[Interview] Nothing Gets Lost in Translation

APAC Marketing Manager, Nick Suturin, caught up with AchieveForum facilitator, Charles Tan, to talk about what goes into running learning and development programs in multiple countries and cultures.

Charles, thank you very much for carving out time out of your busy schedule at such short notice. It is very nice speaking with you today.

We are connecting over Skype for business and that seems to be a very common medium given the regional aspect of many businesses, technology and generally the pace that we live in today. Last time we met in Singapore a couple of months ago, you told me about your experience and that’s something I’d like us to talk about today. Achieveforum has a project in the works that is very close to my heart. International, is one word that could summarise perfectly my journey over the last decade or more. Originally from Russia, moved to Singapore in 2006, consider myself Australian, splitting time between here and New Zealand, and that’s just the shortest highlight.

Your life and career took you to various places around the world too. Could you tell us more, please?

Charles TanAfter graduating from the University of Singapore, I landed a job in an international bank in Singapore. In the interview, I specified that I was particularly interested in the field of Human Resource Management. However, that was not to be. I was given the job and assigned to the bank’s international trade division. Two years later, I found myself working at the bank’s Tokyo branch for 3 years, followed by New York for 6 years, and followed by short stints of 3 months to a year in London, Hong Kong, Toronto and Sydney.

Countries with different cultures, heritage, history, political systems and language of course. Language is something I’d like to us to touch on. You’ve facilitated classes for very diverse groups, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned?

Although differences in culture, mindsets and language can be impediments in connecting effectively with the audience in a classroom training session, they can be overcome.

Sensitivity to the dynamic and cultural nuances in the classroom is important. Speak clearly and at a moderate pace. Show respect to every individual in the classroom. Keep an eye on the facial expressions and body language as they provide subtle hints as to who is off-track, or expresses discomfort speaking when their English proficiency is not up to par.

Furthermore, being mindful of the professional hierarchy within the classroom is essential. Asian cultures tend to be more hierarchical in nature, and we have to be aware of different levels of participant’s seniority attending the session. For example, you have to avoid putting a senior person in the room on the spot, or asking him/her to respond if you know that his/her English proficiency may not be up to the same level as others in the class who are more junior than him/her. That person will “lose face” and you would unwittingly embarrass him/her without even realising it.

In my understanding, leadership challenges are unique – company and country-specific, and leadership is not necessarily or exclusively English. Was there ever a moment when you thought: “I wish this was translated, would’ve made the session so much better”

Yes, there have been occasions when workbooks and other materials provided, had wording on the slides and activities planned that somehow did not fit a non-native English-speaker.

I remember a session I ran in Chengdu China for AchieveForum which illustrates the case well. In an introductory activity planned, participants were supposed to write their names, titles/ranks and introduce themselves for a minute. At the end of the exercise, they were asked to tear up that piece of paper with their title on it. The key point being – leave your stripes and badges out of the classroom – and participate fully. At the beginning of the session, I realised that the majority of participants really did not fully comprehend English all that well. Luckily, I was able to communicate in Mandarin (at a basic level) and was able to rephrase words in Mandarin. At the end of day one, I reached out to an account manager to help me translate some of the more difficult words or phrases in the program to Mandarin and used them the following day successfully.

My lesson here was, when a program is designed for global or regional delivery, one has to consider not just translating the language word for word into another language for the audience, but also bear in mind the cultural sensitivity of some of the examples used, graphics on the slides and activities planned.

Timely intel came from Jaime Ortiz, lead on our translations project, it certainly helps that he sits alongside me at work. You have delivered programs in non-English speaking countries using English materials. What are some of the unique challenges using this approach?

I have delivered programs in English to audiences in Thailand, Brunei, Tokyo, various cities in China and Ulan Bator, Outer Mongolia.

The key is to speak slower and very clearly enunciate words which are less commonly used for the benefit of those in the audience who are not proficient in the language. Paraphrase where necessary, make periodic checks to ensure everyone understands, especially when you give instructions to various activities. As you can imagine, this requires effort and time that is of the essence to everyone in the room.

For one of my sessions in Mongolia, and in another one in Tokyo, I delivered in English with the help of a translator. Both turned out better than I expected actually.

Interested in this topic?

Working with clients, our delivery and account specialists, it became apparent that there’s a need for leaders to be set up for success in the language they speak on a daily basis.

We are on track with our latest project, translating 9 programs to Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Japanese, Chinese before the end of this year and 9 or even more next.

We believe this will equip both groups, facilitators and leaders, with tools necessary to have productive training and gain knowledge required for leadership success.

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