Adventures in Translation

By Chris Barton, Co-Editor; and Brian Adams, Guest Writer

Over winter break, I took a trip down to Costa Rica to explore buying a trout farm in the mountains and setting up a Sustainability Education Center. I was working with locals and ex-pats, landowners and businesspeople. It was my first real international business experience, and I learned a lot about cross-cultural communication, managing expectations, and the Costa Rican real estate market.

Brian and I picking coffee - some of the best coffee in the world!
Brian and I picking coffee – some of the best coffee in the world!

But underlying and influencing all the experiences I had was the fact that I did almost all of my business through translation (I do not speak Spanish well enough – yet). Although T-birds speak many languages, we can’t possibly speak them all; it is likely that at some point, we will each have to rely on a translator. This article contains my reflections on having to communicate through translation, as well as the reflections of my translator (and old friend), Brian.

Having to use a translator can make you feel like a jerk. I received (or imagined receiving) “Really? You want to do business here but don’t speak Spanish?” vibes from many of the people we talked to. And their point is valid – I should speak the language. But I also had to keep telling myself that speaking through Brian was a much more efficient way to have the conversations that we needed to have than trying to limp through them with my broken Spanish. Yet, conversations took twice as long, since everything had to be repeated; it was awkward to keep my interlocutor’s attention while Brian was speaking; the flow of the conversation never got off the ground. Every conversation I conducted was colored by the imposition of having to work through translation. I was constantly apologizing. Yet, I couldn’t have done what I did without Brian’s help guiding me through the language.

Although I was able to hold every conversation that I needed to, I felt as if every statement was diluted. The complexity and tricks of the English language, nuances of the words, the tone of my sentences and the way I delivered them – none of this seemed to survive the translation the way I wanted it to. I was prepared for the loss of some meaning, but I didn’t realize how much of my communication style relied on subtleties of the English language. At one point Brian alerted me to the fact that I speak with a lot of accuracy and detail, both of which made translation hard. After I had been made aware, I started trying to speak more simply – and it was much more difficult than I had expected. I wanted to truly get to know the people I was working with, but working through translation felt like it put an invisible filter around me: everything I said was sanitized or bland. Many of the subtle aspects of human communication were lost, despite the valiant and superb efforts of Brian.

Perhaps the biggest toll that the translation took, however, was a personal one. Despite completing every necessary conversation and having a very successful and enjoyable trip, I felt somewhat isolated while in Costa Rica. This was far from the first time I’ve been in a country where I do not speak the language; but in the past, I’ve mostly been alone. Forced to navigate the world via a sparse collection of mispronounced words and a never-ending game of charades, contact with other people is inevitable and often humanizing. The necessity for inventiveness in communication methods made every interaction a game, one which brought me together with the strangers I met. Yet Brian, an incredibly charming and personable fellow fluent in Spanish, was able to handle every situation with much more ease than I could. I found myself using his translation skills as a crutch rather than struggling through conversation on my own. This self-imposed social isolation was a consequence that I didn’t expect and wasn’t prepared for, and which added a pale of remoteness to an otherwise lovely trip. I have no one to blame, though, expect myself.

As globe-trotting T-birds, we will all find ourselves up against the language barrier at some point in our lives. Translation is a great tool, and an effective way to get around this barrier, but it is not perfect. I learned the limits and consequences of translation firsthand, and want to pass on this advice, for whatever it is worth:

If you can manage without a translator, do so. It might seem harder, but you’ll find that much of what makes interpersonal communication rewarding (if not always effective) gets easily lost in translation. Don’t let it become a crutch.

My interlocutor, Tony (far right), his daughter Estefania, and Brian (left) My interlocutor, Tony (far right), his daughter Estefania, and Brian (left)
My interlocutor, Tony (far right), his daughter Estefania (in orange), and Brian (left).

Business translation is at once thrilling, challenging, and subtle. While translating for Chris in Costa Rica, I experienced each of these in turn.

Serving as a translator in a cross-cultural context is like trying to describe a piece of art that one artist painted to another so that they might replicate the piece precisely. The obvious aspect of that metaphor that I found challenging while translating was simply use of the right vocab and syntax: picking the right brushes, if you will. However, perhaps the most important and challenging bit for me proved to be communicating the emotional undertones of these messages accurately; doing so was like adding the right shadows to the painting to make it come to life. Being the conduit for (at times emotionally laden) messages also occasionally became uncomfortable, such as when Chris and his business partner discussed differences in basic vision and perspective.

Luckily, Kevin spoke English
Luckily, Kevin spoke English

Yet, I found the experience thrilling. One crucial theme of which I soon became aware was the true power of the translator in business deals. Even slight word choices (I would like if you…I want you to…) held profound meaning and intricately influenced the future of the business deal and perhaps the relationship more generally. As such, I also became aware of the intentionality with which I needed to withhold my own bias. To be blunt, I wanted this sustainability school deal to be successful, and sometimes it was difficult for me to deliver abrasive messages to Chris, my long-time friend and partner in crime. Specifically, there was one instance in which our business partner expressed frustration at Chris not speaking Spanish. It was difficult for me to deliver this message, and although Chris took the message nobly I still felt like a bit of a jerk afterwards, even though I was just the messenger. Translators have been implicated with the rise and fall of kingdoms, and now I understand why. With the power of a translator it is very easy to impose one’s will upon the conversation, and therefore it is extremely important to remember to intentionally emphasize your own impartiality.

The last bit I learned was that being a business translator is a frighteningly subtle affair. Even after diction and emotional cues, a translator must be aware of the cultural paradigm and logistical context in which the deal is being made. For example, we spent a large amount of time with our host’s family, and it was sometimes difficult to navigate Costa Rican norms as to how we might interact in both a culturally appropriate and thoughtful manner. When laughing and sharing beers over tamales it’s sometimes easy to forget what is and isn’t appropriate, and I needed to constantly remind myself of the necessity to always have one foot in the shoe of a translator.

This experience in translation was an incredible introduction to the truly admirable and powerful world of business translation, as well as the difficulty in translating clearly and accurately. My biggest pointer to future translators is to do your research on the cultural paradigm and deal itself, and constantly check that you’re not inserting your own beliefs and opinions. For, as Chris eloquently stated, translation should not be a crutch but rather a beautiful tool through which both players might reach understanding.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Sustainability Center, please reach out – . We are looking for partners.

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