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Dennis Lettow: translators carry the responsibility of peacefully maintaining the individual cultures of the world

In the project “It is cool being a translator” Dennis Lettow expressed his opinion about the work of translators and interpreters – business – coach, that has worked in different parts of the world in order to help in development of the organizations working in the sphere of sales.


I have enjoyed traveling and helping develop sales organizations in approximately 55 countries. When I tell people that our company is Sales Development International and we work primarily outside of the United States, I’m often asked, “Do you need to speak the language of all those countries?”

The simple answer to that question is, “Ha, there’s no way!” But more thought to that simple question reveals some interesting realities. I speak English and some Spanish. With just those 2 languages, I could communicate quite well in 80 countries in the world. If I could speak the most popular 7 languages in the world, I could communicate in 161 countries of the world. Many of the countries in which we work don’t match within those 161 countries.

I’ve worked in India, a fascinating country. A high percentage of Indian people speak English in addition to the official language of Hindi. I speak English and yet their accent and cultures give me difficulty with communication. A beauty of India is that as I travel within many of their states, many have their own dialects, and the people who translate for me don’t necessarily speak the local languages. With the differences in language there are also differences in culture and foods. And those differences make for very rich experiences.


The SDI work in each country varies with company needs. Sometimes it’s identifying the best structure and resources for the sales force, other times it’s helping set expectations, maybe providing coaching and motivation, often times training, and from time to time helping set an effective worker selection system. Try doing all of that without bridging the language barrier. It’s not difficult. It’s impossible!

There are at least 5 factors to consider when deciding to hire a professional interpreter or to ask someone who has boththe local language skills as well as ability to understand my English.

1. Degreethe people speak and understand English. I was in South Africa doing a two and a half day training session on sales management. It was going very well because they could understand my English and they could speak English. I was on a roll, so I thought. Ben, a district sales manager, asked me during a session on business planning how you can possibly take expenses out of a piece of paper that you give to someone who has given you money. It made no sense to him. Me either, because what I meant was to subtract your expenses from your gross income. From my perspective, receipts and gross income is the same thing. For Ben they are not. A receipt is a piece of paper you give to someone acknowledging that they have given you a certain sum of money.We clarified that. “Thanks, Ben.”

A direct word for word translation isn’t always good enough. My smart phone has a translation app. It can translate words and sentences and is a help. Some of the people with whom I work that speak a couple languages are a step above the electronic system. But even these two methods create differences like what I experienced with Ben. The higher the skills level of the translator, the fewer chances of misunderstandings.

2. Energy participants must exert to understand. At the end of the first day in South Africa, Tom, another district sales manager, came up to me and said, “I’m exhausted! You’ve got to slow down and give us more break time.” He explained that all of them have English speaking skills but they think in Afrikaans. Translating as they go, word by word, sentence by sentence, as they go is very tiresome. They are using mental energy translating and not using all their energy for the topic they came to learn or solve. A professional translator absorbs that energy for them.

3. Value of time, speed and size of audience. If a presenter makes a statement, and then waits for the interpreter to restate the same thought in the local language, conventional wisdom would say that it would take twice as long to make the same presentation. That seems to be true with amateur translators. To me an amateur is one who knows both languages but doesn’t have professional translation skills. Interpreter with Glebov Translation Bureau is able to do the translation and it takes only 25% more time. I think the reason is that she is so skilled she can move to the next thought or receive audience input as quickly as it’s given. I can speak at the same pace as I would as if the audience understands English perfectly. As I write English words on a flip chart in pencil, she writes in Ukrainian with a marker.

4. Accuracy of the message. Two types of interpreters assist me. One is a subject matter specialist who speaks both languages and the other is a professional translator. Given my choice, I usually prefer the professional translator who is willing to study any specific terminology before the meeting. It’s not uncommon for a business unit manager or a sales manager to serve as my translator. I was speaking to a group of 75 people in one country. The audience was allowed to ask questions during the presentation. The question was translated to me by the business unit manager. I answered it very easily with one sentence. My one sentence was translated to the audience for the next 5 minutes. I seriously doubted that what I had answered was the answer given. I’ll never know.

5. Translating culture beyond words, such as gestures and customs. There are many examples of situations where a translator would have helped me bridge cultural situations. As a North American I come across in some societies as being overly structured, scientific, and methodical. Translators help to bridge this gap and as a result the audience sees another way of looking at how decisions are made.

In Taiwan, I wanted people to work with the people at their table on a certain subject. I said, “I will count to 3 and when I say, ‘3’, everyone point to someone at your table. The person with the most fingers pointing at them is the spokesperson. 1 – 2 – 3!” They just sat there. Finally, one person said, “Dennis, in our culture we don’t point at people.” A professional translator would have helped me avoid an uncomfortable situation for all.

I would expect my professional translator to help me communicate properly with more than words. After all, it’s been said that 10% of communication is words.

One of my first experiences in the business world in speaking to a group of people was with a simultaneous translator. I found it very a bit difficult because there was a momentary reaction from the audience to what I had said. Getting accustomed to that delay was one thing but there was an exception. Two men in the front row spoke English. Their reactions coming ahead of the others affected my timing. I can see why this high level translation skill is important in sessions like the United Nations. I hope those translators are well paid for this difficult skill but for me it’s seldom necessary.

My best experience with professional consecutive translation has been with interpreter in Ukraine and Russia. We work well together and as she gets to know and understand the material I am using, we gain time, accuracy of message, and respect from the audience. She is always next to me whether I am standing, seated, or walking around. She translates my message with ease and gives me audience reactions just as quickly. After I leave the country, I feel like I have talked with the sales people directly and my interpreter becomes almost transparent. About a year ago, we received feedback that an individual who attended our meetingwas telling a colleague about the meeting he had attended and said, “It was a good session, and Dennis could actually speak Russian.” I can’t but my interpreter can and they quickly forget.

Most frequently I have what we might call an “interpretive interpreter”. That works fine in small meeting situations where my purpose is to help guide a sales manager who is really the one in charge of his people and I’m guiding the process. Dave in Zimbabwe speaks Shona and very good English. When we are with people who speak no English, it really doesn’t matter, because he talks with them, turns to me and we talk a while, and then he goes back to them and continues.

I had an interpreter in China while we were making a visit to the manager of a Chinese government owned distribution center. He spoke no English. I was sitting on the vinyl couch in the distributor’s office with the interpreter beside me. The manager we came to visit sat behind his desk in a very stately manner while still wearing his overcoat and a scarf around his neck. I thought, “Give him a break, Dennis, after all it is cold in here and maybe he enjoys a cold standoffish style of communication.”

I had decided I wanted to use a questioning strategy that I’d just learned in a workshop a couple months before. I asked the questions. My translator relayed the questions to the manager. What made it work so well was that while my questions and his answers were being translated, I could think about my questioning strategy. This went on for probably 20 minutes. Our driver, who had been sitting just across from me, listening to this process, decided to stand up stretch, vacate his chair, and go look out the door. The manager became so engrossed in our conversation that he took off his scarf, came from behind his desk, came closer, and sat directly across from me in the driver’s chair. The standoffish style became warm and friendly. At one point we looked at our watches and realized we had overextended our scheduled visit. We all stood up and tried to end the conversation and move toward the door. The manager followed us. He followed us to the car and held onto the half opened window still wanting to discuss business. All this because language was no barrier and a professional translator made the visit a success.

Here’s another example. In Pakistan, I was speaking to a country management team that normally speaks Arabic but also is proficient with English. This was not with an interpreter. Usually, a good interpreter helps bridge the culture barrier and would have helped me avoid offending people. Again, I was on a roll. I was pumped and enthusiastic for what I was saying. I was animated and using gestures to communicate my message. We took a break and the business unit manager pulled me aside and said, “I know what you’re trying to say, but in our country when you pump your fist in front of you, you’re actually giving your audience an obscene gesture in our culture.” Lesson learned. In fact, I since have studied obscene gestures and now know 11 different gestures I should not use in 11 different cultures.

There are becoming fewer and fewer places in the world where someone does not speak at least some English. The benefit of that is that travel becomes easier and easier. The downside is that as one language becomes more universal so does the diversity of culture.

Some people have the ability to feel comfortable working with people of other cultures and some do not. Andy, a business colleague in Indonesia, told my friend Curt and me, that he feels we have the ability to get along with people in almost any country. That’s a nice compliment but I take it as a challenge to understand how we might build on that thought. Several ideas come to mind to describe what I feel: curiosity, security, consideration for others, and fascination for differences.

I find it intriguing how people differ in the way they make decisions. As Americans, I find that we study and evaluate options and then make decisions. When I worked in Thailand, I found that they are masters at figuring out what I want them to do and then they tell me that’s what they want. A complete contrast to that is in Egypt. They debate very forcefully a decision. But in both cases I’ve learned that the decision is not the final commitment like one might expect in America.But to be curious and willing to understand their point of view is important.

Security is an issue when traveling. Seldom do I feel pressure for my safety. A few rules of good travel certainly help. I was told by an FBI agent one time that if you travel internationally you are being watched. You might not know it but that’s just the way it is. Not knowing the language provides an added element of risk. I appreciate it when I have a translator who cares enough to help me easily get to my next destination.

I was told consideration for others is always appropriate. People all over the world respond favorably when someone shows interest in them and what they are doing. Much of what I do takes me to meet rural people and farmers. Whether a farmer farms 25,000 hectares in the Ukraine or a farmer farms half a hectare in Indonesia, both are still independent business people whose business is unpredictable and dependent on weather. They all have something in common especially the decisions they make. Some decisions are just bigger than others. I find it interesting to learn and share with all of them.

In India we traveled from one state to another and in each state there was a difference in traditions, food and dress. In one particular state I found the food, let’s say, interesting. But I ate it and I was honest when I told my host I enjoyed the contrast. In another state the men wore a special traditional head gear. They were proud to give me one of my own and wanted their picture taken with me. That’s all done in fun and hopefully created good memories for them as well as me.

To try to speak the language of the host country is always appreciated. They are proud to help me learn and they laugh at my funny accent. It’s all done in fun. I decided I needed to learn to read enough Mandarin to be able to recognize signs along the road. One of my Chinese friends started to teach me the numbers, some basics signs and symbols. I got to the point where I knew maybe 25 characters and I asked my friend how I’m doing. “Great!” he said, “You only have about 750 characters to go and then you’ll be able to read basic Mandarin.”


I remember the day I learned to speak Spanish. Well, not the day, but the day I realized I could speak Spanish. I had been out of college for 2 years and had never taken a foreign language. When I found out I was going to be living in Mexico for 6 months, I decided I should study some Spanish books and tapes. By the time I got to my first home in a rural hacienda in the tiny town of Solis just north of Mexico City, my vocabulary was a whopping 75 words and they couldn’t understand those words. Not only that, but I spoke more Spanish than the 10 people with whom I lived, spoke English. We practiced word by word, Spanish/English dictionary in hand, repeating words and phrases until I got the pronunciation correct. One day, almost 6 weeks to the day after my arrival in Mexico,4 of us were walking across a bluegrass meadow to get to the next rural town, one Mexican said to me, “Why do you talk so much?” I was a bit taken aback and then I realized, “Wow! I can talk.” All the pent up pressure and frustration in my mind of not being able to communicate, was finally flowing out of my mouth. That was the day I realized I could speak Spanish.

IN SUMMARY If someone can play basketball, that doesn’t qualify them to be a coach. If someone can solve problems using calculus, that doesn’t mean they can teach math. Just because someone speaks 2 languages, doesn’t qualify them to be a translator. From my perspective, translating is a profession that does more than efficiently and properly convert words and sentences from one language to another without losing the intention of what was said. Additionally, translators carry the responsibility of peacefully maintaining the individual cultures of the world.


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