Find an Interpreter Who Speaks to Your Goals

If you need someone to translate for you when working with foreign buyers, make sure you can truly trust them to communicate on your behalf.

May 7, 2015

Real estate is increasingly becoming a global business, with foreign home buyers flocking to cities across the U.S. in search of investment opportunities. Chances are you’ll be running into more potential clients who don’t speak English and whose language you don’t speak either. You may need to hire a translator or interpreter — yes, they’re two different professions — to help you overcome the language barrier, but be careful who you choose. Even if your need for their services is rare, you should vet them as rigorously as you would any full-time help.

When you have to rely on a third party to relay information to your client, you’re putting a lot of trust in them. You’re depending on them to be able to communicate your message to the client (and the client’s to you) accurately and professionally. In essence, you’re asking them to represent you. How they work with your client is a direct reflection of you, and can have ramifications on your future business. So this is not a one-and-done hire you can make on a whim.

Lou Belisario, associate broker at Fillmore Real Estate in Brooklyn, N.Y., has done about a dozen deals in which he required the services of a cross-language professional. Being in a culturally diverse market that attracts a high volume of overseas business, Belisario — who says he has only a little bit of Spanish under his belt — has used interpreters or translators to work with clients who speak Russian, Spanish, and Chinese.

“You just have to be careful to choose upstanding, professional people,” Belisario says.

Thinking ahead about the clients you’ll most likely be dealing with, you’ll want to hire someone who’s fluent in the most prevalent languages in your market. So, for example, if there’s a high percentage of Hispanics in your area, choose someone who speaks Spanish. But “don’t just call on anyone who speaks the language,” says Milena Savova, director of the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation, and Interpreting at New York University’s School of Professional Studies.

Savova advises to look for an agency, organization, or association that can provide referrals for translators and interpreters. This route is more likely to lead to highly trained professionals, minimizing the risk of hiring someone who could make potentially costly communication mistakes.

“An error in numbers, such as square footage or prices, can be a problem in real estate,” Savova says. She adds that agencies can also be helpful in finding additional resources if you aren’t satisfied with the professional they’ve matched you with. “They’ll send someone else, rather than leaving you back at square one.”

Know Your Needs

People often use the terms “translator” and “interpreter” interchangeably, but each have different skill sets.

“Translators are writers and editors; they work with documents,” says John M. Milan, president of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters. “Interpreters are verbal communicators; they work directly with people.” So when you’re consulting with buyers or showing them homes, you’ll need an interpreter. A translator, however, would help transition documents into your client’s native language. It’s possible — but not likely — you’ll find a professional who does both, Milan says.

Start your search by inquiring at organizations such as the National Association for Interpretation or the American Translators Association. You may also find local associations, such as Milan’s, to be helpful in your search.

Qualifications to Look For

There aren’t uniform criteria for what makes a qualified translator or interpreter, but there are traits you should look for. A college degree in any field should be standard, ideally with at least a minor in foreign language studies. But beyond that, see if they have certifications and/or affiliations with groups such as the ATA. Some states, such as Washington, conduct language testing to provide certification.

Also, don’t hesitate to ask about their background. “[Find out] how they acquired their language skills. Were they raised bilingual?” Milan says.

If their skills were a result of schooling, inquire whether they’ve lived abroad or otherwise immersed themselves in the culture associated with the language in which they specialize. This can assure you that, in addition to translation and interpretation, they will be able to assist you in respecting your client’s cultural norms.  

“For example, in Chinese culture, there are considerations regarding feng shui — the way the home faces, how the light comes in,” Savova says. Feng shui refers to the Chinese philosophy of living in harmony with the environment.

Finally, ask for references. Talking with a translator or interpreter’s past clients is the only way to really know if they have a solid, successful track record.

When You’re in the Field

As the real estate professional, you are ultimately responsible for every transaction. So even if you feel like a third wheel while your client and the interpreter chat, remain present. Don’t step away or shift attention elsewhere. You’ll pick up clues from your client’s facial gestures, body language, and intensity of conversation. And if anything that transpires raises your eyebrows, ask.

“If you feel uncomfortable, you have to speak up,” Savova says. “You have to have trust, or find someone else to work with.”

There are also occasions where a buyer who speaks another language brings along an English-speaking family member or friend. This doesn’t mean you don’t need an interpreter on hand. You should be mindful of whether the English-speaking party is qualified to handle important information.

“I recently closed a deal where the clients didn’t speak English, but their daughter, who was in her twenties, did,” says Belisario. He suggests always making sure the English-speaking individual you communicate with is over the age of 18. “Aside from legal reasons, someone younger might not have the understanding to follow everything we’re talking about. Important things can get lost in the translation.”

While a buyer’s teenage children may be helpful for making introductions or casual inquiries about the market, avoid using them beyond that. Explain that your policy calls for anyone in a translation role to be of legal age. If the client’s choice for an interpreter is of legal age, but you question their integrity, don’t hesitate to bring in a professional. It’s better to invest in a deal done properly than to have lingering problems due to inaccuracies.

Debbie Swanson is a Boston-area freelance writer who frequently covers real estate, construction, and other topics.