There’s a common saying that goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” But more often than not, you might find that the former is just as important – learning a foreign language might not be enough for interpreters to break the language barrier! If you need to interpret for a client, lack of body language awareness for things like hand gestures, posture, and facial expressions can lead to communication failures that translate into social gaffes. Read more to find out about three common mistakes!
Interpreters Should also Learn how Others Communicate without Saying a Word
Legal or medical interpreters and translators work in fields with people of different backgrounds. Body language etiquette is especially important as they work across cultures. Knowledge of nonverbal communication can be just as advantageous as knowledge of different languages.
Key Cultural Aspects That Interpreters Must Know
Greetings across cultures have different connotations. As a business interpreter, you should be able to understand and relay this information to your client. Bowing is a practice commonly used to show respect in East Asia. In Japanese culture there are 3 types of bowing:
- Light Bow (15 o angle) – commonly used in a friends circle and can be also used as a way to say “thanks.”
- Medium Bow (30o angle) – used daily in order to greet and thank people in restaurant staff or subway information guy.
- Deep Bow (45o angle) – used to show respect to people who are older or of a higher position than you (teachers and lawyers)
Likewise, in Korean culture people use a small bow and big bow to greet people. The lower you bow, the more respect you show. In Chinese culture, bowing is mostly used in formal events and ceremonies. After receiving a bow, it is also polite to return it and as an interpreter, you should inform your clients about these cultural nuances.
Hand gestures vary in countries and the most known sign, “OKAY,” has different meanings. In most countries it is an offensive sign and does not have the same meaning like in the US. In Japan the “OKAY” sign means “money,” in France it indicates “zero” or “worthless.” In countries like Venezuela and Turkey the sign “OKAY” is a hateful way to identify someone as gay. In Brazil the sign is regarded like the Italian Chin Flick or “NO.” In Russia a thumbs- up is a better way to say “OKAY.” As you can see, the sign can be used positively or negatively and if interpreters misunderstand the sign, it could lead to incorrect interpretation.
Nods are usually taken as confirmation of a “YES” and head shakes are as “NO.” In Greece, Albania, and Macedonia, this isn’t the case. It actually means the opposite! In France and Germany, shaking your head means ‘no.’ Meanwhile in Bulgaria it means ‘yes.’ In order to avoid misinterpretation, it’s better to stay away from nodding and to provide an answer verbally.
The Bottom Line for Interpreters
Be aware of gestures that can inadvertently lead to confusion or offend people. If you’re not sure how to be polite in someone else’s culture, ask the locals to show you how things are done. If you want to convey the right message to your client, make sure to sit up straight and ensure an appropriate amount of eye contact (allowing for cultural considerations, naturally). Even if you are typing or taking notes during the conversation, be sure to look up regularly in order to show the client that you are being attentive.
If you’re in need of training, Language Connections has interpreter training programs that will teach you how to be more effective.
About Language Connections:
Language Connections is a language service provider. We specialize in technical, medical and legal translation, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, website and software localization, and corporate language programs and interpreter training. We provide certified, professional translation in 100+ languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, German, and French. With over 20 years of experience, we have expertise in all major industries including the life sciences, patent and immigration law, international business, global education, and advanced technology. We offer cost-efficient interpreting and conference solutions that will meet your multilingual needs for all types of international events – business meetings, conferences, lectures or presentations.
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