The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 1.

August 21, 2014 § 24 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. This time we will talk about those things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with all of them, some, or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Just like we have done it before, today we will discuss the first five, and we will deal with the rest next in a few weeks. Here we go:

ONE.  When the speaker constantly switches between languages. Sometimes we get to an event to find out that the person that is going to speak is fluent in both languages of our combination. That is not bad news of course. The real problem is when this individual comes to the booth and kindly announces that she will be switching back and forth between both languages to keep the audience “engaged.” Of course we all know what this means to us: This will be the interpretation from hell! There are very few things more difficult to achieve than a good rendition when you have to constantly switch from one language to the other, often in the same sentence. This is very taxing on the interpreter and it can lead to “brain confusion” when our poor little brain cannot distinguish anymore and ends up interpreting into the source language (English into English for example) because after so many switches it becomes difficult to switch in the middle of an idea. Therefore, this is a nightmare for the interpreters, but if this is confusing to us, trained professionals who are bilingual and do this for living every day, can you imagine the confusion in the audience? These individuals went to the event to learn something and all of a sudden they find themselves with a headache and zero understanding of what is going on; And to top it off, while these chaos is going on in the booth and the floor of the auditorium, the speaker is ecstatic that she is showing off her command of both languages, her perfect pronunciation and grammar, her lack of accent. No way. My friends and colleagues, this is unacceptable! We have to protect the speaker, the audience, the interpreters’ sanity, and the event. Just imagine the total confusion if there is a dedicated booth for each of the two languages. First, we must understand that most speakers who are truly bilingual decide to do this for the benefit of their audience (some of them even remember the interpreters and decide to do this to give us a “break”). If the switch happens unannounced in the middle of the event, and it becomes obvious that this will be happening during the entire speech, you draw straws, or somehow decide who will bite the bullet, and while one interpreter will have to do the switching back and forth, the other one will communicate to the presenter that she must stay in one language because it is impossible to switch back and forth. This can be succinctly explained in a very respectful professional handwritten note that should be handed to the speaker as soon as possible, even when the speaker has a security detail and it is difficult to approach her. When the event has not started, or in the above scenario after the event, the interpreters have to sit down with the presenter and permanently solve this situation by explaining the difficulties of interpreting when the orator constantly switches back and forth. Make her understand that it will be very difficult for the audience because unlike her, they are not bilingual, so they will be confused and they will have to be putting on and taking off the headsets over and over again; and more importantly, explain that she will look better to her entire audience if she stays with one language. At that point you can even let her choose the language she prefers (unless she is clearly better in one of the two). It is likely that you, as the interpreter, will have to be somewhat flexible and agree to the occasional word or phrase in the other language; just explain to the speaker that there is the possibility that her words be lost to some of the audience as they may not be agile enough to pick up the headphones that quickly. She may then agree to eliminate these phrases. You may have to go along with a couple of questions being answered in the other language. This is fine as long as she announces it, gives the audience plenty of time to put on their earpiece, and sticks to one language throughout her answer.

TWO.  When the speaker insists on talking in a language he really does not speak. There are plenty of times when the speaker thinks that he is bilingual but in reality he is not. We already saw the difficulties of interpreting a real bilingual individual who switches back and forth between both languages. This time the problem is quite different. Here we have a situation where the presenter truly believes that his second language is good enough for a speech. This is the typical individual who feels that he can be understood in the foreign language because when he visits the other country he has no problem ordering a beer or asking for the bathroom. If a person begins his presentation let’s say, in English, and a few minutes later, already into the speech, he announces that because he goes to Cancún for two weeks every year, he has learned Spanish and he will now deliver the rest of his remarks in Spanish, the interpreters are in for a very bumpy ride. There are several possible situations: If the person pulls out a piece of paper and starts reading a written speech and the interpreters have it in the booth, even if the person cannot pronounce half of the words correctly, the booth can sight translate the speech for the benefit of half of the audience. Those who speak the language that the speaker thinks he is reading out loud will have to figure out what he is saying. Chances are that between the occasional giggles, they will be able to understand enough to know what the speech is about. If the interpreters do not have the speech in the booth, they will be in a similar position as the audience described above. They will certainly use their experience and skill to protect the speaker and deliver the message, but it will not be good, or pretty. Many times the hardest interpretation is when the person is speaking without a written speech and his vocabulary, syntax, grammar, pronunciation and accent are so bad that the interpreter cannot fully grasp the topic, or at least some parts of the presentation, including names, places and figures that are usually among the most frequent mistakes made by those who do not speak a language fluently. At this point what always happens is that people from the audience start yelling words to help the speaker complete his sentences. This looks terrible, but it actually helps the interpreter because he now understands the words that are being yelled by the audience. In this case the solution is similar to the one above. Most speakers will stick to their native language after reading the interpreters’ note. Most presenters will never attempt to do this again in the future; but be aware of the real world: There will be, now and then, stubborn individuals, as well as those who will feel offended by the interpreters’ suggestion and will do the speech in the foreign language regardless. Under these circumstances the interpreter simply does his best as explained above, but he also communicates with the agency, event organizer, or sponsor, so they are aware of what is happening. Remember, they do not speak the foreign language either, and unless you let them know what is really happening, they will just assume that everything is going great and their speaker is bilingual. One more thing that may need to be done in extreme cases when the speaker is just a total disaster, is to let the audience know, through the interpreting equipment, in a very professional and respectful way, that part of the speech is being lost due to the fact that the booth cannot figure out everything the speaker is saying. Most people will understand what you are referring to because even when you do not speak a language, many times you can tell if the person speaking is doing it with fluency or not. They will also know that everybody is aware of the problem, and that you cared enough to let them know instead of simply ignoring them. The only thing to add is that in those cases when the temporary and permanent solutions above will not work because of the speaker, you will have to make a choice as to whether or not you will work with that individual again in the future.

THREE.  When the speaker speaks away from the microphone. There is a universal principle in the interpreting world: You cannot interpret what you cannot hear. It seems obvious right? Well, it may be obvious, but it is not universally known or understood. There are plenty of speakers who tend to move away from the microphone as they speak. When there is a podium with a fixed microphone, often times the speakers try to be more “convincing” by furiously gesticulating in all directions. This often means that they may be facing in the opposite direction from the microphone, making it extremely difficult for those in the booth to hear what they say. Other presenters feel the need to get closer to their audience, so they leave the podium area and walk all over the stage without a microphone; some of them even go down to the well to mingle with the crowd; all of this while constantly speaking without even thinking that microphones are there for a reason. Of course, although difficult to hear them, those sitting in the audience will be able to hear all or part of the speech, but the interpreters upstairs in the booth will hear nothing, even with the door open it will be very difficult to hear this speaker over the interpreter’s own voice; then there is the group of speakers who use a wireless microphone, either a lapel mike, a handheld, or one of those you put over your head and next to your mouth, but they do not turn them on! Finally, there are those instances when the sound system is not working and the show must go on. Obviously, the temporary solution for those who move away or speak away from the fixed microphone is to ask them, on a very professional and courteous manner, to speak into the microphone and stay behind the podium. Those who forget to turn their microphone on should be reminded to turn it on; the real challenge arises in those cases when the sound system is toast and the show must go on. There are several possible solutions to this problem. First, if there is portable interpreting equipment as a backup in the facility, use it. The interpreters would have to leave the booth and move to a table on the stage where they can be close to the speaker and hear him without the benefit of a microphone. The speaker will have to speak louder anyway so that those who do not need interpretation can hear him, so the interpreters will have to turn on their bat radar and listen carefully. For the solution to work, the interpreter doing the rendition will have to speak into the portable transmitter’s microphone on a whispered mode (chuchotage) in order to hear the speaker over his own voice; this will put a tremendous strain on the interpreter’s voice, so there will be shorter shifts and more recesses for the interpreters to rest their voice. If there is no backup portable interpreting equipment at the facility, the presentation will have to switch to the consecutive interpreting mode. The audience will have to get closer to the stage so that they can hear the interpreter, and they will have to be warned of the fact that the speech will take longer because of the interpretation. Another, and most desirable solution, would be to temporarily suspend the presentation while the event organizer or technical team fix the system or provide a backup. As a permanent solution to these scenarios, interpreters should discuss basic protocol with the speaker, asking him to always turn the microphone on, to always speak into the microphone, and to repeat into the microphone the questions or comments by those who may speak without having the benefit of a microphone. It is important to let the speaker know that the interpreters work in a booth behind a closed door, and their only connection to the outside world is through their headphones that will receive everything that is being said into the microphone and nothing else. The speaker must be educated so he knows that, unlike a regular listener in the audience, simultaneous interpreters need to hear the speaker’s voice over their own voice, and speaking on an unnatural way, like whispering, can damage the interpreter’s work tools: his vocal chords. Most speakers may need a few reminders during the session, but they will immediately remember and react accordingly. Finally, a professional interpreter should always discuss Plan B with the event organizers, agency when applicable, and technical team. There should always be a backup system for everything that needs to be used during an event.

FOUR.  When the speaker taps on the microphone or says “hello” directly into the mike.  The vocal chords are an essential tool to the interpreter, so is his hearing. Throughout our career, every once in a while we are going to encounter speakers that identify themselves with rock stars and want to do a sound check like Keith Richards: They will turn on their microphone, and they will tap on it immediately after. Then again, some of them will just take the microphone next to their mouth, and here I include those who grab their lapel and pull the clipped mike towards their face, and say, in what they consider a very cool way, something like: “yessss!!!” or “testing…testing” or something else they saw in a concert sometime ago. All of these individuals feel great after they do this testing of the equipment. They think they looked cool, professional, and self-confident. Everybody else in the room agree with them; typically, some people in the audience will give them the thumbs up after they perform this sound check, others will simply smile; no one will think it is wrong. No one but the interpreters in the booth who are wearing headphones and have already adjusted the sound levels to what they need, in order to hear the speaker over their own voices. The result is awful and extremely painful. In general, interpreters hearing is very sharp because they are trained to listen and detect any word, any sound that comes from the speaker’s mouth. Imagine the combination of a very acute sense of hearing, a sound system (by the way, already checked by the technicians and adjusted to the taste and needs of that particular interpreter) already at the required level for the interpreter to deliver his rendition, and a person either furiously tapping on the mike, or doing a sound check that would make Bruce Springsteen proud. This is a practice that needs to be eradicated: Zero tolerance. The best way to address this issue and keep it from happening is to simply ask the sound engineer to let the speaker know that the equipment has been tested and that he does not need to test it again. This will hopefully give one of the interpreters enough time to leave the booth and explain to the presenter that there is very sensitive equipment in the booth, that the interpreters will be wearing headsets throughout the presentation, and that any tapping on the microphone, coughing into the mike, ruffling of clothes in case of a lapel microphone, or talk directly into the mike, will affect the interpreters directly; it is important to convey the potential consequences of doing any of this things, such as having an interpreter temporarily incapacitated from doing their job, or a very scary permanent hearing injury which would leave the interpreter without a way to make a living. Of course, an even better method would be to have the agency, event organizer, or sound technician speak to the presenter ahead of time, and even provide some written guide to public speaking that includes a chapter on working with the interpreter in the booth. Many reputable agencies and organizations, as well as most professional seasoned speakers, know of this potential problem, and they avoid this bad habits, but we as interpreters must remain alert in case a speaker slipped through the cracks. Unfortunately, this still leaves us with the occasional banger: the speaker who every now and then, in the middle of the speech will tap into the microphone to “make sure it is working.” This is the worst possible scenario. Some colleagues may disagree, but to me the pain is so sharp when they tap into the microphone, and the risk of losing my hearing is so high, that I truly have zero tolerance for this behavior. If this happens during the presentation and I have a way to communicate with the speaker from the dashboard in the booth, I will immediately do so; if I do not have this option, then I will ask the technician to please go to the stage immediately and ask the speaker to stop. Next, as soon as there is a break, I go straight to the speaker and let him know what happened, acting in a professional manner, I show him that I disliked what he did, and I try to get a commitment that he will pay more attention to what he is doing with the microphone. There have been many instances when I have screamed in pain when a speaker taps into the mike, and the audience has heard it in their headsets. There is nothing in the book of ethics or professional conduct that says that the interpreter must endure pain inflicted by the speaker’s conduct, and I will have zero tolerance for the rest of my career.

FIVE.  When the speaker slows down to a crawl. There are some very experienced presenters who have been speaking in public for years, they are well-known and popular; the only problem we have with them in the booth is that despite their long careers, they have never or rarely worked with a foreign language audience. They are not used to the interpreter. Now, these speakers are seasoned and they know what needs to happen to keep their audience’s attention and to drive their message; they know it so well that they come up with “homemade” solutions in order to have a successful presentation before a foreign language audience. The most common change to their public speaking habits is on the speed they use to deliver their message. They slow down to a crawl so that “the interpreters can keep up with the presentation.” Of course, all simultaneous interpreters know that this delivery does more harm than good. The speakers need to realize that their message needs to sound natural to keep the audience engaged, and as long as they speak slowly in the source language, the interpreters will inevitably end up speaking slower in the target language as well. The first thing that needs to happen when this situation arises is to immediately let the speaker know that he needs to speak normally, that he does not need to worry about the booth; that the interpreters are trained professionals who do this for living and they will be fine, in fact much better, if he speaks at a normal, natural speed. This can be accomplished through a direct communication such as a note or a brief message through the technician or one of the interpreters; Many times this is accomplished by signaling the speaker that he needs to speak faster. There are universal signs that almost everybody understands for this. Of course, the way to avoid this type of situation is to educate the speaker ahead of time. I believe that in this situation, when you have a speaker who does not usually work with a foreign language audience, it is the duty of the interpreter to let him know some basic rules and principles about working with an interpreter. One of these principles is precisely to ask the speaker to speak at a normal speed and forget about the interpreter. The presenter should let the interpreters do the worrying; that is part of their job, and they know how to do it.

These are the first five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. I will share the rest of my list in a few weeks. In the meantime, I invite you all to tell us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of my first five.

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§ 24 Responses to The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 1.

  • […] Source: The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 1. […]

    • Israfil Khakiyev says:

      Abbreviations could be a nightmare as well, particularly if you are supposed to interpret what a member of US delegation is speaking

      • hartmut says:

        Also problems with word-like acronyms , especially law names in Germany.

      • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

        Oh, yes! Those German Law acronyms are very nasty. I have a German-Portuguese law dictionary (James’) with a very useful list of those acronyms. And it is small, portable. Because looking for them on the Internet while you are in the booth is very often slower than looking for them in this small book.

  • Paul says:

    I hate it when a speaker uses a metaphor and then asks how I interpreted it. Often I’ve had to change it completely to make it understandable in the target language, then get asked in the middle of the presentation, “how did you translate ‘rabbit in the headlights’? Then I have to go back and explain the original metaphor, what I changed it to…. Mess all over the place!

    • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

      Well, and what about jokes which cannot be translated? I use the old rule of telling the audience: “The speaker has just made an untranslatable joke.Please, laugh!” And everybody laughs more than the original joke deserved!

  • Françoise says:

    Spot on! Well described and so true. Thanks for this reminder that we don’t have to suffer in silence all the time keeping a professional attitude.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Hello again, Tony!

    Yep, you’ve hit the nail right on the head with some of these howlers alright!

    On the first one, I can’t count how many times I’ve had to admonish the claimant, defendant or witness to speak in the same language in which they requested to have an interpreter. Here in the Southern and the Southwestern United States, “Code-switching” is almost the rule for the average Mexican-American person and / or other Spanish speakers who know a few words of English, but for those of us who are interpreters it becomes more like the session from hell and with that we understand why we like caffeine so much!

    The second one is a real pain because the speaker begins a lecture or presentation in the language they think “they know”, but it turns out to be a nightmare and makes for an extremely long and boring auditive inquisition-like experience with horrendous expressions that ask for a quick and painless death (for the interpreter, that is!) Please let the cobbler stick to his last!

    The third one is a real winner. I was interpreting one time at criminal court when a real “macho” detective with an attitude that would make anyone feel like a flea on a dinosaur, was questioning (on video at the detention facility) a poor and humble woman who was obviously very scared and ashamed of her actions. Well, let me tell you that I just happened to be the interpreter on that case in trial and when “Mr. Macho Detective” got up on the stand, he looked like a Chihuahua puppy with stage fright, constantly turning away from the mike and the courtroom and speaking in a voice that made a 3-year old girl sound like Wonder Woman on steroids. Anyway, I kept asking the judge to “please instruct the witness to speak up because the interpreter can’t hear him”. After the third time, he finally learned to face the court and speak INTO the mike. Well, I’m sure that took “Mr. Macho Detective” down a peg or two and in his case, “bow-wow” rhymed with “kowtow”!

    The fourth item is really tacky, seriously! Tapping on the mike after someone has already tested it? C’mon folks, do we really need to hear that? It’s so nineteen sixties!

    The fifth comment can surely drive the interpreter to linguistic desperation for a good while! I’ve been on interpretations where I already knew what the speaker was going to say, but since they had not said it yet, I had to wait in eternal agony until they finally spat it out! Whew, I thought I’d never end! In this particular case, our professional patience factor needs to kick in because not everyone speaks as fast as we’d like, especially speakers that exercise some level of erudition in their presentations. Indeed, patience is a virtue.

    Tony, I can’t wait for the other five you’ve got up your sleeve!


    André Csihás, FCCI

  • Victoria M Frazier says:

    Excellent! Thoroughly enjoyed it. Reminded me of the time when I interpreted for the CFO of a multinational corporation who insisted on speaking in hardly understandable English. The English speaking parties at the meeting looked at me like saying: “Do something!”. How do you tell a high-level executive that his English is awful and to switch to his native language? I solved my dilemma telling the CFO that I also had to write a report of the meeting and that it would be really helpful, to maintain accuracy, if he spoke in Spanish and allowed me to translate. I think he got the hint and also saved face. Interpreters need to have a bag of tricks to get out of tight situations.

  • marzolian says:

    I have experienced several of these situations. Good to point them out.

  • Elizabeth J. Yoder says:

    A related scenario: I am a translator who, in my international organization career, was assigned to work at meetings where parallel working texts, usually Spanish and English, were projected on two separate screens. My task was to translate, on a laptop, in real time, for all to see, stretches of Spanish text the delegates were proposing (for a declaration or treaty, for example), which were typed immediately into the Spanish text. When the room was being set up, I had to fight with the audio-visual technician to convince him that I needed to SEE the Spanish screen in order to translate the text into English. He insisted, “You don’t worry about the Spanish. We just need you to do the English.”

  • Olga Apollonova says:

    Great notes. My personal experience from hell: with acronyms. The topic: Radio Frequency Control. Location: Ottawa. The first surprise: the same four letter acronym represented two different (most likely new) terms. You had to analyze the context while interpreting simultaneously. The second surprise: though all presentations were in English some acronyms represented French terms. Luckily I’ve figured that out ahead of time. Some of the speakers had pretty heavy accents as their native languages were French, Mandarin, and probably Hindi… Another surprise: the most important Russian guest knew some English and he came with a lot of preconceived ideas. Sometimes he simply didn’t like what he heard… so he finally “corrected me”. I had to ask the speaker to clarify and the speaker confirmed that I was right (i.e. he really meant a jammer, not any transmitter). That made the important Russian guest so very unhappy… and angry with me. Anyway, it was challenging but very refreshing.

  • mcltheblog says:

    Tapping on the mike is one of the rudest things a speaker can do.

  • mcltheblog says:

    Reblogged this on mcl | the blog and commented:
    Tapping on the mike is one of the rudest things a speaker can do.

  • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

    I work as an interpreter since 1965… I am 76 now, and I intend to keep on working as long as my brain is active. Most of these “worst things” you mentioned are of course part of my experience. I live in Brazil and most of my work is interpreting the foreign languages which I know (German, English, French, Italian and Spanish) into Portuguese. Once I had to interpret a Chinese speaker. He spoke what he supposed to be English. But it was not possible to understand one word of his speech. Fortunately he had a lot of slides, all written in quite good English. I just translated these slides and everybody was happy, even the speaker. But I have a concrete question about the first “worst thing” you mention, and the way you do it: Why do you speak here only about female speakers, while in the other “worst things” the speakers are either male or there is no information about their gender? I must clarify that I am a male interpreter…

    • Dear George: Thank you for your valuable comments. In my blog, I sometimes refer to the characters as a “she” or a “he” to keep it even. Interesting that you wondered why “she” and not why “he.” I hope you keep on working for a long time!

      • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

        I just finished a job as as an interpreter at a wedding, where the groom was Italian and the bride Brazilian. And the officer at the religious part of the wedding was a woman, a nun! This is possible in Brazil because nowadays there is a lack a male priests, mostly in the North and Northeast of the country. Not in the region where I live, near to the city where the wedding took place, within the State of São Paulo. Its name is Americana. After 1866, several Confederate refugees from the American Civil War settled in the region. Following the Civil War, slavery was abolished in the United States. In Brazil, however, slavery was still legal, making it a particularly attractive location to former Confederates. These people who took part at this wedding have no connections with the old Confederates, but it is curious story, isn’t it?

  • My own worst cituation an interpreter can encounter involves court interpreting on the witness stand. In a recent case, during a trial, the DA was speaking so fast that the court reporter couldn’t keep up, and I barely could. The Court Reporter, because he was behind, would interupt me to ask what the witness’s answer, which I had already interpreted, was. I would already be ahead, interpreting into Spanish the next question, and it was hard to remember the answer, plus I would then get behind in my rendition of the next question. (The DA was already on the next question before the witness had answered.) Finally, the Judge took the Attorneys and Court into chambers to explain the situation and the necesity to work with the Court Reporter and the interpreters.
    I think there should be a continuing education and law school requirement as to how to work with interpreters and court reporters in order to conserve the record.

  • sami says:

    Jokes! When most jokes are interpreted they are not recognized as humor. Not even when warned, “This reminds me of a joke”. I have to turn to my improvisational skills to keep the essence instead of the actual words? Is this mike turned on?

    Sadly, yes.

    And *that* is not funny.

  • How about when the speaker makes a play on words!!!

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  • Frank Pool says:

    Add this one: When a speaker speaks a language that you do not speak and brings his own interpreter which speak a language you speak and you have to interpret it into a third language: Ej. Once I had to interpret for a Chinese delegation, the audience were lawyers and the Judiciary . The Chinese had their own interpreter into English, and we had to wait for the interpreter into English so we can interpret into Spanish, It was a nightmare

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