Lost in Translation – Ten Tips for Working with Interpreters

Lost in Translation is a terrific film that received critical acclaim when it was released in 2003. Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson, it’s the story of an aging actor and a young college graduate who meet in Tokyo and develop a touching friendship. Both poignant and funny, the film explores the issues of loneliness and finding one’s place in the world.

One of my favourite scenes takes place at the beginning of the film. The career of Murray’s character has been in decline. However, he is offered $2 million to travel to Japan and film a commercial for Suntory Whisky.

The scene takes place during one of the commercial. The director speaks Japanese and Murray’s character speaks English. So they have to communicate through an interpreter. As for how much gets through … well, take a look.

This scene always makes me smile. It also calls to mind the many times that I have worked with interpreters over the years. Through my work at the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration, and the World Health Organization, I gave many presentations working with interpreters both in Geneva, Switzerland and across the Middle East.

Although I recommend that you learn at least a few basic words of the local language if you have the opportunity to speak in a foreign country, I also realize that, for many people, giving a speech or presentation in another language is not an option. In such cases, you might have to work with an interpreter.

Speaking through interpreters

Speaking through an interpreter is a special type of public speaking. Interpretation adds a new dimension to the experience. There are some fundamental rules when it comes to working with interpreters. If you are going to make the most of the experience (for you and the audience), it is essential that you understand those rules. First, let’s be clear about terms. People often use “interpreter” and “translator” interchangeably.

Professionals in these fields, however, will be quick to correct you. In essence, an interpreter interprets or translates words that are being spoken by conveying the idea orally in another language. A translator interprets or translates words that are written by writing them in another language.

It’s also important to understand the difference between consecutive and simultaneous interpretation. In consecutive interpretation, the speaker says a sentence or two in the source language and then stops. The interpreter, who is usually next to the speaker, conveys the meaning of what the speaker just said (though not necessarily the exact words) in the target language. Thus, the talk is broken up into chunks. For examples of consecutive interpretation, watch a couple of minutes from this video (English – Turkish) or this one (Russian – French – Arabic).

In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter is sitting in a booth with headphones and a microphone. He hears the source language in his headphones and conveys the message in the target language through the microphone, which feeds into the earpieces that the members of the audience have. All things being equal, simultaneous interpretation results in a more fluid experience for the audience. The interpreters with whom I have worked prefer it to consecutive translation.

Set out below are my tips for working with interpreters in a simultaneous interpretation situation. (I focus on simultaneous interpretation because it is the most common, especially for large meetings, and the form with which I have had most experience.)

Before the Event

1. Choose good interpreters

It might sound obvious, but it is vital. Most of the interpreters with whom I have worked have been outstanding. However, I have also worked with some who were not that great. The difference is huge. Poor interpretation is a killer for your message. You might not have a say in the matter, but if you do, ask around and get feedback from people who have worked with the interpreters before.

Ideally, you should meet with the interpreters beforehand to discuss the topic of your presentation, the audience, etc. The following are key qualities that good interpreters possess: (a) an extensive vocabulary in the source and target languages; (b) familiarity with the different cultures involved; (c) familiarity with the subject matter (important if the subject is highly technical); and (d) a significant amount of experience.

Sonja Willner, a reader who is an interpreter, offers some additional insight on this issue. Please see her comment below.

2. Choose a good technician

Interpreters are important but so is the technician who sets up the interpretation booth, connects the wiring, monitors the sound, etc. There are companies that provide a complete interpretation service; i.e., they have the technical equipment and will contract the individual interpreters. Make sure that the technician remains at the venue in case problems arise.

3. Send the interpreters documentation before the event

Here, I am thinking of things such as a glossary of technical terms you will use, copies of materials that you will reference, copies of slides that you will show, etc. If you have a transcript or outline of your talk, send it. A good interpreter will want to be prepared and familiar with the material. Confidentiality agreements are standard when signing a contract with an interpreter or interpretation service, so sending the material should not be a problem.

4. Factor in additional time for your talk

Because you will be speaking more slowly than usual (see below) and because technical issues can arise (see above), you should budget your allotted time accordingly. (NB – In the case of consecutive interpretation, you basically have to cut your material in half; i.e., if you have one hour of presentation time, you cannot prepare more than 30 minutes of material because everything has to be said twice: the source language followed by the target language.)

During the Event

1. Bring two sets of materials for the interpreters

Sometimes they will not have the documents that you sent; sometimes a different interpreter will show up as a last-minute replacement in the case of an emergency. You want to make sure that they have what they need. (NB: Interpreters typically work in pairs. One will interpret for a period of time (15-20 minutes or so) and then take a break while the other one takes over.)

2. Speak slowly and enunciate

Even professionals need time to digest what you are saying and then come up with the proper words to express the thought in the target language. If you speak quickly, many of your ideas might get missed. Good interpreters, however, will ask the audience (through their earpieces) to tell you to slow down. And although you need not have perfect elocution, you should pronounce your words clearly.

3. Avoid colloquialisms

English is a language with a vast and rich store of colloquialisms. However, even excellent interpreters can miss the subtleties of the language, especially if English is not their mother tongue (as it often will not be). Use simple words and skip the idioms.

4. Use humour carefully

Many people caution against using humour when working with interpreters. I disagree. Humour is a wonderful way to bridge the cultural gap—provided that it is appropriate and culturally sensitive. I would avoid jokes, but anecdotal humour—for example, a funny experience that you had in the host country—can be a wonderful way to build rapport with the audience.

5. Connect with the interpreters from time to time

Usually, you can see the interpreters at the back of the room in their booth. I tell the interpreters with whom I work that if I make eye contact with them, they should give me a quick signal (agreed beforehand) to let me know whether everything is OK, whether I should slow down, whether I should speak louder, etc.

6. Always thank the interpreters

When you wrap up your presentation, it is proper form and basic politeness to thank the interpreters publicly. They work hard and their work is mentally exhausting. A sincere word of thanks will be much appreciated.

Working with interpreters takes extra effort, but it is worth it. They are your partners in getting your message across to the audience. If you follow the tips above and go into the event with the right attitude, the experience can be rewarding on many levels. And, most importantly, your message won’t be lost in translation.

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  1. Very timely, John. I’m the keynote speaker at “The Sales Congress” in Warsaw end of May. It will be an international crowd, but it will also be translated into Polish for those who don’t understand English.
    Thanks again for a great post!

  2. This is just spot on and John, I have to tell you that I find everything you send in on public speaking so helpful! I always refer to your newsletter when I am about to give a talk!

  3. Thanks for a useful article, John. I think I’ll print it and carry it with me everywhere… Speaking slowly and loudly, that’s very rare. I even started thinking that they’re speeding up on purpose…

    1. Thanks, Marta. Glad you find it useful. The post has been very popular with a number of interpreters and translators over the past 24 hours. Let’s hope that it becomes popular with the speakers as well!

      1. Dear John,

        I wholeheartedly agree with your response to Marta. Most of the reactions I’ve seen to your article come from interpreters like myself. I’m thinking maybe it would be a good idea to send the link to your piece to companies that represent public speakers. Better yet, find a way to make it available to all those professionals – physicians, businessmen, scientists – who are not professional speakers and yet travel all over the world to share their knowledge in a given field. Talk about speeding up towards the end of a presentation!!!

        Some I’ve encountered have gone so far as to tell us interpreters to do the best we can. Hey, I’m not the one that paid to come to a conference to learn from the person on stage. Such speakers completely miss the point of their being in front of an audience.
        Loved your article.

        Thanks so much,

        Mexico City

        1. Dear Martha,
          Thank you for your comment. I very much appreciate it. In fact, some of the interpreters who read the post thought that it had to have been written by another interpreter! The reality (as you well know) is that the tips in the post are not rocket science; unfortunately, they are too seldom put into practice. I do what I can to share my posts with others. If you know of anyone who might benefit from this one, please do pass it along.
          Thanks again. Muchas gracias!

  4. Hi John,
    I’m a Chinese/English conference interpreter in Taiwan, and I cannot write a better piece of advice to speakers myself. You would not believe how thankful we would be if all speakers were as considerate and cooperative as you are. We should definitely have every speaker read this great article!

    1. Dear Damien,
      Many thanks for the comment and kind words. Xie xie! I am glad that you enjoyed the post. Please feel free to share it widely. I wish you many slow and articulate speakers for the future.

    2. Looking for a contact with you. I am a conference interpreter in Athens, Greece. Damienfan if I may, send me a contact to ix@bici.gr (Bureau d’Interpretes de Conferences Internationales – Grece.)
      Regards, Yann

  5. Hi John,
    thanks a lot for writing this! I’ve already shared it through a number of channels, and any interpreter whose speakers follow your advice can consider themselves lucky.
    There are two things that popped into my head while I was reading. Since I am a professional interpreter and you seem open-minded and curious, maybe you’d like to hear them?
    Re #1 – Choose good interpreters. Yes, yes and yes. Since everybody is allowed to call themselves “interpreter”, you definitely want to make sure your interpreter knows what they are doing. What I’d like to add is that especially in Europe, there are a lot of excellent training facilities (Trieste, Germersheim, Paris, Leipzig, to name but a few) and also, there are many professional associations like the AIIC (global), ATA (USA) or VKD (Germany). An interpreter with a degree or a membership of those usually has the education to reject a job they are not qualified for.
    Also, if you hire a good interpreter, pay them well! It may seem like stating the obvious, but keep in mind that your interpreter sometimes spends several days preparing for the conference or meeting, and if you hire them through an agency, that agency keeps a share of the money you pay.
    The rest of your article is also spot on. I can tell you’ve worked with a few of our kind and I’m glad somebody took the time to put this in writing. I think if people follow your advice, they will all end up hiring professional interpreters and including them nicely in their speech, and then they will really bring the message across!
    All the best,

    1. Dear Sonja,
      I very much appreciate your taking the time to write such a detailed comment and to share your additional tips. I will modify my post to refer people to your comment so that they are aware of your advice.
      Vielen Dank noch einmal für den Kommentar. (Ich kann ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen.)

  6. Thank you ;-). You have done a great job putting it all together, it is very useful.
    I work as an Interpreter (Polish+English) and really appreciate your post. I wish that all speakers will be as cooperative and mindful as you.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Emilia. Much appreciated. In fact, I have had some speaking engagements in Poland and wrote about one of them in this post, which you might find interesting. And, I will be going to Poznan again next month to speak.
      All the best.

    1. Thank you very much for the comment, Mariette. I watched the video. It is very powerful. It starts off very light-hearted but then turns very serious. I hope that it helps spread the message and that something can be done.

  7. Excellent, spot on article, good work. 🙂 Unfortunately, it’s a bit utopian, at least from my expereince.
    I rarely get the documentation at all (aren’t you a translator, why do you need that?); that someone will bring two sets made me chuckle; people almost never factor in additional time, which often results in them speaking even faster towards the end of the presentation. Once a guy was hurrying so much to finish his presentation, that he was literally gasping for breath at times.
    I never had an expereince of someone trying to connect with me at simultaneous translation, since often the cabins were in the back; once I was translating from a store room next to the conference room, where they somehow squeezed in a table and a dodgy monitor, so I could at least see what was happening inside.
    Anyway, I still like the job, I guess the occasional frustrations come with the territory. 😛

    1. Thank you for the comment, Miroslav. Much appreciated. Your comments about the post being “utopian” have been echoed by several other interpreters who have contacted me. Oh well, even if speakers pick up on one or two of the tips, it will be a better experience for everyone.
      I hear what you are saying about not making eye contact with the speaker. Much depends on the room. I have have spoken through interpreters when there were only 30 people in the room, so the booth was fairly close and seeing the interpreters was not a problem. Also, on those occasions, it was a multi-day conference where I spoke often. So I was able to discuss how things were going with the interpreters during the breaks. But yes, if the booths are far from the speaking area, there will be little opportunity for eye contact and signaling.
      Glad you are still enjoying the work.

  8. Hi John:
    In UN Peacekeeping training we have a full module called Negotiation, Mediation and working with interpreters. The tips we gave to peacekeepers are almost the same you mentioned in your article, and our source for those tips were basically the 70 years peacepeers had working in sometimes hostile environment and keeping a fragile peace using interpreters not allways professionals. On the other hand I think even in those situations, when the security of thousands of people depends on the eficiency of the intercultural/linguistic communication, there is not a utopia and the settings you must ensure before the negotiation.
    Good reading, well done.
    David Caceres. Former PK Trainer at UN DPKO.

    1. Dear David,
      Many thanks for the comment. Working through interpreters can be challenging even in the best of circumstances. I have a huge amount of respect for people working with interpreters (and the interpreters themselves!) in dangerous conflict situations. Congratulations for your work.

  9. Great article, John.
    I’m an Irish student currently working in a translation firm in Germany for the next 6 months, as I want to enter the professional field of translation and/or interpretation after university. I am currently working on newsletters highlighting the importance of proper and thorough translation / interpretation and this article of yours has been most insightful.
    With thanks,

  10. hi i m sahil and i m indian.i have problem i can’t speak in english proparly.please help me how i m improve my english.please advice

    1. Hello Sahil. There is not much that I can do from my end. I suggest that you listen to and watch a variety of English radio broadcasts, television shows or videos on the Internet. You might also consider taking classes in English, either in person or on line. There are a number of free resources on the Internet that might help. Just Google them. Good luck!

  11. Thank you a lot for such interesting and useful tips for people who want to learn foreign languages. I will definitely use your tips. I hope that you will continue sharing your experience and knowledge in this niche.

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