, and may have perhaps ‘picked up‘ along the way or from watching old reruns on the television.

3 Tips to Remember When Negotiating in English or in Their Language

  • No Showing Off

    This is not the time to be acting smug and trying to impress your opposite number by practising all those words you learned, while spending the folk’s money, to get your business degree. Not only could this smarmy attitude be considered an insult, but it shows disrespect to your opposite number. There’s also a very chilling but real possibility you could end up alienating your counterpart completely or creating a shaky agreement that collapses or ends up in serious dispute later on.

  • Use the K.I.S.S. Method

    K.I.S.S. is an acronym for ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid!‘ Clarity and simple language is the best approach. Basic words in everyday usage, and short sentences, will get the point across efficiently when negotiating. Speak slowly so as not to overwhelm your opposite number, who may have to perform some internal translation in their head to fully comprehend your message.

    Have you ever had a conversation with a person and had to keep asking them to repeat what they just said, again and again because you couldn’t understand them? Like a drunk, for instance. It’s quite annoying and frustrating, isn’t it? The point is that it can also be unproductive to be constantly repeating yourself or have to re-phrase your message or proposal. The same applies to the person who’s trying to figure out what you’re trying to say. Keep it simple!

  • Do you really know what you’re saying?

    Possessing the fluency to converse with your foreign counterpart can be a real plus in a negotiation. It conveys respect which carries weight and can quickly facilitate a relationship. It enables you to bond more readily and gain a more rapid insight into their culture, value system, and ascertain their interests with greater ease.

    However, if your language abilities are only mediocre, you’re going to get a quick but nasty lesson with regard to what its like, to be in their shoes in a reverse situation. If neither side is very competent linguistically, it’s probably better to get a professional interpreter. Remember the lesson of our hapless negotiator in the introductory paragraph. You don’t want to be in their unfortunate shoes, do you?

Using Translators or Interpreters

Using translators or interpreters allows you the opportunity to give your complete attention to the negotiation itself. Both sides can negotiate more comfortably and it allows for a more productive environment.

However, there are drawbacks to consider. Using a translator distances the two parties, and makes it somewhat awkward to develop a more personalised relationship. Secondly, if your interpreter isn’t as proficient as you thought, the context of translation could end up being ‘as clear as mud‘.

There are two types of translation services which could be employed in international negotiations. The first is called simultaneous translations whereby the translation is continuous. This type of translation service is generally used by larger international organisations or diplomatic functionaries. It requires specially trained interpreters and expensive equipment. The second type is known as consecutive translations where one or more interpreter, convey your message in segment form. This latter type of translation service is the more common one that is utilised in international business negotiations.

Depending on their proficiency and fluency, you will need a translator who is fully fluent in both languages. Otherwise, you might need to consider using two translators so that one can translate your counterpart’s language into English, while a second translator can translate English into your counterparts language. Although this might sound strange, an interpreter’s language skills may not necessarily be compatible for both languages.

7 Rules to Remember

1. Get their credentials

It is imperative that you employ a competent trained professional translator. Hiring any ‘hack‘ off the street just won’t do. This is especially important to remember if you’re hiring an interpreter from the country in which you are conducting business. ‘Credentials‘ and the meaning this implies can vary considerably from country to country. Ask for references and check all the references!

2. Brief your interpreter beforehand

You do not want to go into a negotiation without making your interpreter aware of what’s going to transpire. They are interpreters and not likely to be knowledgeable business people. You should explain the background and circumstances of the deal to be negotiated. It is also vital you clarify whether you want a word for word translation or a summary.

3. Don’t ramble on and on

It is best not to be too talkative. Your translator probably won’t be able to accurately recall long pieces of information verbatim, which might increase or cause confusion if they become mixed up, or miss important information. Speak in reasonable segments and ask your translator to ask you to speak up and repeat anything they need repeating to ensure accuracy

4. Beware

Occasionally, an interpreter may try to take charge of the negotiation by putting in their two cents worth of business advice, particularly if they have some business background. They could have a special interest in the deal and maybe want to get additional business come their way, later down the road. Be especially cautious if the interpreter is a middleman or an agent.

5. Take a recess

Interpreting for long periods requires intense concentration and can be very taxing. Try and give your interpreter a break every hour or so, or suggest that they use their own initiative to pause when they feel they need it.

6. Treat your interpreter as a professional

The more respect and professional courtesy you display towards your translator, the more they will feel like a valued part of the team. This sense of importance could encourage your interpreter to offer you valuable insights, on the cultural nuances or personalities of your opposite numbers sitting across the table.


Interpreters are valuable and essential tools who can greatly enhance your international deal-making. Take the time and don’t stint, on getting a good professional to be a valued member of your team. Treat them with professional respect and courtesy, along with remembering the usual cautionary safeguards, as you would any other third party you utilise in your daily business activities.

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