The work of a translator does not always take place in a familiar environment. They might have to travel to an area they hadn’t visited before and whose defining cultural markers they do not know.
Personal space, the act of touch, body movements, gestures, eye contact are only some of the aspects that differ dramatically from one nation to another.
Personal space is the comfort area which an individual needs to feel safe and comfortable. This space, usually considered by Americans as being the length of an arm, decreases significantly in the business environment in the Middle East or Latin America.
Touch, essential for business or official meetings through the famous handshake, might be seen as an offense in Asia, where people are not in the habit of touching each other in public, not even when they bid goodbye to a close relative. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the habit of Nigerian men who hold hands in public or of men from Eastern Europe who hug frequently.
Body movements are representative for non-verbal peoples in general, such as those from Asia: the Chinese, Japanese and Korean. These peoples use less the spoken word, while body language tells the conversation partners almost everything they need to know. Therefore, in such a situation of communication, one must pay a lot of attention to silence, as people will talk through kinetics (body movements).
An interpreter must also be extremely careful when it comes to the gestures of the person whose speech they are translating, because in this way they will be able to decipher important aspects related to the success or failure of the meeting. For instance, a simple gesture which translates as no, such as a head shake in American culture, is translated in Japan by raising the right hand, turning it to the left and moving it towards the face. Touching the chin repeatedly with your palm also means no in the Mediterranean islands.
Eye contact is crucial in business or in collaborations. It is encouraged in American culture, but it shows lack of respect in Latin America or Africa if the two interlocutors are not part of the same social category.
Thus, we can see that the work of an interpreter does not refer only to the translation of the conversation between the interlocutors; they must also pay a lot of attention to the whole communicational context in order to decipher the real chances of success of the meeting.