Nine Secrets to Working With Translators

If you involved in short term mission, eventually you will yourself in front of an audience working with translators.  A great translator can make your job look easy, but a person who has never worked with a translator can make things difficult for the audience.


A tough translation

Pierre thankfully finished the session at my side. 

The community meeting was nearly unbearable. The room was hot and stuffy, but the heat from the assembled leaders was much worse. The men were angry at the tough news I had to deliver.

The meeting had gone sour fairly quickly thereafter and everyone had something to say – mainly a mixture of complaint and accusation.  I had tried to move the conversation back on topic, but the participants weren’t having any of it.

They were mad.  

My translator Pierre had cooly stood in the midst of it all. Moving quickly to keep everyone on the same page. He stayed in this difficult place as my voice. He stood there to help me tell the men my purposes, my intentions. He translated hard that day – much more than my words. 

Pierre and I left to get a break and as we paced the halls, we checked in. I wondered if the frustration due to a misunderstanding in the message? Had I committed some cultural gaffe? Why were they so upset?

His service as a translator went well beyond the words as he began to clarify the unspoken language in the room. We planned what we needed to say and headed back into the fray.

I was glad he was at my side.



9 Keys to Working with Translators

Here are some thoughts from my translator Stephana in Haiti of what it takes to do a fantastic job, or skip the video and read the tips below.

Translation is a skill that is difficult to master. Some translators are exceptional, while others will make your job harder. Much more than simply knowing the words, the best translators share the unspoken dialogue as well.

Stephano gave some great ideas from a translators perspective in the video above.

If you ever find yourself working with translators, here are the critical keys you need to communicate effectively.


1. Speak clearly

The best thing about working with translators is that you have time. You have to pause after every sentence. Use that time to plan what you will say next.

Take the time. It will help you lay out your thoughts so they are simple to understand.


2. Speak a little more slowly than usual

When you are working with translators, both of you are actively speaking, listening, observing the audience and preparing the next thought. Take some time to do this.

Tempo is always a tool for great communicators. Don’t be afraid to pause along the way.


3. Don’t yell

Contrary to popular practice, increasing your volume does not help a person understand what you are saying.

Your translator should echo both your meaning as well as your tone and pacing. So if you yell, your translator will yell. Do you want your audience to remember the volume or the content?


4. If you want to stay out of hot water, be careful of idioms.

A translator may need to go to great lengths to understand the ins and outs of your turn of phrase.

Idioms rarely translate. A pun or verbal joke that works well in your language, usually won’t work in another. Keep your language interesting but be cautious of too many ‘sayings’.


5. Keep it short.

A long run-on sentence is difficult to translate as the meaning will get lost while you are talking (and the translator is trying to pay attention), take a breath, pause, and shorten your speech.

Your speech will be twice as long with the two of you speaking. You may need to shorten what you were planning to say.

Speak your point. Speak it short.


6. Be careful of repetition.

If you normally repeat for emphasis, remember some listeners in the room understand both the translator as well as you. They are already hearing the message repeated. When you repeat a phrase, it can get tedious.

When you repeat a phrase, it will get tedious.


7. Keep a flow going.

Once your translator begins to understand your pattern, you will begin to speak more simultaneously. Your pace will begin to flow with your translator.

Don’t get flustered if they begin to speak even as you are finishing your sentence. This is a natural progression when you are working with translators that know what they are doing.


8. Allow for responses.

When you are being translated, it gives you more time to think about what you will say next. It is easy to keep planning your next sentence. As you listen to your translator it will feel like you are in a conversation.

Remember your translator is not the one you are having a conversation with. Pay attention to the person you are actually speaking to, do they need you to stop speaking so they can respond?

Finally. If you have never found yourself working with translators, consider this last pro tip option:


9. Practice ahead of time

You don’t need to find an audience and a foreign language to practice. If you are a team leader play this team training game with someone from your team.

Have a participant come up to share a story or testimony. Act as the interpreter.

Simply rephrase their words. Interpret from English into English.

  • If they speak too long … Skip some of what they say.
  • Misunderstand idiom.
  • Throw in strange “explainations” of the cultural significance of their body language.

Your team will love it, and learn valuable information about working with translators.


Have you ever needed to translate?  Do you have other tips you could share?


Mark Crocker

Thanks so much for reading my thoughts on mission and culture. Special thanks to everyone who takes a moment to like or comment on a post, you don’t know how much I appreciate it!

If you enjoy these articles, it really helps when you either share this with a friend, or like our Facebook page?  Many thanks![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

January 22, 2018

3 responses on "Nine Secrets to Working With Translators"

  1. I really enjoyed this article because when I go to Thailand this year, I may have to do a sermon through a translator. This has given me good tips and things to think about when using a translator that I would not have known before.

Leave a Message

2016, 2017 © Mark Crocker. All rights reserved.