10 failproof ways to annoy your interpreters

For many speakers who have never worked with interpreters before, the first encounter with this funky breed of language professionals may not work out exactly as they had planned. Very often, things go wrong due to a lack of experience, an incomplete briefing by an organiser or an insufficient understanding of what it is that interpreters actually have to do. I can see you reaching for your mouse(pad) to click away from what you think will be a rant against presenters, but bear with me for a moment, and you’ll soon find out how to get interpreters on your side at your next gig.

Working with interpreters can be a very pleasant experience. They are a colourful and chatty bunch, and they’ll go out of their way to do a good job for you and your audience, provided that they feel respected as the professionals that they are. And the good news is that it is not too hard to transform them into your allies. However, if you’ve ever had interpreters turn all grumpy cat on you, you may inadvertently have committed one of the faux-pas descibed hereafter. The list below is by no means scientific or exhaustive, nor does it intend to be. It is based on the feedback of experienced conference interpreters, when asked about the speaker (or participant) habits that they found most unnerving. They are in random order, and include both phrases that spark slight irritation, and habits that will have interpreters shooting death-stares from their booths.

1.    Keep your presentation to yourself before the meeting day

How fun it is to surprise participants with a presentation that they have never seen before? Why spoil the fun and share it beforehand? Better to catch them off guard. Even if this reasoning is correct for your audience, it simply does not fly for interpreters. The quality of the interpreting work increases when interpreters get the chance to prepare your speech thoroughly, so make sure they receive your presentation in advance. Don’t worry, they won’t spill the beans, they are bound by a contract that includes a confidentiality clause.

2. “No microphone for me, I have a loud voice”

You walk into a small meeting room. 20 People are waiting for you to blow them away with your presentation. There is a box in the back that contains two people. They are interpreters, the organiser tells you. The technician offers you a microphone so that you can start presenting, but you kindly refuse, surely your voice will be audible for everyone? No. Unless your vocal chords are equipped with Bluetooth and they can connect to the sound system that links you to the interpreters, and the interpreters to the participants, you’ll have to use the microphone if you want interpreters to be able to work.

3. “My English is not very good looking, but I’ll give it a go anyway”

Speaking in a language other than your mother tongue really is not easy, especially when you have to do it in front of a crowd. If you are not sure whether your level of English is sufficient to give a presentation, then don’t take the risk, use the interpreters, they’ve been trained to render your message in the language(s) your crowd speaks. By trying to get by in a language you do not properly master, you will (a) come across as hesitant and not be convincing, (b) you will become nervous as the words you’re grasping for don’t seem to come to you and (c) you’ll make interpreters’ work a lot harder, as they’ll have to strain to make sense of what you are saying.

4. Switch languages non-stop

When you speak more than one language, it is very tempting to showcase that. Some people show off their language skills by starting a sentence in one language, and finishing it in another. If they do this throughout the presentation, interpreters go absolutely berserk, as they have to keep switching channels, which keeps them from focussing on the message to be delivered . At the end of these multilingual speeches, interpreting booths always exhale venomous fumes.

5. Cram everything you know about your topic in a 30 minute presentation…

… and fill slides to a maximum, preferably with graphs, composed sentences, and cryptic combinations of numbers, fancy abbreviations and text. If you top that off by using small font, and then talk through the slides at the speed of light, you can be sure that interpreters will silently curse you while they try to make the best of the situation. Don’t forget that when you present, less is often more. If you put too much information in your presentation, your audience will feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they get, while pin-pierced speaker voodoo dolls will start popping up in the booths. Try to avoid this and impress people with your attention for them, not with slides that are filled to capacity.

6. Get up and personal with the microphone

If you want to make your interpreters growl in exasperation, tap the microphone to see whether it is turned on. Do this repeatedly and feel free to get creative to see how your self-made sounds are amplified by the sound system. You might want to cough or sneeze, fiddle with your pen or keep your mobile phone very close to the microphone if you want to enhance the effect. You’ll see interpreters’ mood morph from attentive to resentful in a matter of seconds.

7. Turn away from the microphone when you’re presenting

Doesn’t every presenter want to see their presentation through the eyes of the audience? When slides are projected behind your back while you are presenting from behind a lectern that has a microphone, look behind you… often. Continue talking while you marvel at your slides. Feel free to turn off the microphone and then turn it back on mid-sentence. Your voice will wax and wane, and interpreters will have to fill in the blanks to the best of their capacity. They will be up for the challenge but you can be sure that your ears will be glowing long after you’ve left the building.

8. Keep interpreters from lunch … or coffee

When you exceed your time slot because there is so much to tell, and there is so little time, just shorten breaks. Conference interpreters work in pairs, and alternate every half hour, surely they get enough breaks throughout the day. And interpreters eat conference food every day, they’ll probably be relieved that they can skip it for a day. Come to think of it, just don’t respect timings at all.

This is probably one of the riskiest things that you can do. Hunger will turn interpreters into roaming wolves, and you’ll be the first prey they’ll feast on.

9. Get creative with sentences

Don’t go all traditional and produce full, logical sentences. Spice up your presentation by omitting half a sentence here and there, or by adding subordinate phrases and clauses until you run out of oxygen and physically have to stop speaking. The interpreters will roll their eyes so far back that they are close to fainting right there and then.

10. Drop the Thank- Yous

Thank the organisers, your partners and sponsors, the attentive audience but leave out the interpreters. No one has probably seen them anyway, as they are skulking and chatting in their aquarium-like boxes. Walk past them without acknowledging them, and ignore the burning sensation in your back, there’s no such thing as laser stares.

If you recognise one of the situations described above, you may be cringing now, thinking that interpreters have put you on their black list for the rest of their (and your) active life. But fear not, interpreters do not bear grudges and they can help you in turning your next presentation into a success. If you walk up to interpreters before you go on stage, and ask them how you can help them to help you, you’ll quickly transform them into the allies that you need to WOW your audience.

Would you like some pointers on how to work with interpreters? Or are you looking for professionals who can interpret at your next event? We select our interpreters with the utmost care, so whatever the topic of your presentation is, rest assured, we’ll provide you with advice, best-in-class professionals and a comprehensive service and follow-up.

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A special thanks is due to the interpreters who’ve contributed to this article. Thank you for your feedback, I hope I’ve represented it properly here and most of all, I hope that it will contribute to improving speakers’ skills and your working conditions.

maaike villavicencio Author Maaike Villavicencio helps organisations to shape successful multilingual events. She uses her experience as a professional conference interpreter and event planner to let customers shine at their events. Language expert, runner and blog writer. Specialized in the organization of European Works Council meetings, live and online.