Speaking Through a Translator – Lessons from Thailand

The workshops in Thailand are primarily in Thai. The facilitators are the only native English speakers. So, we use translators all the time.

Speaking through a translator has helped me crystallize some thoughts about how to communicate. I first started thinking about this from the lens of public speaking to large groups. And then realized that the same lessons applied to the one-on-one conversations I’ve had through a translator. Here is what I’ve learned:

Eye Contact When Speaking: Is very important while you are talking. It is also important to keep eye contact with your audience while the translation is occurring. And while the translator is repeating your message in another language, I like to repeat what I said with my mind’s voice to help project the message.

Eye Contact When Listening: When you are listening to someone, I have found it more effective to keep eye contact with them while their message is being translated. Don’t look at the translator. Stay engaged with who you are talking to.
Simple Message: Dumb everything down. Don’t make it stupid, mind you. But say things as simply as you possibly can and with as few words as possible. One reason is simply to save time. Using a translator doubles the length of time for a conversation, at best. And if you say something complicated, you are going to spend much more time trying to simplify your complicated message.

Find a Good Translator: Like most everything, translation is a skill. For one of the pieces I taught (Ways of Perceiving the World), I used a first-time translator. It did make it more difficult to get the learnings across. I knew it was more difficult, because an experienced translator told me so.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be working in a foreign language, as well as a foreign culture. And though using a translator can be seen as a pain in the ass, it can also be rewarding and in and of itself a learning experience.

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