Stuff Translators Hate

picture of a big meeting room

I’ve spent the last two weeks as part of a multinational health sector assessment effort, and we’ve worked through interpreters the whole time. I’ve obviously worked with translators before, but never every day all day for two weeks.  It’s really crystallized my own ground rules for how to work effectively with interpreters. This is what I’ve got:

  1. Jokes almost never succeed when translated. They’re just too cultural and based on language and tone nuance. It’s easiest to avoid them.
  2. If you want to connect with people personally across language, and you can’t use humor, talk about common human experiences. Kids are great if you all have them. I’ve got pictures of kids on my phone and they’re a great icebreaker. I’ve seen other people successfully transcend language and culture barriers by talking about a dislike of mushrooms, fear of snakes and bugs, mocking people who are drunk, alluding to sex, and comparing government officials to babies. I wouldn’t myself be brave enough for an off-color reference, but it worked from the woman who made it.
  3. Take the colloquialism out of your language and use short phrases. It feels awkward at first, but if you can code-switch between talking to your mom, talking to your friends, and talking to your boss’s boss, you can develop an easy way of speaking through a translator. So, break up your thoughts into Twitter-size pieces and be a little more formal.

Some colloquialisms to avoid (that I have heard lately from people who should know better):

  • Big ticket
  • Hard vs Soft (in terms of estimates or rules)
  • Peanuts (to mean small amounts)
  • Small time
  • Take a swing at
  • Out of left field
  • Take a shot at
  • Take a whack at
  • Shot in the dark
  • Rolling in money
  • Drop, fall (to mean decrease)
  • Go off the reservation (also don’t say that because it’s racist)
  • On track

(this is a reprint from Blood and Milk)

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