How to work with interpreters

I spend a lot of time working with interpreters, which can be trying. Interpretation is one of those things that it seems no one is ever entirely happy with. Someone always feels like some essential point or nuance didn’t make it through. This is occasionally true. But we work with some pretty skilled interpreters and most of the time the results are good.

A client once asked me to provide some hints on working with interpreters. I often put a paragraph or so on this into briefing books, especially for foreign execs that haven’t worked with interpreters before, but I had never really thought systematically about it. Considering how crucial interpretation is to our work, it was overdue. A lot of this is common sense, as you will see, but I did receive some valuable feedback. I am indebted to several interpreters, translators (a different art altogether) and blog commenters who shared their thoughts with me as I developed this.

Here are my guidelines for working with interpreters:

Give the interpreter the time and materials they need to prepare

Every company and industry has its own specialized set of language, terms and even jargon. Interpreters may not necessarily be familiar with this before working with your company. Make sure that interpreters are given a selection of printed materials in both languages that they can study prior to any event. The more specific these materials are to the substance of your speech or discussion the better. Technical materials can be especially important. Where possible, give them complete text of speeches and press announcements in advance. Even if you advise them to translate as actually delivered, the materials will help them prepare and provide the best possible translation.

It is also a good idea to meet with interpreters for a few minutes prior to an event so they can get an idea of your spokesperson’s accent and rhythms of speech and ask any questions they may have.

Find two or three interpreters you like and stick with them where possible

Once an interpreter is used to your company, style and language, it will be much easier for them to prepare for subsequent events and deliver solid results, especially if you deal in highly specialized topics or terminology. Where possible, groom a pool of two or three interpreters over time so you have multiple options handy.

Understand the differences between consecutive and simultaneous interpretation

There are two kinds of interpretation, consecutive and simultaneous. Consecutive interpretation is where you say something and then wait while an interpreter nearby repeats it. Simultaneous interpretation (“UN-style”) is where you say something and it is translated simultaneously by an interpreter in a soundproof booth, who can be heard over headsets worn by audience members.

Both consecutive and simultaneous interpretation are commonly used in China. Both have the same demands for preparation and familiarity. Simultaneous interpretation is more expensive, technically demanding and often a little less accurate (no do-overs, clarifications or correction). It does, however, preserve the flow of a speech or presentation since a speaker need not wait for interpretation to catch up. Consecutive interpretation is cheaper, more flexible and forgiving. It does require speakers to pace themselves, however.

In general consecutive translation is used for smaller or more intimate events or where budget or technical constraints make simultaneous interpretation impractical. It is also often a better choice when translation has to be particularly accurate. Simultaneous interpretation is generally better for large events and mixed audiences where interpretation has to go in both directions, and where time constraints make consecutive interpretation impractical. It is also the only choice when something needs to be translated into multiple languages for an audience.

Budget for time when using consecutive interpretation

A forty-minute speaking slot with consecutive interpretation leaves time for roughly a twenty-minute speech. A twenty-minute Q&A with consecutive interpretation is really a ten-minute Q&A. And so on. Plan accordingly, especially when deciding how much time to allow for media or audience questions.

When dealing with consecutive interpretation, mind your pacing

Enthusiastic executives sometimes forget about the interpretation and ramble on. Stay mindful of the interpreter and keep each statement to a paragraph or a few sentences. Pacing is helpful for the interpreter, but a good interpreter can stay with you for a surprisingly long time and still often deliver a solid interpretation. An audience, however, will tune out very rapidly listening to something they don’t understand for too long.

There is no hard and fast rule for how often to break. A greeting can be interpreted after one sentence. A complex chain of thought might go on for one or two minutes. Look for subject or pace changes as natural breaking points, and discuss with your interpreter beforehand if necessary. Don’t err too far on the side of caution and speak one sentence at a time. An interpreter will often require a few sentences for context in order to provide an accurate interpretation. While pacing for interpretation can feel like it disrupts the flow of a speech or presentation, spokespeople rapidly get used to it.

If you are working from a prepared text, mark potential break points in advance. While a good interpreter can follow natural speech comfortably, make sure your pace stays measured. If you are delivering particularly technical or complex messages, ensure that you give the interpreter a little extra space to work with.

It may not be a good idea to have someone from inside your company interpret

Good interpreters are trained and experienced. Interpreting well requires more than simply knowing both languages; it also requires a systematic approach to note taking, capturing key points and preserving the essence of meaning in statements and idioms that may not cross cultures. Also, while someone from inside your company may know your terminology well, they may either forget they are interpreting or introduce their own biases into interpretation (both of which I have seen happen).

There may be times when it makes sense to have an employee or PR consultant translate, if a professional is not available, if there are extreme confidentiality issues that can not be adequately addressed with outside personnel, or in informal situations such as a dinner where the discussion is casual or brief. But most of the time a professional interpreter is the best choice.

Don’t be surprised if the interpretation isn’t exact

Interpretation is an inexact science, especially as it is a “live” process. An interpreter at an event, who can see facial expressions and sense the atmosphere of an event, might interpret differently than a translator working from a written transcript of the event. Fast speakers may also find that details get filtered out in favor of key points.

Good interpretation carries the facts and essential tone of a speaker’s message. It may not capture specific phrases or even the exact arrangement of ideas. This can be due to the demands of different languages, the need to work around cultural issues, or the fundamental limitations of the interpretation process. Warn spokespeople who may see their speeches or Q&A back-translated into English that what they are reading has been translated twice, and may not exactly reflect what they said.

Although interpretation is inexact, it should be accurate and consistent. Don’t work with interpreters that are error prone or introduce their own biases or ideas into interpretation. But also do what you can to make the interpreter successful.

Don’t daisy-chain interpreters

People sometimes want to do this when they can’t find the interpreter they need in China. If they can’t find a Korean-to-English interpreter here, they consider using a Korean-to-Mandarin interpreter and then a Mandarin-to-English interpreter. In this situation you’d be better off flying somebody in from Korea. It will be worth the money. Your event will be an order of magnitude less awkward and your interpretation more accurate. Don’t play “telephone” when your reputation is on the line.

Never assume an audience doesn’t speak your language just because you’re using an interpreter

Many Chinese people, especially in professional circles, understand some English. They may understand it much better than they can speak it. Even when working with an interpreter, assume the audience understands you. Have a local staff member vet your English speech or presentation for cultural appropriateness beforehand, and don’t assume an interpreter will correct problems. Don’t discuss confidential or irrelevant information in front of the audience and assume that language will protect you.

Review interpretation after an event and see what problems need to be addressed next time

After working with an interpreter, sit down with your local team and the interpreters as well if possible and review the delivery for any problems or pitfalls that should be addressed in future. Go over the transcript if you have one. If local staff members complain about interpretation, make them be specific about their complaints. Complaining about interpreters is a favorite sport since the quality of interpretation is a rather subjective thing. Learn to differentiate real problems –issues of substance or accuracy– from disagreements over style or word-choice.

Blaming the interpreter is not an acceptable PR defense…

…unless you want to accuse your own PR staff or agency of incompetence in the process. A well-prepared interpreter should not cause you PR problems. If you are dealing with sensitive information, such as financial or crisis situations, pre-event preparation should be appropriately thorough and your own Chinese-speaking staff should monitor interpretation for accuracy during the event and intervene if clarification is necessary.

For more advice see the International Association of Conference Interpreters’ (AIIC) guidelines at These are oriented toward simultaneous interpretation, but have some broadly applicable points. It includes such helpful hints as a reminder not to test microphones by tapping on them or blowing into them when simultaneous interpreters are listening to the audio feed over headphones.

The Chairman would like to ask you about "Laugh In".

The Chairman would like to ask you about “Laugh In”.

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