Working with interpreters is a critical part of doing business internationally. It’s also key in many industries and fields, from television and news reporting to political or medical conferences, and in delivering training sessions and multilingual events of all kinds.

But if you haven’t done it before, it can be a cause for concern. It doesn’t need to be though! Building an efficient working relationship with your interpreting team is going to set you up for a successful venture.

In this article, we’ll look at how to do exactly that.

The different types of interpretation

Before we get started, it’s important to remember that there are different types of interpreters:

  1. Consecutive interpreters: in this type of interpreting, the speaker says a small chunk of what they want to say, usually a couple of sentences. Then they wait. The interpreter then has the chance to translate what they’re saying into the target language.
  2. Simultaneous interpreters: this type of interpreting is much more fluid. The interpreter will usually be sitting in a booth, a quiet room or be located completely offsite. They will listen to what is being said through headphones and then convey the meaning into the earpieces of the audience members back in the room.

Now let’s get started on those tips on working with interpreters:

1) Budget more time

Speaking through an interpreter can as much as double the amount of time necessary for many conversations to take place. It’s important to take this into account for important business meetings, especially in cultures where there is a very strict time allowance for the meeting. South Korea, for example.

Likewise, if you have to give a twenty-minute presentation but are planning to use a consecutive interpreter, you only really have around ten minutes because they will need to translate what you say after you say it.

To compensate, you might consider asking fewer or shorter questions in some circumstances. But the best thing to do is simply to budget more time.

2) Give all important resources to your interpreter in advance

Your interpreter will be an incredibly skilled language specialist. But interpreting is a very difficult job, so anything you can to make their work easier will get you better results. Chief among these, try to send as many documents pertaining to the subject as possible to your linguist ahead of time. Then try not to get upset if they ask for more! A desire to be prepared is a sign of a good interpreter.

If you are speaking at an event, send them a copy of the speech you are going to give well in advance. If there’s going to be a presentation, send the slides. If you are going to invite questions at the end of a talk and you have strong suspicions that certain topics might crop up, let your linguist know about them so they can research them should it be necessary. Send copies of minutes or reports from previous meetings if at all possible. If you’re hiring a linguist and plan to move around, send them an itinerary. Or, if you’re planning to use an interpreter to interview people, let them know as much as you can about:

  • Topics of conversation
  • Controversial issues which might arise
  • How you want them to interact, on or off camera

The best Language Service Providers will make sure that your interpreter knows at least a little bit about your industry or the field in which you’re speaking. This should give them a ready base of relevant terminology. There’s no need to make things more difficult than they need to be though!

3) Check regularly that the equipment is working

Technical difficulties happen. Everyone knows it. So it’s no good everyone trying to carry on as normal, giving the veneer of efficiency while no one really understands one another.

Consider building checks that the equipment is working properly into your speech. Everyone knows that if something stops working, they should speak up. But if someone has been told and had it frequently demonstrated that speaking up is not a problem, they’re much more likely to actually do so.

4) Speak slowly and enunciate clearly

Despite your linguist’s skill, interpreting is not easy. Remember – it’s not just the words that they’ll be translating for you. It’s making sure that the entire message – what you or the person giving the speech is actually trying to say and how you’ve said it – is properly understood.

Contextualising the message, conveying the subtleties of the chosen language – these things are fearsomely difficult. By speaking slowly and clearly, you minimise the chances of something important having to be glossed over.

If you haven’t been working with interpreters for long, you might not be aware that some very experienced linguists will ask your audience – through their headpieces – to ask you to slow down. This is not the sign of a bad linguist; more that they don’t want to miss correctly conveying the difficult concepts that you are discussing.

5) Think about your use of humour

Humour is very subjective. It relies to a large extent on things like a shared understanding of history, cultural touchstones which everyone might not share or plays on words which simply don’t work when translated into another language.

That said, there’s no need to avoid humour altogether. Anecdotes can still play a solid role in bridging gaps between speaker and audience. All you need to do is go over them with your interpreter first to make sure that yours is culturally appropriate.

If you really would like to include the joke sort of humour, again it’s vital that you discuss them with your interpreter beforehand. They should be able to tell you whether it’s more likely to bring forth the tumbleweeds than bring the house down (this last sentence should give you a good example of why lines containing pretensions to humour or allusions to cultural touchstones might be a problem! It relies on the reader understanding that tumbleweeds are associated with the sort of empty spaces often visited in the Western movie genre, and are colloquially used to represent failed jokes. It also uses the idiom “bring the house down”, the meaning of which would need to be explained to many audiences).

6) Connect with your interpreters – and ask for advice

A good working relationship is always going to give you the best results. If you can, meet your linguist in person first. That way you can go over anything you might need your interpreter to do – give you a clear verbal warning that something is not being understood by a group, for example. You can also ask questions you might have and, in return, have them highlight any areas in the materials you’ve provided where their expertise leads them to believe there might be an issue.

Again, if you have an interpreter who is very familiar with local culture and habits, they’ll be able to advise you on a lot more than simply which words to use. For instance, a European or American delegation undertaking meetings in East Asia, or vice versa, can find things progress much more smoothly by having a local linguist who understands the way which local people do business.

During the meeting or speech itself, it’s also worth regularly connecting with your interpreting team. If you can make eye contact with them to check everything is going well, that is definitely good practice. Feel free to discuss any signals you might want to receive beforehand: indicating they want you to speak slower, speak louder or simply say everything is okay should be pretty basic as long as you agree on what each signal means.

7) Include short breaks when working with interpreters

Paying attention to headphones for lengthy periods of time can result in attention being lost. Even listening to interpreters who are actually in the room and part of the conversation can get taxing for all parties after a while.

Build in some short breaks. Allow participants to speak in their own language for a minute or two even if they don’t move from the table. Then, when you get back to work, everyone is more focused on what is being said.

Short breaks are good for your linguists too. Most interpreters will work in small teams when at events such as conferences. After around 10-20 minutes of mentally exhausting interpreting, they’ll be ready to take a break and let one of their teammates take over. By incorporating small breaks in what you’re saying you facilitate this, or allow them to take a break too.

8) Say thank you at the end

Phew! It’s over. Good speech. You’ve put a lot of effort in here, and so has your language specialist. It’s only polite to include them in any short list of thanks – along with your hosts, for instance – at the end of what you have to say.

After all, working with interpreters might take a little effort to get right. But like yours, their job is very challenging indeed!

Are you an interpreter yourself? Or are you about to use an interpreter for the first time?

Ask questions or give us your own top tips below.