An interpreter’s guide: how to interpret for the manufacturing and engineering industry

An interpreter’s guide: how to interpret for the manufacturing and engineering industry

By Philip He, Senior Interpreter and Translator (Mandarin Chinese), He and Partners

As supply chains in the manufacturing and engineering industry become increasingly globalised, interpreters often find themselves at the centre of it, playing a key part in keeping it running as smoothly as possible. However, interpreting for manufacturing and engineering companies does present its own challenges. In order to do a good job, an interpreter must come fully prepared.   

The cross-cultural communication conundrum

One of my clients is a leading manufacturer of home and kitchen appliances. The company mainly operated out of its headquarters in the US and the R&D teams in the UK, but later set up additional testing and R&D capacity in China, and also acquired manufacturing facilities there. In order to ensure information symmetry, daily conference calls between the different teams based in three time zones were put in place. However, after a couple of weeks, issues began to emerge. The UK and US teams noticed that, despite the repeated assurance ‘yes, we understand’, the subsequent actions took by the China team showed they actually got the wrong end of the stick. And as they couldn’t fully express themselves in English, the voice of the China team gradually got ‘drowned out’ in the meetings. Seeing a serious miscommunication issue was brewing, which could potentially derail the entire product development process, the management decided to bring in an interpreter.

Interestingly, I was actually not the first interpreter they had approached. I don’t know what happened exactly with the first interpreter, but I understood that the meeting they facilitated went horribly wrong. I only found out afterwards because an engineer, who was so impressed with the way I facilitated the meetings, let slip that they all thought it wouldn’t work after their initial experience with the first interpreter.

The underlying misunderstanding

I am not suggesting that I am in any way superior than my unfortunate colleague. Maybe the difference was that I did a great deal of work to prepare the ground before I went in.    

First, I had a face-to-face meeting with the project manager and the lead engineer to understand what they were struggling with and what they wanted to achieve. I then observed a couple of conference calls to get a feel for it. As important as they were, the calls were surprisingly casual in nature. Each team brought the issues for discussion straight to the meeting with little or no prior notice. People were dialling in and out as they saw fit and there were frequent side chats taking place when someone was speaking. The sound quality was patchy. Some speakers sat so far away from the microphone, it sounded as if they were talking from inside a cave.

What I have described above wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if cross-cultural communication was not involved. A native speaker’s natural ability to comprehend and anticipate in their mother tongue means they can easily overcome distractions, such as noise and poor sound quality. As long as they hear the key words, their brains are able to join the dots even when the ancillary components of that sentence are inaudible. On the other hand, a person who speaks English as a second language not only has to ‘hang on’ to every word in that sentence, they also reply heavily on body language and facial expressions to facilitate understanding. Unfortunately, the last two are absent on a conference call. 

Further, what is perceived as everyday language to a native speaker can also cause problems amongst non-native speakers. For example, the expression ‘barking up the wrong tree’ was used in one of the calls. The phrase seems easy to understand at word level – every word is within the vocabulary of a four-year old. But when it is strung together, its intended meaning may become completely lost on a non-native speaker.      

The tailor-made solution

In order to give those meetings the best chances of success, I suggested that some kind of structure had to be put in place. We agreed that a brief agenda was to be sent out prior to the meeting so that the China team had a point of reference and could better follow the meetings. No (unmuted) side chats were allowed in order to reduce distraction and an attendee who wished to speak must sit next to a microphone to improve sound quality. 

We also reminded participants at the beginning of each meeting that an interpreter was present, and for best result, they were instructed to speak naturally but clearly and to stop at regular intervals for the interpretation to take place.

On my part, I dug in on the technical side of the job. I studied the company’s products and trawled through their designs. I pored over CADs, BOMs and testing reports. I compiled a bilingual glossary that is over 40 pages in length, which has not only helped me to be precise when interpreting, but also won over some engineer users.   

I always arrived at least 30 minutes before the meeting - allowing myself enough time to take in the latest updates. As teams were working in different time zones and things could evolve quickly overnight. I also stayed behind after the meetings to iron out any ambiguities. In addition, I also translate the minutes into Chinese for the project managers to disseminate, which was instrumental in ensuring correct follow-up actions were taken.   

At the end, the interpreter-facilitated meetings were so effective and efficient that we saw two major innovative products successfully through the whole development cycle.

The recipe for success

Of course, credit has to be given where it is due. The project managers and engineers who I worked with were extremely supportive. They heeded my advice when it was given and provided background documents when requested. And when I had questions, they patiently answered. It was mutual trust that enabled the successful cooperation. I know not every interpreter is fortunate enough to work with such supportive clients. But I always say this to all my clients from the outset: good preparation is what sets a professional interpreter apart from an unprofessional one. As a rule of thumb, it takes a professional interpreter a whole day to prepare for a one-day meeting. Which means an interpreter who works on a week-long conference for a client usually spends the whole of the previous week preparing for it. You will want to encourage that kind of dedication by providing them with as much meeting documents as you can. Agenda, PPT, written speeches, minutes from the last meeting and background reading – hand them all over. You are helping your interpreters to help you.

If you are worried about confidentiality, ask your interpreter to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Professional interpreters are members of professional associations. They must abide by codes of conducts which include strict provisions on confidentiality, and are subject to disciplinary procedures for any potential breach.  

If you have any further questions regarding a specific communication need, please get in touch with us. He & Partners specialise in providing first-class Chinese translation and interpreting services. Our team have interpreted at the highest levels. As interpreters accredited by the UN or EU, we have stood alongside political leaders and business leaders on the podium, communicating their messages of inspiration and hope. We strive to understand your business and provide tailor-made service to cater for specific commercial needs.


About the author:

Philip He has more than 10 years of high-level interpreting and translation experience. He has had a successful career with the European Commission as an in-house translator prior to founding He and Partners.

He has been a European Union-accredited conference interpreter since 2010 and worked for a number of international organisations including the European Council, European Parliament and agencies of the United Nations.

In addition, Philip is a non-practising solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales. He trained with a London-based law firm and was admitted to the roll in 2017.

Philip specialises in providing the most effective interpreting and translation solutions for businesses. He has successfully assisted companies in the fields of automotive, engineering, law and technology to fulfil their communication needs.

He is also a teaching fellow at the University of Bath and a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster for their prestigious postgraduate courses on interpreting and translation.

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