Each year when I come to China to teach for a month at Peking University’s Business School, I try something new. The first year was easy because everything was novel – from the pushcarts selling steaming sweet potatoes in the middle of the road to the “blink and you’ll miss it” chance to cross any street before a cavalcade of bikes, motorcycles and cars threatened to flatten me. The second year, I tried cupping, an ancient Chinese medical process. As I lay face-down on a table, I watched from the corner of my eye as a trained practitioner (I prayed) set balls of alcohol-soaked cotton aflame inside small glasses, and then covered my body with them. With most of my back skin sucked into these globes, I mused to myself, “well, this is new!” and hoped that the scarring wouldn’t be permanent.
So this year, I wondered what my fresh experience might be – and what it turned out to be was a shock: I was going to teach a two-day Presentation Skills course to Chinese government officials who understood no English and only spoke Chinese. Yes, I was going to spend 18 hours of teaching time being translated into Mandarin.
How would this work? How would I know if what I was saying was being converted into what I meant? And how would I know if the participants’ comments were being relayed to me accurately? When I heard that I would be delivering this workshop via translator, I immediately thought of the inelegant yet hilarious “News for the Hard of Hearing” sketch from the early days of Saturday Night Live, where anchorman Chevy Chase repeats the top news story as a service to the hearing impaired. As Chase re-reads the headline, Garrett Morris shouts it at the top of his lungs, with his hands cupped around his mouth for even more volume.
My family had inadvertently reenacted that futile translation at my nephew Daniel’s bar mitzvah in Minneapolis a year and a half ago. As my immediate and extended family took seats for Kabbalat Shabbat, I quietly asked my son Jacob, who is very familiar with the service, if he would sit next to my father, who is less familiar. I whispered, “Every once in a while, just let Grandpa know where we are and what’s going on.” While I had envisioned Jacob warmly helping his grandfather really understand what we were singing, what all the Hebrew meant, and why we were standing to welcome the Shabbat bride, my vision would not be a reality. In SNL-style, every time the cantor announced the page number, Jacob turned to his grandfather – who hears perfectly well – and echoed that page number directly into his ear. My instructions? Lost in translation.
Each and every one of us has had our words and our meaning lost in translation. How many times have you made a comment that was misinterpreted by the listener? (And of course it wasn’t taken more positively than you meant it.) Whether you remarked, “oh, you changed your hairstyle?” and your friend took insult, or you told your boss, “I’ll finish it by end of day” but her “end of day” came an hour before yours did, we often have a hard time completely and accurately describing the picture we have in our heads that tells a fuller story than what we have the time or energy to say. Where we often get into trouble – as speakers and listeners – is assuming that the picture we have in our head is the same as the picture that the other person has in his or hers. We’re better off presuming that the pictures don’t match, and that our comments will be translated into a picture that aligns with their image of the world, not ours. Only through asking clarifying questions such as, “What do you think about when I say “we need greater accountability”?” or “What exactly do you mean by “ASAP”?” or “let me make sure I understand what you’re saying here, ok?” will we come closer to sharing the same picture. I recall facilitating a workshop for emerging leaders of a non-profit Jewish organization where one participant described her religious upbringing as “Reform, so we didn’t really do anything Jewish.” Another participant, also “Reform” was offended, as she grew up deeply committed to and involved in the practices of her movement. The word “Reform” got lost in translation between these two women, causing a potential rift. Thankfully, we had the time that night to convert the conversation from conflict into comprehension.
My husband Michael saved me from a lost in translation moment that could have resulted in bad blood between me and my future in-laws. The night that we announced we were engaged, both sets of parents went into planning mode. My mother and step-father told us that they were going to make a reservation for the four of us to celebrate at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I couldn’t wait to dine alfresco, toasting my future husband with chilled champagne. When Michael got off the phone with his parents, he told me that his mother said she’d have the family over to the house for dinner in honor of our engagement. As much as I adore my mother-in-law’s cooking, I must admit, I was hurt and insulted. “What do you mean, have everyone over for dinner?” I blasted. “This isn’t even a big enough deal to warrant a dinner out? Not even lunch? They must not be happy about this at all.” And as I sulked, Michael introduced me to his family’s picture of celebration — one that looked quite a bit different from mine. “In my family,” Michael soothed, “when they want to show how much they care, they invite you in rather than take you out.” It wasn’t a judgment – just a simple observation about how his parents’ joy had gotten lost in translation with me. The dinner was warm, welcoming and delicious, of course. Both dinners were.
So how did my translation go in Beijing? On one hand, I have no idea. I felt like I would utter a short sentence such as, “Now we will cover the three parts of a presentation,” and my translator, Jennifer, would speak to the group in Mandarin for six minutes. On the other hand, everyone’s presentation skills improved over only two days – and they asked me to come back and do it again next year.
My response? Just a smile. And they can translate that however they’d like to.