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14 tips for speakers at international conferences

by Anja Peschel
Translation into English: Anja Peschel

How to ensure that both the original and translated versions of your presentation are a complete success.

The conference season is once again in full swing. At technical events in particular, conference interpreters often have to contend with speakers who have little, or no, experience in working with interpreters. The good news is that we don’t bite! And there’s more good news: If you are good at giving speeches in your own language, interpreters will have no problem conveying what you’re saying. Here are a few pieces of advice if your presentation is going to be interpreted:

  1. Don’t read your speech. Pre-written speeches usually contain very complex grammatical structures that do not sound as natural when read out loud; and there will always be the temptation of reading too quickly.
  2. If you absolutely have to read out a text, please remember to give the interpreters a copy This gives us a chance to prepare for the speed and linguistic complexity of your speech.
  3. Keep it simple! Complicated linguistic structures will make it difficult for the audience and interpreters to follow your train of thought.
  4. Avoid (or explain) any acronyms, abbreviations or insider comments. Depending on your audience, not everyone will be familiar with your company’s jargon. Please remember that your audience will probably not have the same background knowledge as you. And, even if you are speaking at a corporate event, always keep in mind that your interpreters are not surrounded by your company’s own language on a daily basis and may need some help, such as a list of acronyms or a glossary of terms you might typically hear at your workplace.
  5. When mentioning names and numbers, speak slowly and clearly. Don’t forget that, while you may be familiar with the names of everyone on your team or the latest sales figures, your audience may not. So please speak clearly to ensure that your audience and interpreters can safely distinguish a profit of 15 million from a profit of 50 million.
  6. Pace yourself but talk at a natural speed. We interpreters often get speakers coming up to us before events promising to speak extra slowly. While this is very kind, it is not really necessary. We interpret ideas, not one word after another. So speaking at your normal speed is fine for your interpreters, too.
  7. Use a microphone. Simultaneous interpreters work in soundproof booths. The only noise they hear is what is transmitted through their headphones. By all means, feel free to check that your microphone is working before you start speaking, but PLEASE don’t knock or blow on it – this really hurts your interpreters’ sensitive ears!
  8. Switch off your own microphone when someone else is speaking. If several microphones are used in a discussion, please switch off your microphone after you have finished speaking to avoid interference from whispered conversations, coughing or shuffling papers.
  9. Provide documentation. While conference interpreters frequently specialise in one or several technical fields, they will never know as much about your area of expertise as you do. A good interpretation is based on both linguistic skill and a thorough understanding of the subject matter. This is why preparation makes up an essential part of our work. Conference interpreters will spend an average of one day preparing for each day of a technical conference. The more information is provided beforehand, the more thoroughly we can prepare, and the better we will understand your topic and get your message across.
  10. Beware of wordplay and jokes. This is not because interpreters don’t have a sense of humour. We do, honestly, and we love nothing more than a good pun. But such linguistic jewels are not always translatable, and many speakers find themselves in the embarrassing situation of nobody laughing because their joke has got lost in translation. What’s more, cultural differences may mean that not every joke is met with the same enthusiasm by everyone in your audience.
  11. If possible, speak in your mother tongue. There are only few people with a perfect command of several languages. Most people lose some of their nuances and personality when speaking in a foreign language. Surveys show that audiences receive much more information when speakers talk in their native language and speeches are interpreted into the audience’s mother tongue, as opposed to the speaker and audience using their second language as the smallest common denominator.
  12. Videos are great for visualising aspects of your speech or livening up a presentation. But please bear in mind that voiceover texts are often very dense, complex and fast, and your interpreters will need the videos or scripts beforehand to do their job well.
  13. Please keep a receiver close at hand, so that you can hear the interpretation of questions from audience members posed in a different language.

Take breaks. Brief breaks between sections will give you time to collect your thoughts and allow your audience to process what you have said. Simultaneous interpreting doesn’t actually happen quite simultaneously – there is a time delay of a few seconds between the original and the translation. During discussions in particular, it is a good idea to wait 3–5 seconds before responding to what someone else has said to give everyone time to finish listening to the interpretation.

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