Lost in translation?

Facilitators, trainers, speakers and others have been sharing their tips on working with interpreters and translators.  Thanks everyone.   (And thanks to Ian Andersen for reminding me that spoken language is interpreted, not translated!)

Here’s some of the advice collected so far: please let me know more about success with interpretation and pitfalls to avoid, in the comments or by email.

Cut the content

Ian Ellison, who heads up sustainability at Jaguar Land Rover and is a colleague of mine over at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), suggests you focus on key messages and be prepared to say less than normal. 

“Live translation into Chinese was my most illuminating experience - I cut the content by about 60% to allow for translation and clarification. In the end I realised that's what I should present normally - it was much clearer and more memorable.”

Cut the process

The same advice comes from process facilitator Cameron Fraser.  He says “Plan to do less. Everything always takes longer with simultaneous translation.” 

This is for everyone’s benefit.  “It’s also very tiring for the facilitator, and probably the participants as well... watching someone for expressions and body language, and listening to their tone of voice in order to have a better sense of their thinking, while hearing a different voice in your ears, is very demanding intellectually.”

Team up

Cameron also suggests working with a co-facilitator. 

“I always like to have a co-facilitator. This helps deal with the fatigue issues. In an ideal world the co-facilitator speaks the second language (assuming it’s only one) so they can provide a sense of how accurate the simultaneous translation is. Remember that translators rarely have direct experience of the business at hand. The translation may be technically correct but missing the nuance that people doing similar work in the same language share.”

Slow it down, keep it simple

Martin Gilbraith, on twitter as @martingilbraith, says “Be careful not to speak too fast for the interpreters to translate!” 

Also from twitter, Orchard Alerind aka @rcdl works most often with sign-language interpreters.  Orchard says that interpretation takes time and that technical vocabulary will need definitions.  Stick to Plain English principles, and try to avoid the kind cultural references which will just confuse people.  It’s this kind of stripped-back approach which means that two foreigners speaking a lingua franca will understand each other better than one native speaker conversing with a second language speaker.

Build in more time to allow people to digest what you've said, says Mark Simpkins, who has worked in aviation and aerospace. Mark suggests pausing for "15 to20 seconds, where nothing is being said to allow it to be digested. Also, check understanding more regularly."

Do the paperwork

Flips, handouts, slides.... all your written material needs thinking about too.  Chris Grieve advises:

"Provide supporting written material in advance: copies of any papers and ppts, instructions for activities, discussion questions. Provide participants with key documents in their language, including a glossary of terms, if budget and time permit."

Prepare with the interpreter

The likelihood of needing to use specialist terminology means that it’s really useful to prepare ahead of time with the interpreter.

Engineer Helen Udale-Clarke, has worked with teams of interpreters. 

“It's particularly challenging for technical lectures/presentations, where you are using very specific technical terminology or jargon. Often translators work in teams and switch during your lecture, and it can get confusing for the listener if different translators use different terminology. So a glossary of key words ahead of time can be very useful, as it (a) can help them to identify the most appropriate translation and (b) means they are more likely to be consistent with their translations. Good for the translator and the listener.”

Claire Boyles of Success Matters helps people set up their own small businesses and is a professional speaker.  She advises that you talk to the interpeter before you start, partly to check out what speed they can cope with.  “Unless you're talking very fast you shouldn't have to modify yourself too much, if you've got a good translator, but quality of translators will vary.”  Claire recommends that people check out the “Speakers Corner” facebook group which includes lots of people with experience of speaking to multilingual audiences.

You can still be creative!

Stuart Reid is an organisational consultant.  His experience shows that you don't have to be tied down to an ultra-planned script.

I ran an improvisation training event earlier this year, and had a very enjoyable experience with simultaneous translation.

The thing that helped me most was being able to meet and talk to my translator ahead of time, and send her descriptions by email of some of the games I was going to be playing. The most important part of that was to help her understand the *purpose* of the exercises - what I was intending to do with the group and why.

My translator also moved around the room with me and stayed in my line of sight so that she and I could make eye contact. That way she could let me know if I needed to pause for a while to let her catch up. I also had to learn how much I could say before needing to pause.

Most of the participants spoke Turkish, but occasionally one would reply to me in English. I needed to pause before continuing the conversation, to give my translator time to translate the reply back into Turkish for the benefit of the rest of the participants.

Understand the equipment and its implications

Some interpreters work with headsets, so only those who need the second language receive it.  In other situations, the interpreter will be repeating what you said to the whole room.  If you have a sign-language interpreter, they need to be very visible.  However it is being done, there will be delay before the audience hears your nugget of wisdom, hilarious joke or crucial piece of instruction.

It helps to know in advance what equipment will be used, and how it works in the venue.  Make sure there’s time built in for the equipment to be checked. 

In one piece of work I did, there was four-way simultaneous interpretation.  The microphones and headsets were built into the tables, which were bolted to the floor.  There was no possibility of getting people to move around or form small groups.  (Plus, the interpreters had a very good union and insisted on two-hour lunch breaks, so the meetings had to have two-hour lunch breaks as well.)

Consider who’s interpreting for whom

Think through who is going to be speaking, and listening, in which language.  If you’re a presenter speaking one language, and the whole audience speaks another language, you’ll need someone to interpret your presentation or instructions into their language.  But when they’re working in small groups, they won’t need interpretation.  You’ll then need interpretation to understand their feedback or questions to you.

Sometimes, the group speaks multiple languages.  There may be sensitivities and power dynamics around this.  I have worked in bilingual groups where everyone understood language A, but only some of the group spoke or understood language B.  Both were official languages.  Those who couldn’t speak or understand language B felt excluded and marginalised, even threatened, when it was being used.  The interpreter was there to translate language B into language A.  Why did anyone use language B, when everyone could understand and speak language A?  Language A was seen by some as a colonial language, and was the second language of some in the group. Speaking language B was both an assertion of reclaimed power and ‘two fingers’ to those seen as incomers.  I had long conversations with my (bilingual) client about how to handle this, including getting her suggestions around ground rules, whether to have mixed small groups and whether to request group feedback flips to be written in language A or not.

Ground rules

Depending on the kind of event, you may want to agree some ways of working with the group which take account of different language needs.  These should ensure that everyone is able to understand what others are saying or writing.  For example, think about how people can access interpretation outside of plenary sessions.  People who can speak in more than one language can be guided to consider others’ needs when making a choice about what language to use. 

Find out more

The European Commission's Directorate General for Interpretation provides interpreters for over 10,000 meetings every year. So they've got a lot of experience to draw on.  Their helpful guidelines are here. Thanks again to Ian Andersen for sharing this link. 

Admire and enjoy!

Yes, it will add stress and complexity to be working with interpreters.  And we can learn so much from their skill in thinking in two languages, considering nuance, improvising and concentrating, and having access to a diversity of world views. And through their skill, we can talk and listen to new people, forming relationships across cultural, ethnic and linguistic boundaries.  What's not to love about that?


Picture: http://www.wikihow.com/Say-Good-Luck-in-Multiple-Languages http://www.wikihow.com/User:Wikiphoto

Thanks to Julian Walker, for the question that prompted this blog post.

Update - this article from Beatrice Briggs on the IAF website has some other useful ideas.