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I am having a face-to-face interview with a Japanese company. My interviewers will speak Japanese while I speak English. There will be an interpreter to translate.

What can I do to better communicate despite the language barrier?

  • 2
    A bigger issue than language is culture and culture clashes. – Oded Oct 20 '13 at 10:40
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    Welcome to The Workplace Sohaib! Great question! I edited it a bit to focus on (what I see as) the core question. If you think I edited too much out, please feel free to edit it back again! Thanks again for the great question! – jmac Oct 21 '13 at 0:18
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    Serious question, if you need an interpreter for the interview how do you expect to work for this company if you don't speak Japanese? – CincinnatiProgrammer Oct 21 '13 at 12:02
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is seeking advice about working with a translator. It isn't a workplace-specific question. – Jim G. Oct 22 '13 at 6:05
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    @PaulBrown If I get selected I would be learning Japanese. So the language would not be a problem. I'm still graduating this is on campus so I have about 12 months before I join in Japan. – Sohaib I Oct 22 '13 at 18:16
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Executive Summary

The interpreter will likely be the smallest issue you will face in the interview. To communicate yourself well, I recommend that you:

  1. Confirm the format of the interview
  2. Prepare documentation where possible
  3. Be careful about your English

Japanese Interview Overview

Most Japanese companies will have a panel of interviewees. You are likely not going to be speaking to a single person, but to 3-6 people. In my experience the panel is usually comprised of at least:

  1. The HR person in charge
  2. The HR manager
  3. The manager of the team you will be joining

Unlike a 'Western' interview, the interviewers speak a lot more than the interviewees in many of these interviews (especially initial ones), and there will likely be less chance than expected to be able to appeal to them.

The first thing to do is to confirm with the company about what the format of the interview is (how many people will be attending, what the purpose of the interview is).

Prepare Documentation

If you prepared a resume in both English and Japanese, provide both to your interpreter. Much of initial interviews is to confirm what is written on the resume, and having that prepared beforehand will save everyone a lot of headaches.

If you have not prepared a resume in Japanese, then at least provide the English version to your interpreter, with an explanation of anything that may be unclear.

Additionally, you may want to bring the equivalent of a cover letter in Japanese (and English) to the interview. With 3-6 interviewers, a lot of them get bored and read whatever is in front of them. Creating an appropriate document will give them something to read over other than your resume (which likely hasn't been read by all the members).

Note: Japanese people do not bring these things to interviews, but I am assuming you are not Japanese, so if you want to appeal this may be a good way to do it

Be Careful About Your English

If the translator is from the company, then you want to treat them as an interviewer (because they essentially are). Additionally, you should be aware that if you don't speak Japanese, but will work in a Japanese company, having your English be easily understandable by the Japanese is critical to your long-term success.

(I have seen people with fluent English and heavy accents be regarded as having poor English by their Japanese managers because the manager couldn't understand them. Be very careful about that)

Even if they aren't from the company, assume that one of the people on the panel can speak enough English to follow what you say, and they will likely make a similar judgment based on how you speak.

At all times:

  1. Speak s…l…o…w…l…y
  2. Speak clearly, and enunciate
  3. Do not use idioms
  4. Use short (but complete) sentences

Generally speaking, the Japanese learn American English. Enunciating every word tends to sound pretty 'American' and may improve their understanding of you.

Any interpretation done will likely be 'culturally' translated as well. A lot of things that would be said in 'Western' interviews are going to be total gobbledygook in a Japanese interview (and vice versa). For instance, a Japanese person will often say "一生懸命頑張ります" which literally translated means "I will try very hard to do my best" and wouldn't go over so well in a 'Western' interview.

Because of the large cultural gap, there will be short sentences you say that wouldn't sound good if translated just as that sentence. The interpreter may want to:

  1. Take several sentences, summarize and paraphrase
  2. Translate each sentence, skipping sentences that are 'filler' in their mind
  3. Translate each sentence exactly as said

The only way to determine which they will do is to ask them ahead of time. Chances are it will be 1. or 2., so if you don't have a chance to ask before hand, leave short (2 seconds or so) pregnant pauses between each sentence to give the interpreter a chance to translate. If they do not start speaking in those 2 seconds, continue with the next sentence. Pay attention to their style, and try to match your English to their rhythm if possible (this is an art, not a science).

  • I think the general concept here is great advice for anyone interviewing through an interpreter or even just in your non-native language. I have witnessed several interviews that went south due to cultural differences in speech. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Oct 21 '13 at 14:06
  • @jmac Thanks a lot for answering. I will be keeping those points. I talked to the interpreter. She'd be taking the first approach and summarize after I have answered writing down the key points while I speak. The interpreter is neither from the company nor from my side its from the recruiting agency which represents the company. – Sohaib I Oct 22 '13 at 18:43
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    @sohaib, good luck! – jmac Oct 23 '13 at 23:47
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In such cases, body language is very important. Make constant eye contact, smile and maintain a pleasant demeanour. Use brief but effective sentences and say them clearly. Don't fumble, go well prepared and don't use hi-fi words. Make them believe that you are extremely willing to join the company. Bow in greeting and highlight your strengths. All the best! Hope you get the job!

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    Hello Ice, and welcome to The Workplace! Eye contact in Japan works very differently from the US and making constant eye contact will likely make the interviewers uncomfortable. Body language in Japan is incredibly different from most other countries, and has a large possibility of being misinterpreted. While I agree with the intent of your answer, in practice this answer may have unintended consequences. – jmac Oct 21 '13 at 5:09
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    I'm with jmac here. OP will cause a very bad impression on the interviewer if he does that in Japan. – user10483 Oct 21 '13 at 15:13

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