When the interpreter does not hear the speaker.

October 21, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In recent weeks I have been contacted by two different colleagues who basically had the same problem: What do you do as an interpreter when you did not hear what the speaker said, and the cause of the problem is the speaker himself?  I thought about the question, and I realized that this situation is more common than we may think when we first consider it.

There are many reasons why an interpreter’s professional life can get complicated, and one of them is a poor speaker.  There are also a multitude of circumstances that arise during a conference, negotiation, trial or interview, that will not let us hear what was said, many of them can be traced to a deficient sound system, bad interpreting equipment, wrongly situated interpreters’ booth, technician’s ineptitude, and others.  Today we will focus on those occasions when the problem can be traced back to the speaker.

There are basically three kinds of speakers for the matter that occupies us this time: The experienced speaker, the novice, and the careless.  A seasoned individual used to public speaking will speak clearly, at a good pace, and with the audience in mind. If these speakers are used to an international audience, they will also adjust the form and content of their speech so it can be interpreted to a series of foreign languages without major problems. With some exceptions, we find these orators at the events of the highest level.  They are the group that creates the least problems for the interpreters, and can be approached with suggestions to improve the rendition into the target languages.

Many novice speakers have to deal with fears and insecurities, their experience addressing a crowd is non-existent or at best very limited, and they ignore the details and even the basic rules that must be observed when talking to a diverse, multicultural, and foreign language speaking audience.  They can be very difficult to interpret, and hard to hear; but once they are past their fears and insecurities, they are usually receptive, coachable, and willing to work with the interpreters.

It is the careless speaker that causes most of the interpreters’ headaches.  Many of them have been around long enough to know how to speak in public and how to address a foreign language crowd; they all know that there are special considerations by the orator when a speech needs to be interpreted into another language, but they consider it of little significance and dismiss it. Some of them are even worse, as they truly ignore the basic rules of public speaking before an international audience because they just don’t see any benefit or motivation to learn them.  These are the speakers that will keep interpreters sleepless all night.

Besides separating this problem from all technical and logistics occurrences that can cause difficulties when listening to the speaker, to be able to look at this issue in detail, we must deal separately with the different types of interpreting where the situation may be present sometimes.

Conference Interpreting.

The most common situation is when the speaker abandons the microphone.  The presenter leaves the podium with the fixed wired microphone and walks around the stage speaking directly to the audience without any devise, or holds a handheld mike as he speaks, but keeps the microphone pointing to the opposite direction from his mouth, making it impossible to hear in the booth what was said.  The problem could also exist when the speaker has a lapel microphone which has been poorly placed on his body or when he ruffles the mike with his hands or clothes.

The best way to avoid this issue is through education.  With the exception of the experienced speaker, most people will benefit from a brief orientation on how to work with interpreters. Reputable truly professional agencies and event promoters will likely take care of this issue by providing some literature to the presenter ahead of time, or by asking the speaker to set aside a few minutes before the speech to talk to the interpreters who will let him know what adjustments he needs to make for the benefit of the booth and more importantly, for the benefit of the foreign language speakers who are in the audience as guests or as paid ticket holders.  I suggest that you have a standard brochure, prepared by you to be given to the speaker, where you address and explain all these nuances and considerations that must be kept in mind when speaking before an audience with interpreters.  This can be used when the agency is not that reputable or experienced and does not even think about this speaker orientation aspect of the event, and you can offer it as an added value to the client, and charge for it.

Next, unless it is an experienced individual or a very busy dignitary or celebrity with no time to spare, you need to be ready to meet with the speaker before the event anyway; even if it is just to ask if he read the brochure and to inquire if he has any questions, or, as it will no doubt happen many times, to go over the contents of the brochure with those orators who “did not have time to read the brochure ahead of time”.  It requires that at least one interpreter from the team (usually the lead interpreter for the event) arrive to the venue a little earlier. When there are several booths, you can distribute responsibilities so that an interpreter is testing the equipment with the technicians while you are meeting with the speaker about the orientation brochure.

The strategy above should take care of most situations, but you have to be prepared for the speaker who forgets what he was told during the orientation and leaves the microphone behind in any of the ways described above.  In that case your options are limited a somewhat drastic measures:  (1) Your first option should be interpreter console in the booth (when available) and let the speaker know that he is not using the microphone, or that he did not turn it on, by pressing the slow-down button on the console. This is a discreet way to communicate with the presenter without leaving the booth.  (2) When the interpreter console does not have this button, as many older models do not, then the interpreters should use the help of the technician, and ask him to let the speaker know that there is a problem, either by the technician approaching the stage and communicating with the speaker by discreet signs, or by passing a note to the podium.  (3)  If the technician is not around at that particular time, one of the interpreters will have to leave the booth and hopefully, from the back of the room, get the attention of the orator. If this is not possible due to the booth location, lighting of the room, or the distance to the stage, then the interpreter should approach the stage and deliver the note to the speaker.  (4)  Finally, there will be times when none of the above options may be available because the interpreters’ booth is in a place relatively inaccessible from the stage (many built-in booths have access from the street through a separate entrance from the main auditorium’s). In those rare cases the interpreter can get to the speaker by asking the audience he is interpreting for, to please ask the speaker to speak into the mike. This is a drastic measure but it is better than leaving half of the attendees in the dark as to what the speaker said during the presentation.

Court Interpreting.

The situation in court is different.  First, unlike a conference setting, there will be several people speaking back and forth during the same occurrence, usually a hearing.  Some of them will be aware of the need to be heard by the interpreter while others, like the witnesses and the parties to the litigation, will not even realize that the hearing is being interpreted into a foreign language.  The most common scenarios where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hear what has been said will be when the person speaking moves away from the microphone. In the case of the witnesses and litigants the problem could also be that they simply do not speak loud enough.

Because of its rigorous rules and protocol, and because there is a record being kept of the hearing, interpreters in this setting have an easier way to correct a party when they cannot hear what was said. It is enough for the interpreter to raise her hand and voice and state aloud (in the third person because there is a record of the hearing and therefore the voice of the person speaking has to be announced for the transcriber) that “the interpreter cannot hear the attorney, judge, witness, plaintiff, etc., and ask that the parties speak into the microphone. Thank you”. Some interpreters may prefer to ask the judge to admonish the parties to speak louder or using the microphone, by stating aloud, immediately after the word or phrase was uttered, that: “the interpreter respectfully asks the court to instruct the parties to speak louder and into the microphone”.  Because as a general rule there are no booths and the interpreters are very close to the judge and litigants, this can easily be accomplished in an expeditious way. The only word of caution would be that the interpreters must find the best place to locate themselves (in those courtrooms where there is no interpreter desk) to avoid interrupting the proceedings very often.  Another valuable resource that should be used before interrupting the hearing is a simple consultation with the passive interpreter in the team. Many times the passive interpreter may be able to discern what was said because, unlike the active interpreter, she is not listening to the hearing over her own voice at this time.

Consecutive interpreting.

This problem could be easy to solve or very difficult during a consecutive rendition. It depends on the venue. When doing consecutive interpreting in court, usually for a party or witness who is testifying from the stand, the solution is the same as in the case of simultaneous court interpreting above. Sometimes, if the word that was not heard is irrelevant to the hearing, the interpreter can ask the witness, who is sitting next to her, directly. It would be better, and safer, to announce this circumstance first by stating aloud: “the interpreter will ask the witness to clarify (or repeat) a word that the interpreter did not hear…”

When the interpreter is working as an escort and there are words that he did not hear because of background noise, or because the speaker turned her heard the other way when she said the word, the interpreter can simply and informally stop her on the spot and ask her to repeat what she just said. This is quite common when visiting touristic attractions, industrial plants, or places where crowds gather such as markets, plazas, train stations, and so on.  The same solution can be applied to healthcare interpreting during doctor or nurse appointments.

The situation is quite more complicated in the case of a long consecutive rendition during a press conference, diplomatic negotiation, or a ceremony.  In this case there could be different scenarios: (1) When the interpreters are working as a team, the passive interpreter can help the active colleague in a similar way as described above when we dealt with court interpreting. (2) The situation is more difficult when the interpreter is working alone. Many times the solution will depend on the style of the interpreter as he could start the rendition while slipping a note to an aide asking for a term that he did not hear, he could ask the speaker to repeat the term after he finished his statement and before the interpreter starts the consecutive rendition, or the interpreter can go ahead with the rendition and stop to ask at the time when the word that he did not hear was said by the speaker.  This may sound quite scary, but we must remember that this case scenario will rarely happen as interpreters are well-prepared for these events and know the relevant terminology; Many times the word that the interpreter did not hear can be inferred from the context of what the speaker said, sometimes the name is repeated later on the speech and the interpreter heard it the second time, and the word may turn out to be irrelevant to the message and therefore it can be left out. Remember, this is not short court consecutive interpretation.

As we clearly see, once again we face the reality that interpreting is a very difficult profession, but many of the complications and problems that appear during the rendition can be prevented and resolved with good preparation, which includes educating the speaker. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some of the times when you had to face this same issue, and tell us how you solved the situation and saved the day.

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§ 6 Responses to When the interpreter does not hear the speaker.

  • Martha Ortiz says:

    Mr. Rosado, this was very helpful. Thank you for following up with these detailed explanations and suggestions!

  • Great article, thank you!

  • […] There are many reasons why an interpreter’s professional life can get complicated, and one of them is a poor speaker.  There are also a multitude of circumstances that arise during a conference, negotiation, trial or interview, that will not let us hear what was said, many of them can be traced to a deficient sound system, bad interpreting equipment, wrongly situated interpreters’ booth, technician’s ineptitude, and others.  Today we will focus on those occasions when the problem can be traced back to the speaker. More. […]

  • Although technology can cause some problems, remember that just like in real estate, location location location. If you are having trouble hearing the speaker then relocate. You have to hear what is being said in order to interpret.

  • Court interpreting can be challenging. As posted, some speakers are rambling at God speeds. Don’t forget that you have the ability to ask the Judge to have the procedure slowed down for the benefit of the interpreter. I have had to ask the Judge to slow down the proceedings. Let me tell you that you only have to do it once and the Judge will make sure that the proceeding is slowed down enough.

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