We’re all human. We all make mistakes. How we deal with them and what we do with them defines our professionalism and how we are perceived. Here are two examples of interpreters making mistakes. One is about me. It’s one of my more painful stories. I’m still embarrassed thinking about it. I claim it, though.
It was my mistake. Mine alone and while I couldn’t undo my words, I fixed it on the spot the best I could. The other story is about how I watched an interpreter implode over several days after she refused to acknowledge a mistake. Tell me what you think. Do these stories resonate? Do you have stories of your own? Let’s talk.
Picture this. I’m at dinner with three company executives. Two are from the US firm hiring me. One is their Japanese counterpart. They are discussing what to do about their European business.
The dinner was going smoothly. Wine was ordered, appetizers arrived and the three men are chatting away with me repeating their words back and forth. At one point, one of the two American executives says, “Shall we fire Dieter?”
Dieter is German. He is one of the few executives remaining with the firm after the American company bought out the Germans. He is not well liked. I sense a difficult conversation coming up.
Here was my mistake. To this day I don’t know why I said this. I took “shall we fire Dieter?” and repeated, “Do you think we should keep Dieter?”
Stab. Stupid. Shame. Dumb. Sloppy. Embarrassing. Ouch. Pain. Repeat.
The Japanese consultant answers, “Yes, ” in English.
Wait! Crap. No!
I realized right away this needed fixing. The question was “should we fire” and the executives assumed I asked that question the way it was asked. I didn’t, of course. I turned it around and asked whether or not he should be kept. The answer to “keep” was “yes” but the executives thought the answer to “fire” was “yes.” Crap, crap, crap.
I stopped the conversation right away. I explained to the Americans what I had done, and then to the Japanese. I apologized profusely. They all looked at me with a funny expression, partly of doubt and partly of confusion. I was mortified. My trustworthiness was at stake. I needed to replace any doubt they had and quickly reestablish myself as an interpreter that could be trusted to repeat the words accurately. I asked the Japanese to explain why Dieter should be kept. He went on for several minutes listing his reasons. This, I repeated verbatim. The Americans seemed satisfied with this answer and I lived to tell the story. I have never, to this day, made that kind of a mistake again.
Amya Miller lives near Boston, Massachusetts and is the President and CEO of Lupine and Co., which offers Japanese interpretation, liaison services, business etiquette training, consultation on successful negotiation techniques and problem solving.
Amya also founded the Gaijin Group; a group for gaijins all over the world. She was born and raised in Japan and spent time in Tokyo and Hokkaido. She has worked as an Interpreter and behind-the-scenes liaison in Japan-US business for 20 years. You can reach Amya at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more about at http://www.lupineandco.com/ and http://www.gaijingroup.com/.