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When You Have to Use a Translator

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  My experience from Kigali, Rwanda
By Amy Wolff – Distinction Communication


There’s nothing like traveling across the globe to appreciate how easy it is to communicate at home!


Especially in such a foreign place like Kigali, Rwanda, Africa.


Two weeks ago I did a communications training for 50 Rwandan pastors via translator in Kigali. It was going to be my first experience using a translator. I had some anxiety, to say the least.


Would he understand my content enough to translate well?

Would it be hard to pause every few words so he could translate? And would that make me lose my train of thought?

Would I use American phrases that don’t translate well, or even worse, he translates literally?


I met Joseph, my translator, a few minutes before the training began. Not ideal.
But I’m happy to report the training went better than I could have imagined!


Here’s what I think contributed to our success and thus my tips for you:


  1. Send the translator your content ahead of time. The person that helped coordinate the training for me had sent Joseph my content ahead of time. He knew the gist of what I was going to share before we started. We were on the same page!
  2. Pick a translator with specific knowledge. Joseph had taken public speaking courses through his Masters education. My concepts made sense to him, therefore he could elaborate if needed. I trusted him because of his knowledge and humility. I only learned of his training that morning, so it was a nice surprise. More accurately, a real blessing!
  3. Augment your already-practiced pauses. Using pauses was a familiar discipline to me already (something I practice every time I communicate with an audience), so I just made my pauses a tad longer so he could translate. If I wasn’t comfortable with pauses before this training, it would have been more difficult to keep my train of thought.
  4. Be consistent in how long you share between pauses. We found an easy groove right away. I was consistently stopping about half way through a thought or idea so he could translate. Because I was doing this consistently, he could anticipate when to speak. There was no talking over each other or accidently interrupting each other.
  5. Stay connected with the audience. When someone had a question, I made effort to maintain eye contact with them, even nodding my head, before turning to Joseph for a translation. Even though I wasn’t understanding them in the moment, I wanted them to see nonverbal communication that ‘said’ I was interested in what they were saying.
  6. Be flexible and don’t take things too seriously. There were times when people laughed and I’m not sure why.  !?!?!  I never assumed it was rude, so I waited a few moments as everyone got their chuckles in, sometimes joining in myself because it was comical to not know what was going on,  then I continued on. Sometimes the communication process, especially across cultures and with translators, can be comical. Go with it! Never assume it’s negative.
  7. Be appreciative. If it’s hard to speak through a translator all day, it must be hard to listen to someone through a translator all day. There must be patience with the process. Show appreciation towards your translator (publicly thanking them) but also to your audience for enduring the other side of the process as well. Showing gratitude is valued in all cultures. Be grateful!


What a great day it was for me personally! It was a fun surprise to hear pastors ask the same exact questions we get in the States during the delivery skills training. What if I have a podium? Or a microphone? What if I don’t have much space to move?  How validating to observe these communication skills transcend cultures, even drastically different ones.


The truth is, we all value communicating with confidence and we all appreciate passionate communicators.


To date we’ve done segments of our training in Dubai, the UK, Guatemala, and now Africa. And the results are the same. People are inspired, appreciative, and have specific tools to help them become better communicators.


So whenever your next, or first, global opportunity is, go with confidence!