Working with Interpreters: An Expert Guide

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Jonathan Downie explains how using an interpreter can help your company reach new markets and gain new clients

Nowadays, e-commerce and social media have made even the smallest business capable to trading well beyond their own national borders. While the opportunities are no doubt there, there is a major stumbling block. According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Modern Languages, UK businesses lose out on £50 billion worth of contracts each year due to their lack of language skills. Businesses who want sales from abroad need to speak the language of their clients and the only way to do that consistently is by working with interpreters.

To get the most value from interpreters, it helps to know exactly how to recruit them, communicate with them, manage them and keep them on hand for future work. Let’s start with the very first stage: recruitment.

Interpreting is, at the moment, a profession without any legal recognition, so outside of a very few settings like court or medicine, anyone can call themselves an interpreter. There are however, training courses available and recognised signs that an interpreter is a trained professional, rather than someone who picked up their language skills on a boozy weekend in Paris.

The more important the assignment, the more you will want to check for things like professional memberships, degrees, and their standing in the interpreting community. If you choose to use an agency, at the very least, you will want to see membership of a trade body (the Association of Translation Companies or the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the UK, the American Translators Association in the USA and similar organisations abroad are the gold standard) and a good rating from their interpreters on industry portals like proz.com and translatorscafe.com.

A further sign that they will deliver the goods is cost. While some forms of interpreting may seem expensive (£1800 to £2000 per language per day for conference interpreting – including equipment – is not unusual), the price of interpreting going wrong is often much higher. Consider what would happen if your product was described as being “highly technical” instead of “high tech” or how much it would cost if your salespeople didn’t sound knowledgeable or convincing.

For that reason, it pays to be very wary of interpreters or agencies whose USP is price. In the UK, for instance, the award of a court interpreting contract to a particular companywho plumped for cheap rates led to a mass walkout by qualified interpreters. The resulting lack of good suppliers cost tens of millions of pounds in wasted court time due to interpreters not turning up or being unable to do the job when they arrived.

Track record matters and a good agency or directly hired interpreter will prefer to get the full details of your event and understand exactly what you are expecting to achieve before sending you a price. In fact, you may well find that they ask you questions you hadn’t even thought about, in order to ensure that you get the service that you need. All that attention-to-detail comes at a price and if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

A key decision that you need to take is whether you will work with an agency or build your own team. A good rule of thumb is that agencies work best for one-off or very complex events with several languages and multiple parallel sessions, while hiring directly is best for either smaller or repeated events. In short, the greater the level of partnership you will want with the interpreters, the simpler the lines of communication need to be.

Whichever option you chose, the websites of professional associations like the Association of Translation Companies or the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the UK, the American Translators Association in the USA are a great first port of call. Another option is to track down an excellent interpreter you already know and ask for their advice.

Once you have recruited either an agency or your own team, communication is key. A good rule of thumb is that interpreters can never have too much information. Unlike their translator colleagues, who work from written texts and produce written texts in a different language, interpreters work with spoken or signed languages, at events that can and do change from one moment to the next.

For that reason, it is vital that interpreters know as much about what is going to happen as you do. Giving them a short introduction to the people involved and their personalities, as well as what they want and why they are there, will go a long way to make sure that everything goes swimmingly.All interpreters can tell stories of when the brief for an assignment did not at all match the event and what happened next. Confusion, embarrassment and missed opportunities tend to be the dominant themes.

Alongside basic details like the schedule, attendees and the type of event; interpreters should know about the purpose of the event, your KPIs, attendee numbers and any history. Sending them reports of previous iterations and any in-house stylistic quirks will also help things along.

When it comes to managing interpreters during the event, interpreters have four basic needs: food, water, breaks and Wi-Fi. The first two are self-explanatory but it still surprises clients just how much interpreters drink. Remember that they will be talking almost constantly throughout the entire assignment so they will need to keep their vocal chords very moist. In terms of food, while sugary snacks go down well, anything that releases energy slowly, like bananas and pasta salad, will be even better.

The exact number and frequency of breaks needed will depend on the assignment. For simultaneous interpreter (where you hear the interpreter while the speaker is still talking), interpreters should always work in teams of at least two interpreters per language that will be heard. Each interpreter then works for around 20-30 minutes before handing over to a colleague. The reason for this is simple: after about thirty minutes of simultaneous interpreting, performance drops precipitously due to limitations on the human brain.

For assignments involving interpreting during conversations or tours, it is more useful to chat with the interpreters themselves to ascertain how intense they feel the job would be and what breaks they feel would be helpful. A site tour, with questions as time goes on, may be much less taxing that a full-blown negotiation or exit interview.

As for Wi-Fi, well, even the best prepared interpreter is likely to need to lookup terminology on the fly and all will not know how to make the best use of online resources. Having a functional, accessible Wi-Fi network can reduce terminology issues and resulting confusion. It can also allow you to keep materials and schedules updated without having to reprint them.

I am commonly asked whether people need to slow down or speak more clearly when working with an interpreter and the answer often surprises people. The biggest enemy of interpreting performance is usually monotony rather than speed. Reading from a typed out speech in a mumbling monotone will cause more trouble for interpreters than being fast but enthusiastic and leaving pauses. Still, we have known since the 1970s that a speed of 110 to 130 words per minute (think BBC newsreader) is best for clear and detailed interpreting. When working with interpreters at negotiations or discussions, the key is to make sure you pause regularly for the interpreter to work and never speak over them or anyone else.

In fact, one of the simplest ways to ensure that interpreting has the best possible impact for your business is to think about the things that help you communicate effectively with anyone. Using appropriate eye-contact, adjusting intonation, speaking clearly and at a moderate speed, and using emphasis and repetition work in any situation; they just happen to work especially well when interpreters are present too.

Given the effort it takes to assemble and interpreting team and create an environment in which they can give you the best results, it would be a shame to throw that away once the assignment is over. Their hard work is likely to net you new clients, increased profits and new markets so it helps to give them clear, precise feedback and to try to keep using the same team where possible. The more they work with you, the more they can learn about your processes and preferences and the more their work can benefit your organisation.

When it comes to reaching new markets, and gaining clients from abroad, interpreters are key players in the success of your company. When a single day of their work can net you contracts worth millions of pounds, it pays to make sure that you get the greatest value possible from them. If you recruit intelligently, manage them well and create environments that encourage clear communication, the results are sure to exceed even your most optimistic expectations.

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About Author

Dr Jonathan Downie

Dr Jonathan Downie is a consultant conference interpreter, interpreting researcher and writer trading under the business name, Integrity Languages (http://www.integritylanguages.co.uk/). He graduated with his PhD in client expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University in June 2016 and is the author of the book Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence (Routledge, 2016). His interpreting experience includes press and PR work, board meetings, annual conferences and site visits. He is passionate about helping clients maximise the value of their products and services by getting the most out of interpreting and regularly travels to speak on interpreting-related issues.

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