When the speaker has a heavy accent.

October 23, 2013 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am sure that the title to this article immediately brought some memories to each one of you. A speaker’s heavy accent is one of the most common, yet toughest, problems that a professional interpreter has to overcome in order to provide a high quality service.

A few years ago I was hired to interpret for a medical conference where the main speaker was a very well-known scientist whose research had put him on the run for a Nobel Prize.  The topic was complex and the event was very important. Several hundred physicians, chemists, nurses, and other health professionals had paid a hefty ticket to attend this presentation.  Going by the book, the moment I took the assignment I began my research and studied for the assignment. I worked alone and I worked with the colleague who was going to be my partner in the booth for this job. I should mention that my partner was also a very good and experienced conference interpreter.

The date of the conference finally arrived and I traveled to the city where it was going to take place.  The presentation was going to be on a Monday starting early in the morning, and there was a scheduled reception for all attendees on Sunday evening. One of the perks of the job is that sometimes you get invited to these events, so my colleague and I went to the reception. It is hard to pass on champagne and good caviar!

The following morning I got to the booth with plenty of time to check the equipment and put out any fires if any. My colleague arrived at the same time I did. Everything seemed to be alright. This was before the I-pad/ laptop days and the booths were upstairs in a mezzanine above the conference floor. We had to carry all of our materials upstairs.

The program started and the president of the professional association hosting the workshop came on stage to welcome everybody and introduce the main speaker: Dr. John Doe (real name withheld for obvious reasons) I started the interpretation session that morning, so by the time Dr. Doe was due to appear on stage it was time to switch in the booth. My colleague took over, and as he was adjusting his headphones we saw an oriental man walk on the stage. This was Dr. Doe! “…But…it can be…” I said. He has an American western name.  Well, that was he.  As some of you may know, in the United States anybody can change his name to any name he chooses, and as long as you don’t defraud your creditors, from that point on you are that person. We had studied the speaker’s research work, academic history, every single piece of paper that had his name on it. There was nothing about his place of birth anywhere. There was no way we could have known that he was not a native speaker; and frankly, we never even thought of that possibility.

Dr. Doe took the microphone and started to speak.  You couldn’t understand a thing of what he was saying!!! Absolutely nothing!!! His accent was that thick.  My colleague turned towards me and gestured that he didn’t understand any of Dr. Doe’s speech. I didn’t either.

To this day I don’t know why, but at that point I looked into the conference room as if looking for I don’t know what, and I saw this blonde woman sitting to the side in the very back of the auditorium.  I immediately remembered that I had seen her the night before at the reception next to the oriental man now known to me as Dr. Doe.  I figured that she had to be his wife, girlfriend, assistant, agent, or something similar.  In other words, I thought that she must understand his English.  I signaled to my colleague, who was struggling with the rendition, that I would be right back and I left the booth.

When I approached the blonde lady and I explained our predicament she laughed really hard. I learned that she was Dr. Doe’s wife, she was American by birth, spoke English clearly, and she was able to understand her husband’s English.  I asked for her help.

I went back to the booth accompanied by Mrs. John Doe.  We put a third chair in the booth so she could have a seat. Because of the size of the both we had to leave the door open. We gave her a set of headphones and asked her to repeat everything her husband said. In fact we asked her to interpret from her husband’s English into regular English.  We did relay interpreting from her English into Spanish.  We also used her rendition for the other booths (Portuguese and French as I recall) Very soon the only people who couldn’t understand Dr. Doe were the English speakers as they didn’t have the benefit of a booth. It was funny to see those English speakers looking around and realizing that everybody else was getting the presentation but them.   After much suffering, at the end of the day the Spanish booth was the “hero” that saved the day.  Of course, it was due to my experience and ability to think quickly and to solve a problem. Had I not attended the reception the day before, or had I not remembered the blonde lady by Dr. Doe’s side, we would have had a very difficult experience instead of an anecdote that has been repeated hundreds of times. I would love to hear some of your stories telling us how you were able to overcome an obstacle during a rendition.

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§ 16 Responses to When the speaker has a heavy accent.

  • duangtip says:

    That was really resourceful of you.At least the speaker did not turn his back to the audience. I remember a session where the speaker had an impossibly thick Italian accent and we had great difficulty understanding him already when he turned his back to the audience to look at the screen !!! (But he was not reading from the slide either so we could not even see him moving his lips).. Needless to say, it was a total disaster.

  • I loved your anecdote, it took me back about 16 years when I was working in the Spanish booth at World conference for Olympic Medalists. We had three booths: Spanish, French and Russian. The Russian interpreter didn´t make it and there was a speech that a Russian medalist was to deliver on the third day of the conference — in Russian, of course!
    Another Russian medalist, who obviously spoke English, approached me during a coffee break on the first day and told me that he was very concerned that his friend’s address was not going to be interpreted and no one was going to understand her. We talked for a while and came up with a solution: that night he sat with his friend and transcribed her speech by hand in English. The next day he gave me this transcription, which I edited and typed into a Word document. I printed the document and took it with me the next day. We gave a copy of the speech in English to the conference organizer who made copies for all English speakers and when the Russian athlete took the floor, she gave a very emotional and inspiring speech in Russian as I made a sight “translation” with the help and body language guidance of her friend (who, throughout, made hand signals to me to help keep my rendition at the same pace as the original speech). It was wonderful: the speaker was very happy and grateful, she had traveled so far to tell her story and didn’t want it to be lost. At the end of the conference, both Russian athletes went to the Spanish booth and gave me a hug: the best part of all.

  • Jaime Sotomayor says:

    I have had similar experiences, but within the courtroom/consecutive envirorment in Federal Court in Puerto Rico. I have had to “shadow” English-speaking witnesses from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Belize who the Jurors and other people in Court could not understand. But the most “awkward” of these experiences was having to “recreate” the testimony of a “Newyorican” (Puerto Rican from New York) teenager who had moved back to Puerto Rico, because nobody in the courtroom could understand his Engish nor his Spanish. I had no probem understanding him because I have cousins from New York and they and their children speak that “lingo”, so I have had to adapt! I felt like I was listening to the detective character that Edward James Olmos played in the movie “Blade Runner”!

  • Cris Silva says:

    Tony,
    You are a rock star! Not only because you’re an amazing interpreter, but because you were bold enough to come up with this, on the fly. Kudos to you! Will steal this idea!

  • Once we had a serious problems with a group of Chinese, presenting at a Conference. They couldn’d understand our English ( I had to communicate through gestures with them) and their power point presentations were in Chinese! We did our best to interpret them, in respect to the audience, but it was pretty tough. One resource I use nowadays is to look up the youtube for videos of the speakers. It helps a lot.

  • Ode Laforge says:

    I love your story, Tony!
    It gladens my heart to know I wasn’t the only one to have problems understanding a speaker with a foreign accent!
    How could I ever forget the embarrasment and distress I was going through during one of my very first interpreter jobs!
    The speaker was a Brasilian lady, with a very, very strong Brasilian accent. Fortunately, she knew it, and she immediately understood my problem. She tried her best to pronounce the English words, but it was really hard for me to rapidly make out what she was saying.
    After a few minutes, I noticed that her biggest difficulty was with the “il” sound, and I realized she pronounced it the way they do in Brazil, which is: “ew”. For example, “silver” was pronounced “sewver”, “illness” was pronounced “ewness”, “milk” was turned into “mewk”.
    Noticiting that point was a great help, and I kept particular attention each time I heard her say a word with the “ew” sound!
    She could speak a bit of French, and each time she felt I was in trouble, she said her words in French, with a smile to me and to the French audience.
    She is a charming person, with whom I’ve kept friendly relationship, and we often laugh together when we remember this time.
    Thank God, she speaks French very well now, and doesn’t need an interpreter any more when she lectures. Good news!! :-))

  • Joshua M. Goldberg says:

    I only had a heavy-accent issue once, and recently. I’m a Spanish Interpreter whose native language is English. I’ve never had any major problems understanding Spanish speakers, or with them understanding me. I never imagined that my first and only problem would be with an English speaker.

    I recently took a job interpreting for a meeting between an English speaking manager and his Spanish speaking staff. Unbeknownst to me until I got there was that the English speaking manager was from France, and spoke English with a very thick French accent. It was difficult, but I managed.

  • Thaïs Lipps says:

    Tony, what a great resource! Thanks for sharing. But you should write about when we are stuck with someone’s heavy accent with no possible alternative.🙂

  • Silvana Garetz says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience. One thing that I have tried to do in the past, when I have had the opportunity to interpret at conferences for well-known speakers, is immediately request as much information about the conference itself, the presenters’ background, specific subjects that will be covered and so on and so forth. Then, I immediately go online and begin searching under the name of the presenter(s) which usually results in very useful information,including previous presentations they might have done in the past. This allows me to learn not only about their speech patterns, but also about the usual content of their presentations. The media I usually go to are youtube, google, and any other specific sites related to the speaker’s field of expertise. In your case, however, the presenter was a foreigner and the research would have not suffice to prepare the interpreters for the challenges related to the peculiarities in the speech patterns of the presenter.
    Best,

  • sonja swenson says:

    Haha once in France I was in the English booth at an international youth conference on peace. The big event was a q/a with a Liberian speaker via speakerphone. Most of the participants were Northern European or French, with a smattering of native English speakers. An American was given the honors of asking the woman questions from the group. The day before during a French-subtitled film about her, it was clear none of the non-native English speakers understood a word. My colleague and I had to do Liberian-English and the French interpreters took us on relay. I believe a lot of the Germanic speakers listened to us, too.

  • Amy says:

    How very resourceful! I’m still laughing about the English-speakers being the only ones not to understand the presentation!

  • Katerina says:

    This is really a great story, showing how inventive interpreters must be! Thank you Tony! I’ve come severtal times across non-native speakers trying to speak English and I must say that the Italians and French are particularly challenging. But the worst experience I’ve ever had was with Japanese. I work from severtal languages into Czech and have attended a few meetings with Japanese speakers. Sometimes the organizers know the problem and give us their speeches in written in advance. Fortunately, in the most cases the speakers keep to their script word by word. But once I was at a meeting where there was a Japanese-English booth, doing great job with relay. But at a certaing moment they kept silent. Other booths gesticulated at them vehemently but they just shrugged their shoulders and tried to convey the message that the speaker was actully speaking English!! We really couldn’t have guessed. It was then just a work of improvisation. Understanding few words and making a convincing story around them….

  • sonja swenson says:

    Hearing all of these stories is just a reminder of why the English booth shouldn’t be forgotten, as it often is on the US private market! Everyone sounds smarter in his or her mother tongue, and even if my colleagues and I are usually not the busiest booth, we are the one everyone else needs to listen to!

  • antoine vieau says:

    You forgot to mention that you also saved the Middle-East peace process that day (and helped a Unicorn deliver twins).

  • That is a priceless story!
    Especially the part about the only people not getting the English presentation, the English.
    Thanks for sharing and congratulations on your quick-thinking then!

  • Claudia says:

    Very interesting indeed, Tony!

    I was wondering whether anyone encountered any difficulties with strong *native* accents, though. I sometimes prefer to work from my native language into English because at least I’m sure I’ll get 100% of what the speaker says. When the speaker has a strong Scottish or Geordie accent, for instance, I just break out in a cold sweat…

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