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Working with an interpreter: 6 tips for a positive interpreting experience

Updated: May 14

Help your interpreter help you by following these simultaneous interpreting good practice.

If you're looking for a more detailed document to share with your speakers, click here to download my free guide on how to use a conference interpreter to talk to a foreign audience.

French simultaneous interpreter
Conference interpreting

Interpreting is the art of breaking the language barrier by conveying one person’s speech into the other person’s language (in passing, let’s distinguish interpreting from translation, which is about converting a written text from one language into the other). If you ever found yourself facing a room full of people who have come from all around the world to hear what you have to say, you'll know the importance of working hand in hand with your interpreter.

Many people who rely on me as an interpreter for the first time feel that they can just pretend there is no language barrier and talk as they normally would - the French interpreter will do the rest. Whilst this is relatively true in simultaneous interpretation, there are several behaviours which you can adopt to make sure the interpreter can do their job properly and that all participants enjoy a smooth experience.

Tip 1 - Pace yourself

You can still talk naturally, there-is-no-need-to-talk-like-a-robot but, you know, take a breath every now and then. Some languages, (French is one of them) can take longer or require more words to translate something English speakers can say in two syllables. For example, in a formal agricultural context, the word “farm” is likely to be translated as “exploitation agricole”. If you use the term a couple of times in the same sentence, your interpreter is naturally going to need a bit more time just to say the words.

Tip 2 – Grab the natural pauses

Your interpreter is always a little bit behind since they have to listen first. So, it’s a good idea to give them a chance to catch up every now and again. As a general rule, before you move on to the next slide or concept, take a moment to look at your interpreter and wait until they finish talking. In fact, that’s good practice regardless of whether you’re being interpreted or not – you’re giving your audience a lot of information on your topic, so it’s always advisable to give them 10 seconds to absorb it every now and then.

Tip 3 – Avoid reading from a script, or share it with the interpreter ahead of the event

Pre-written scripts tend to lead to unnaturally fast speech, which is an interpreter’s worst nightmare. If you don’t trust your memory, feel free to jolt down some bullet points instead. And if you really must read from a script, share it with your interpreter ahead of the event.

Tip 4 – Use technology for the best possible audio so your interpreter (and your audience) can hear you

It goes without saying that good quality sound is paramount to good interpreting. In a live event, either use a venue equipped with interpreting booths or hire some portable guide-tour equipment and make sure everyone is wearing their headphones. This is particularly relevant if your meeting is likely to involve discussions for the participants, in which case don’t hesitate to remind the audience to all wear their headphones, even if they speak the same language as the presenter.

For online events, encourage speakers to use separate headphones and a microphone rather than their laptop’s built-in accessories as these will offer better sound quality and allow them to move their heads away from the screen if needed. Zoom and Kudo are particularly well set-up for live simultaneous interpreting, whilst MS Teams, Facetime or most other video call applications will require consecutive interpreting.

Tip 5 - Apply all the principles of public speaking

  • Project your voice. Start by looking in front of you rather than at your feet…

  • Don’t rush it, take the time to articulate

  • Avoid relying on your slides or cramming too much into them (ideally, get them translated ahead of your event)

Tip 6 - Avoid language hopping - trust the interpreter

If you’re comfortable in both languages, it’s often tempting to do your own interpretation but this behaviour is actually counterproductive : it will force your interpreter to constantly switch channels to keep up with your choice of language, and risk missing details in the process. To avoid losing too much of your message in translation, relinquish some of the control and trust that your interpreter will convey the majority of your moods and jokes and, most importantly, all the information.

Simultaneous interpreting is the closest thing to talking in the same language. It is naturally flawed but, by doing your best to help the interpreter, your conversation can feel almost as natural as it would without the language barrier. It also helps to ensure you chose a qualified interpreter who has some understanding of the industry or topic.

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