The Role of Interpreters in Cross-Cultural Negotiation

In another post at the CLM Blog, we discussed five tips to improve cross-cultural negotiation based on best practices from a professor at the INSEAD School of Business. In this article, we will explore the important role of interpreters in negotiations as well as some important points to consider when requesting the services of an interpreter.

  1. Research Requirements from Local Government Agencies

With many years of experience in China, working with a number of large of U.S. corporations, IACCM member Gordon Tsang points out that in the past the PRC Government authority was in charge of providing the negotiation and interpretation services whenever Western investors or sellers and Chinese buyers met.

However, Tsang indicates that nowadays business interpreters or negotiators from the PRC Government authority are now virtually gone and most Chinese enterprises are free to use their own negotiators and interpreters.  He asserts that most Chinese negotiators or executives speak fluent English and seldom employ translators.

As the world becomes more globalized, the observations from Tsang will extend to more and more countries. Therefore, it is key to continuously evaluate whether or not the local law requires hiring a government-sponsored or government-certified interpreter.

  1. Understand the Legal Limits of Interpretation

Interpreting is not an exact science.  In commerce, an interpreter is trying to place non-speakers of a foreign language participating in negotiations on an equal footing with those who are native speakers of that foreign language.

It’s important to understand to understand that even in legal proceedings in which an interpreter takes an oath swearing to well and truly interpret, the judge or appointed moderator of negotiations is the final arbiter of what is appropriate in his or her courtroom or negotiation setting.

  1. Research Interpreters Available for Target Language

When looking for interpreters, most companies start with the list of state court interpreters. While there are certifications for interpreting, such as the ones from LionBridge and each state’s Consortium for Language Access, some languages may not be available for full certification.

Depending on your type of negotiation, a conditionally approved, approved, certified, or master certified may be appropriate. Make sure to understand the details of each tier of court interpreter designation so that you can make an informed decision about who to hire. While you may seek to hire an interpreter with the highest level of certification, she may not be available for a long time or be completely out of your budget.

  1. Be Aware of Potential Conflicts of Interest

Before entering a contract, a professional interpreter should disclose conflicts of interest. Any condition that interferes with the objectivity of an interpreter constitutes a conflict of interest, including if the interpreter is acquainted with or related to any party in the negotiation or if the interpreter has an interest in the outcome of the negotiation.

When an interpreter fails to disclose potential conflicts of interest, consider that as a red flag and consider finding a replacement. Even though you may not feel that the interpreter has any bias or partiality, if the other party or third parties perceive that the interpreter is biased or partial, the role of the interpreter has been compromised. Therefore, you must strive to avoid any interpreters that might appear favoring one party in the negotiation.

  1. Maintain Separation Between Interpretation and Legal Advice

There is a fine line between practicing law and defining words in linguistic terms, or simply giving information that any layperson might dispense. However, within a legal setting, particularly a court, an interpreter should not give legal advice to parties.

The roles of dispensing legal advice or providing legal representation belong to an attorney, paralegal, or judge. In a court setting, the sole responsibility of an interpreter is to serve as a medium of communication. Both you and your interpret should strive to maintain a professional relationship. While it is very helpful for an interpreter to have an opportunity to talk with a client before any proceedings to become accustomed to the client’s speech mannerisms, maintain and request professional detachment.

  1. Provide Time for Preparation

Even the most experienced of interpreters may become disqualified when he faces very technical terminology or a very obscure dialect within a language. Approve requests for extra time to prepare and do research by an interpreter so that he can have a solid grasp of all aspects involved in the negotiation and prevent potential roadblocks.


In cross-cultural negotiations, you may need to hire the services of an interpreter. Have a clear understanding of what is the role of an interpreter and what is not. Best practices in hiring interpreters include finding out legal requirements by local or state governments (if applicable), researching required level of expertise, avoiding conflicts of interest, maintaining professional detachment, and providing time for preparation.

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