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Translator or Interpreter – Conducting Negotiations in a Foreign Language

In many crisis situations, we must cope with conducting negotiations in a foreign tongue with which our forces are not familiar. Naturally enough, we use a translator in such situations.

In this article, I will consider a number of essential problems which need to be dealt with when working with a translator.

  1. What sort of translation is needed for negotiating?
  2. How does one maintain the continuity in negotiating?
  3. Who exactly is the translator?

What sort of translation is needed for negotiating?: The basic approach is that the negotiator personally conducts negotiations while using a translator to explain what he says. The translator is forbidden to add his own words to the negotiations.

In this situation, we indeed gain an exact translation, but it lacks value. A mechanical translation which does not add the interpretation and insight gained by the translator during the negotiations, loses valuable information. The richer and more complex the language used in negotiating, the more important is the understanding and analysis of the subtext. For example, Arabic is a language which is rich in layers, so that there is no point in a neutral but accurate translation of words. It is necessary to have an in-depth commentary on what is said and what is left unsaid. It should be pointed out that it is quite possible for one translator to understand what is said differently – even 180 degrees differently – from another translator.

In my experience with many situations mainly requiring Arabic and Russian, the solution is in temporarily recruiting the translator to the negotiation team. This means integrating him/her into activities before starting work – briefing about the event, what has occurred up to that point. Whoever has spoken to the subject until then should update the translator about their conversations, the language and insights. The negotiator must first instruct the translator as to what the immediate and longer term goals are. When does one pause to consult? How is important and urgent information transferred during the course of the negotiation? In addition, basic do’s and don’ts for negotiating in general as well as red lines for this specific one must be clarified. The translator must become and feel like an integral part of the negotiating team, and not like a strange external body. We are in effect, knowingly transferring to him/her part of the responsibility for conducting the negotiation to save lives, and it is necessary therefore to increase his/her motivation.

What are the objectives of the negotiation? the red lines that may not be crossed? The way that important information is transferred during negotiation in a foreign language must be defined.

How does one maintain the continuity in negotiating?: One of the important rules of negotiating is to maintain continuity in the conversation, without gaps and unexplained stops. Each break or halt immediately raises the other side’s suspicion and significantly injures the effectiveness of the negotiation.

For these reasons we must use at least 2 translators in each event: one who is the active translator and another who functions as a sort of second spokesperson and who also does quality control as the negotiation proceeds, analyzes it, understands the subtext and passes along its significance to the negotiations manager to make informed decisions. As in any ordinary negotiation, it is possible to effect a ‘spokesman exchange’ if matters between the subject and the translator become argumentative. Clearly, at least one additional translator should be prepared in case of drawn-out negotiations. Translating staff must be managed like any other in terms of shifts, rest breaks, etc.

A word of warning: One should ensure that the two translators are on the same page as far as knowledge of the language and usage are concerned, so that gaps do not appear between the ongoing negotiation and what is reported by the second negotiator. For this reason, it is necessary to pause from time to time and ascertain that there are no inconsistencies between the two translators.

Who exactly is the translator?: It is clear from what has been said previously that the translator is a very important person in the negotiation process. In my opinion, anyone directly involved in negotiations, acts as a third party intermediary (TPI). Every change in the tone of his/her voice has an effect – the immediate choice of one word over another, use of an idiom in the right place (or the wrong place) has impact. It is impossible to regard the translator as a ‘black box’ – he or she is totally involved in the event and exerts influence.

For this reason, one should weigh the use of translators and measure them against the same standards as TPIs: what are their vested interests? what do they stand to gain or lose? which of their personal skills might advance the negotiations, or on the other hand, what personal characteristics might torpedo them?

So, how is this accomplished?

Establish a pool of translators who have passed a basic sorting process – knowledge of language and usage, personal characteristics, additional expertise that might contribute to the work, personal motivation and vested interests.

Those who are chosen should undergo a one-day workshop on principles of negotiation in crisis situations – do’s and don’ts and active listening.

In this way, you create a pool of skilled translators who can integrate into the negotiations team, who understand the work systems in general and are also familiar with the staff through joint training and exercises. It is not necessary to choose professional translators, in fact sometimes it is preferable to make use of employees from within the organization who are proficient in languages.

To Summarize:

The translator is an essential and integral part of the negotiations team. Including a random translator in the operation demands their inclusion into the team working on the event, so it is obviously preferable to establish a pool of translators based on employees of the organization who have undergone basic training in the techniques of negotiating and who are familiar with and regularly participate in training exercises with the negotiating team.

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