Can an interpreter really make or break a conference?

Yes! He or she can and this makes the profession of interpreting a very delicate one.

It’s common sense to know that there’s no room for mistakes during interpreting. However, interpreting requires more than a 100% accurate and flawless translation of the messages between sender and receiver. An an interpreter, you are literally the “voice” of the speaker. During simultaneous interpreting, an interpreter sits in a noise isolated booth and is only audible to the audience through the headsets. The word for word translation needs to be fully accurate. Intonations and short silences at the right time are crucial. When an interpreter has to provide consecutive interpreting on a stage or in front of an audience, this changes everything. Now it’s not only about the accuracy of the sentences and the right intonation anymore. Important factors like body language, attire and facial expressions come in. The translation is not only supposed to be perfect, the interpreter has to be dressed professional (suitable to the kind of meeting or event), mirror the speaker’s tone and emotions by right usage of voice, body language and mimics. It has happened to me several times that I have attended meetings as an audience (instead of an interpreter) and I observed the speaker to be very enthusiastic and energetic while the interpreter sounded monotonous with low energy and engagement in the topic. This can break the effectivity of the speaker’s message. Personally I find it important and motivating to take over the speaker’s energy both verbally as physically. If the speaker is standing, I make sure that I stand next to him/ her and sound and move in the same rhythm like he/ she does. This does not only motivate the audience but also the speaker whose message is strengthened by non verbal factors integrated in the interpreting process. The same goes if we are dealing with a slow speaking speaker who has little excitement or puts emphasis in certain words or sentences. As an interpreter, you have to make sure that you don’t talk faster or use different intonations than the speaker.

What if the speaker talks extremely fast and you have a hard time to keep up with the translation? Now this is a tricky one. Sometimes speakers can get nervous and start to rush through their speech or presentation or they are simply not experienced or aware that there is an interpreter who is assigned to translate his/ her speech. What do you do in a semi-crisis situation where sentences are rolling over the speaker’s mouth, you are at the beginning of the speech while he/ she is already halfway and people in the audience are turning back and looking at the booth making eye contact with you, trying to understand why the translation is so slow or paused. Now, I have had some of those moments where sweat drops appeared on my forehead and I had to stay calm yet resolve the situation. The good news is, if you have a booth partner next to you, you are lucky. You sign to the booth partner or you write on a piece of paper to go talk to the organization. The organizer gets informed about the talking speed of the speaker and brings a note to the speakers or whispers in his/ her ear to slow down. But….there have been occasions where I have been alone in the booth because of the short length of a meeting or press conference (usually an hour or hour and a half can be done alone). That makes the situation a bit more complicated. In those situations I knock on the glass and sign to the sound technicians that the speaker needs to be notified about the talking speed and the presence of the interpreter. If the technician is fast, the problem can be resolved quickly. If he’s shy to walk up the stage or prefers to find someone from the organization, this slows down or interrupts the interpreting during the conference.

Sound is another crucial topic that can evenly make or break an interpreting event. Sometimes the sound system can be old or have a technical issue which affects the sound coming into the booth. When an interpreter can’t hear the speaker clearly, this holds up the interpreting and you can definitely count on turning heads and confused looks from the audience. They want to know what is being said and have no clue that the interpreter does not hear the speaker like they do. There have been so many situations where I had to stay calm and composed and try to resolve sound issues and stay concentrated to resume the interpreting process as soon as possible. You may think, don’t you do a soundcheck before you start any conference or event? Absolutely! But technical equipment can take it own course during the event and intervene with other equipment and create interesting situations. I like to compare interpreting to life itself. Just like John Lennon said ” Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”. It unfolds just the way it wants while you think you have it under control. Every interpreting assignment is another experience that I add to my basket of memories. Even if some of them are totally unexpected and mess up all the plans, after a while they manage to bring a smile on my face!

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