Ask A Negotiation Expert: Space for Interpretation

By on / International Negotiation

Negotiators tend to view language interpreters as neutral, but reality is more complicated, according to Sanda Kaufman, a professor of Planning, Public Policy, and Administration at Cleveland State University who studies negotiation and intervention in urban, environmental, and organizational contexts. Fluent in four languages, Kaufman is also an experienced interpreter who recently published a chapter called “The Interpreter as Intervener” in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference, Vol. 2 (DRI Press, 2017).

Negotiation Briefings: Do interpreters influence the outcomes of multilanguage negotiations?

Sanda Kaufman: When interpreters do their work smoothly, they can become invisible to the negotiators. However, it’s important to remember that interpreters are interveners of sorts: Their language choices can affect the negotiation. Even when they do their work “by the book,” there is space for interpreters to alter meanings, for better or worse.

For example, during a U.S. presidential economic summit, I interpreted in a negotiation between an American businessman and another country’s government officials, who were refusing to pay for pig vaccines he had sold them. Neither party understood the other’s language. The officials spoke freely about evading payment. Perhaps they thought that because I was originally from their country, I would not give them away. I chose to help the businessman. Using a flat tone, I translated for him everything they said to each other. He understood their intentions, stopped the negotiations, and successfully appealed to American officials for help in recovering his losses. I worked by the rules, but it was my choice.

To take another example, sometimes I interpreted for defendants and judges at a municipal court. I could have simply translated the dialogue. Yet, at times, I stepped in to help defendants who, without being asked, were offering unnecessary information damaging to their case. I would advise them in their language, “Just answer the judge’s question.”

NB: The Washington Post recently reported that after a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, President Trump took away his interpreter’s notes and instructed her not to tell anyone what transpired in the meeting. Now congressional Democrats are talking about subpoenaing the interpreter’s notes. What do you make of this?

SK: Interpreters are bound by a code of ethics that requires confidentiality in nonpublic settings. Interviewed on National Public Radio, Trump’s interpreter—an American who emigrated from Russia— said she strongly disapproved of the subpoena idea and of her notes being made public. This, she believed, would damage the interpreting profession because clients would no longer trust that interpreters keep their discussions confidential. She added that her shorthand would be impossible for others to understand and that, because she focused on language rather than content, she was unlikely to remember what was said even days later. I agree with her that making her notes public (unless agreed upon at the outset) would set a bad precedent.

NB: During the G20, or Group of 20, summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this past November, the Financial Times reports, Trump met briefly with Putin without an American interpreter present—thus, apparently relying only on an interpreter working for the Russian government. What are the risks of not bringing your own interpreter to a negotiation?

SK: There’s an asymmetry risk, since Putin understands English, but Trump doesn’t understand Russian.

More generally, in the absence of any check, there’s the risk that interpreters can help their countrypersons at other parties’ expense (as I did with the businessman). Americans face an added disadvantage in multilingual negotiations because we are less likely to speak languages other than English, which many in the rest of the world use as lingua franca. When Americans talk to their interpreter or advisers, other parties likely understand. In contrast, Americans don’t understand the others’ internal discussions. Moreover, those who wait for translation have less time to think and react than those who already understood an exchange.

NB: What advice would you give to someone who is preparing to negotiate through an interpreter?

SK: First, bring your own interpreter, to check the accuracy of the other parties’ interpreters. Second, consider your interpreter to be your agent and make your preferences known: Discuss ground rules, how you expect to work together, and interpreting style. For example, does your interpreter translate literally or aim to get the meaning across? Third, during negotiations, pause frequently to allow your interpreter to catch up and lessen the chances of errors, and ask to have discussions translated even if they don’t involve you directly. Fourth, avoid communicating through machine translations: Although reliably neutral, they are not (yet) a match for human interpreters. Finally, keep in mind the “dark” space between negotiators, where interpreters can make choices that tilt the balance.

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