My time as an interpreter

No, I was never an interpreter of other countries’ languages.Photo of a woman holding an old-style landline phone receiver out in front of her and looking very confused.

But I’ve done a lot of interpretation and translation of what might appear to be native English – but often isn’t easily understood.

In my software-development days, it was technology-to-business-speak and back again. Interpreting what the business community said and translating it into something the business analysts and software engineers could understand and use to build systems. And then taking what the tech folks were asking and translating it into questions that the business community could understand how to answer.

(There really is a skill to this, especially when the businesspeople are either so steeped in their knowledge of their business that they think it’s obvious, or they’re technically unaware, or both.)

As a manager, leader, coach, and trainer, my work is about translating between people, especially when there are behaviors that seem – let’s just say, a little strange or unexpected. And then it’s how to bring conceptual material down into the realities of day-to-day situations, so a concept can be put into actual practice. And, of course, there’s the ever-fascinating work of helping translate people to themselves, so they develop the self-awareness that’s so essential to leadership.

Managers and leaders need to know how to translate!

Translating strategy into goals and objectives.

Translating task assignments into a comprehensible view of the larger picture.

Translating values, vision, and mission into guidance for decision-making and behavior.

And let’s face it, translating senior leaders’ decisions into action steps that make sense to individual employees.

Isn’t this just communication?

Well … sort of.

But “communication” is a word that’s bounced around a lot, and seems to have lost some of its meaning. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but I see so many people saying “we need to communicate better!”, but then not defining what that actually looks like in practice.

Translation / interpretation is just one aspect of communication. And I think we might do well to break out communication into all its many aspects in order to understand it better – and do it better.

Just because you learned to talk …

… as a toddler, and just because you learned to write a year or so later, and just because you wrote papers in high school and college, and so on …

news flash: that doesn’t mean you know how to communicate.

Start by thinking about translation.

Take a few days to think about whether you understand everything that your boss, your senior leadership, your team – all the stakeholders you interact with in your job – how well you understand everything they’re saying to you, asking for, and conveying in all the various ways we interact.

And then think about how you’re translating – or, let’s face it, if you’re translating – effectively, both for yourself (does what you take in really, truly, actually make sense to you?), and for your team (are they really, truly, actually getting it?), and, of course, for your boss (are they really, truly, actually getting it?).

Because part of translation is validating that there’s comprehension on all sides.

Communication is just one (albeit an important one) of the topics we cover in the Community of Practice, Learning, and Experience for managers. Check it out.