How to Get the Most out of Your Interpreter Public  

You’re going to a conference. You’ve spent months preparing your speech and you’re ready to deliver your well-crafted message to your audience. There’s only one problem — half the audience doesn’t speak your language.

Thankfully, there are interpreters at the event. But how do you ensure they convey the message the way you intended it? 

Let’s be honest, you’ve probably never thought about this before — and that’s okay. You’re not the only one. At Nimdzi, we like to say that translation is like toilet paper. Why? Because people don’t think about it until they need it.

In fact, when we surveyed over 1,200 respondents in 11 countries around the globe about their Perceptions on Translator Gender, the first thing we found was that people simply do not think about translation or the professionals who do it.

What gender do people think that translators are?

Interpreting is no different. In fact, most people aren’t even aware of the difference between a translator and an interpreter (see our InfoDrop on the topic). Interpreters have confirmed this by stating in numerous studies, that they feel there is a lack of understanding of their role.

So let’s dive in and discuss seven practical tips to ensure your speech won’t be lost in translation.

1. It’s a team effort

The first thing you should be aware of when you’re being interpreted is that getting your message across will be a team effort between you and the interpreters. 

Yes, they are trained professionals who can handle quite a bit, but they are not walking dictionaries or translation machines. They’re humans with certain human limitations. So if you want your message to get across to the people in the room who don’t speak your language, you should be aware of what those limitations are and try to accommodate them as best as possible.  

Which brings us to the next step: providing materials in advance.

2. Preparation is key

The difficulty of interpreting goes far beyond pure linguistic ability, and a large part of an interpreter’s job happens before the actual assignment. 

Interpreters work in different areas all the time. They might be interpreting at a conference for heart surgeons one day and at an economic forum the next. For both jobs, they need to have the right terminology, and, more importantly, understand and expertly convey what is being discussed. 

Being able to do this requires in-depth preparation for each and every new assignment. 

For your own speech, this means providing interpreters with the appropriate materials in advance. After all, the better the interpreters know your topic, the better they will be able to convey your message to your audience. So when speaking at an event, plan ahead and provide materials to the interpreters in advance. 

Because the better the interpreters perform, the better they make you look.

3. Delivery: clear and steady wins the race

What makes a good speech? A great speaker. 

Delivering your speech well is important for all kinds of events. However, especially when you’re being interpreted you should tweak your delivery to make it more suitable to the situation. There are two main aspects to consider.

Number one: Watch your speed. Don’t run away with your speech. This can easily happen when you’re nervous and your body goes into overdrive. When speakers speed up, interpreters are trained to slow down. This is so they can focus on catching and conveying only what is essential and thus make it easier for the listeners to follow the main message. While this is a great technique, it also means that a lot of detail will be lost. 

Our tip: Practice, practice, practice! Know your speech inside out and practice it out loud. Then, even if the nerves set in, your speed will be fine.

Number two: Pay attention to your accent. We all have an accent, and linguists love them because they reveal so much about a person’s background. But if your accent strays too far from the standard in your language, you should try to dial it back a bit. Depending on how pronounced your natural accent is, this might not be easy for you. Though most of us can alternate between a more moderate and extreme version.

Interpreters train with different accents but the bottom line is, if they can’t understand you, your message will be lost.

So try to keep these two aspects in mind when you’re delivering your speech.

4. Jokes and quotes

It’s tempting to open up your speech with a smart quote, or try to loosen up the atmosphere with a funny joke. But for interpreters, that’s basically their worst nightmare. Here is why.

Jokes usually have either a cultural or a linguistic element, or worst of all, both. This means they often don’t translate into other languages. If this is the case, the interpreters will leave it out, which then results in half the room laughing and the other half looking really confused. 

When it comes to quotes, you might think that there are certain famous ones that are okay to use because everyone knows them. However, when you’re putting interpreters on the spot, they’re probably not going to be able to perfectly produce that same quote in another language, no matter how famous it is. So then they’ll probably end up leaving it out. This leaves you with two options. Either you provide your quote to the interpreters in advance, so they can look it up in the target language, or you simply leave it out. 

To quote Somerset Maugham: The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.

Our recommendation: Just be witty and clever yourself and wow your audience in your own way.

5. Names and numbers

Of course, your speech will have names and numbers, and interpreters are trained to handle them. But getting numbers and names right can be difficult, even in one’s native language. Here are a few tips:

  1.  Only include names and numbers you really need. Don’t overdo it. Think about which ones are necessary for your message.
  2. Provide numbers and names in advance. If the interpreters can prepare them and be aware of them in advance, they will get them right.
  3. If you do have a lot of names and numbers, don’t rush through them. Keep in mind that you’re being interpreted and slow it down a bit. This way, you’re at least giving the interpreters a chance.

6. Less is more

When you’re speaking at a conference, you will most likely be interpreted simultaneously. However, some conferences might also provide consecutive interpreting for smaller, bilateral meetings. In consecutive interpreting, the speaker speaks first while the interpreter takes notes and then renders the speech immediately after the speaker is finished.

During this type of interpreting, the interpreter largely works from memory, with the notes only acting as a memory jogger. This means there is a limit for when that memory storage is full.

If you want your message to get across accurately and with all the important details, remember that less is more. Try not to talk for more than five minutes at a time. Interpreters can handle up to seven-minute-long speeches, but anything after that is a stretch. The five-minute mark is ideal.

If you cannot condense your speech to just five minutes, remember that you can break it up into several segments. As long as you give interpreters a chance to catch up, you’ll both be fine.

Breaking up your speech into smaller chunks might even be appreciated by your listeners, as it will give them more time to really process the information.

7. The human component

If you can, say hi to your interpreters. Add that human component and remember that in the end, you’re part of the same team.

In addition to this article, Nimdzi has a mini video series on the topic of preparing to be interpreted at a conference, hosted by Interpreting Researcher Sarah Hickey.

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