Tips for Conference interpreting beginners


First and foremost: nerves. It is, to say the least, extremely daunting for an inexperienced interpreter to find himself in a glass booth overlooking an enormous hall with five thousand people listening to his every word. My advice is : forget yourself, forget it is you. Act the part of a conference interpreter.

A lot of famous actors and actresses have confessed that they are very shy people in real life, but once they are up on the stage being someone else, they are fine. Think of Italian waiters - they don't just wait at table, they act the part of the perfect waiter with the white cloth over one arm and all the gestures, posture, facial expressions and flourishes that the part requires. There are cases of stammerers in the interpreting profession - people who, in private life, cannot speak without stammering yet once up there behind the microphone, the stammer disappears. This is because they are not just John or Mary speaking, they are The Interpreter. Take a deep breath before you start and act the part of The Perfect Simultaneous Interpreter and you will be fine.

Adjusting the Volume

A mistake beginners often make is to turn the volume up too high in their earphones for fear of missing something. They forget that it is important also for them to hear their own voice because if they do not, they will not finish their sentences properly or polish their delivery. The balance between the volume of the sound in your earphones and the sound of your voice is a very personal matter. Practise with the volume as low as possible. The louder the volume in your earphones, the louder you will speak and there is nothing worse than a booming interpreter who can be heard in the background on all channels, deafening all around and putting the technician in a flat spin. "Boomers" tend to be unpopular so if your colleagues in neighbouring booths close their doors rather pointedly you will know why. Beginners should make a conscious effort to lower their voices both in volume and in pitch (when nervous, one tends to raise one's pitch.) You will find that by adjusting the tone contol, that is, the balance between treble and bass, you can lower the volume, thus protecting your hearing.

Before you start work the first morning, check the equipment in case there is something you haven 't seen before. First, make sure you know how to switch the microphone on and off - in some convention centres I have worked in, the green light is on when you are free to talk to your cabin-mate, that is, the microphone is switched off - and the red light comes on when the microphone is switched on whereas in others on the contrary the green light comes on when the microphone is switched on. This is extremely confusing for the first hour or two. It is rather like driving in a country where traffic is on the other side of the road. Beware ! Check the cough-button, and the relay system and unless you work from Chinese or Arabic, check with the colleagues in the Chinese or Arabic booth to find out whether they will be working into English or into French.

Before you start, too, have a look at the list of participants if there is one (if not, look at the report of the last meeting where there will probably be one) to see if there are any difficult-to-pronounce names, or any English names you may not recognize in the mouth of a French, Spanish or Russian speaker. Make sure too you are up to date with the country names which may have changed following certain political events (the former USSR, for example, "Burma" or "Myanmar" - you must of course say the same as the speaker) and know when to say "People's Republic of" and when to say "Popular Republic of".


A word about your level of animation. Try to adopt the same level of animation as the speaker you are interpreting. When you are off the air, it is interesting to switch to the various channels: the original may be a dull British voice, but sometimes the Spanish and Italian booths sound so animated you would almost think the speaker was belligerent while the French booth makes him sound alert and agitated. Do not go to the other extreme, however: a dead-pan monotonous voice, however accurate the interpretation, is not pleasant to listen to and tends to send the delegates to sleep, especially after lunch.

A pleasant tone of voice is important; however desperate you may feel, do not sound desperate. Try to sit back in your chair and feel detached enough to improve your style as you go, finish the sentences properly, and perhaps use different words from the speaker in order to get closer to his meaning. As you become more experienced and more confident you will learn not to follow the speaker too closely, but to sit back and put odd words in the little “pockets” of your brain to retrieve later when the speaker slows down.


According to B. Grote (AIIC), reporting on an information meeting between five interpretation "users" and thirty-five conference interpreters in 1980, "delegates felt that interpreters should consider themselves part of a complicated "thinking machine", that, painful as this may be to us, the best interpreters were those one could simply forget, that interpreters should take their vocation literally and "interpret" the original speaker as faithfully as a piano soloist interprets a sonata."

In case of doubt: accuracy comes before style.

Fast Speakers and Economising your Voice

It makes all the difference in the world if you have been able to read and prepare the text beforehand. However, whether or not you have been able to do this, the strategy applied by experienced interpreters is to condense. This can be done without any loss of information. This is called macroprocessing and is necessary when the source text information is so dense that there is not enough time to convey everything into the target message, whatever the speed of the speaker. According to Marianna Sunnari of the University of Turku in Finland:

"when working with structurally different languages such as Finnish and Indoeuropean languages, macroprocessing is needed even in an "ideal" situation, where the speaker is speaking without a script and the interpreteers are familiar with the speaker and the topic. Novices, who do not master this strategy, fail to produce a coherent output message."

In any case, you must learn to economise your voice. You may be using it the whole, long day. You can learn to economise the effort required so that you won't be too tired as the afternoon wears on and if the speaker is going hell-for-leather you will find it less tiring if you speak softly.

Difficult speakers

Some people do not have the knack of public speaking: they mumble or gabble their words. Everybody has heard and had difficulty understanding speakers like these in their own language too. The more practice you can get listening to speakers like this the better. Working in booths other than the English, you will need practice too to understand the different types of accent and imperfect English you will have to interpret - delegates from Brazil, the Middle East, Japan, Norway, often Germany, Czeckoslovakia as well as India, Pakistan and some African countries often have to use English instead of their own language. Practice makes perfect.

Remember that you must not try to improve on what the speaker says. Even if it seems to you that he is talking nonsense and you think you could do better. He may be being deliberately vague, playing for time, awaiting telephone instructions from his capital; in any case you cannot know the tactics, the strategies that may be at play. All you are asked to do is to interpret accurately and to respect the register of the speaker.

Keep up your languages

There is a saying I have heard, generally applied to "grey power"(that is, those rather long in the tooth) : "Use it or Lose it!" This saying applies to interpreters' languages at any age. You must use your languages, read in them, speak in them, listen to them spoken or you will forget them.

Languages evolve all the time. If you left Guatemala or Argentina ten or more years ago, you can be sure the language you speak is not the same as is spoken there today and you will need to make a conscious effort to keep in touch. Quite apart from that, your Spanish will now be contaminated with the language being spoken around you. You may not even realize you are saying "el reporte" instead of "el informe". English short cuts also have an insidious way of insinuating themselves into other languages. So you must be constantly on the look-out for anglicisms in your speech. It is essential to read newspapers and literature from the countries whose languages you work into and from in order to keep them up to date. It is no good just glancing at the headlines and reading only the subjects of personal interest. Thorough reading is required with an open mind as to type of language used, shades of meaning, paying particular attention to current affairs.

If you are a beginner, you can also learn a lot from listening to experienced colleagues working in your languages to see how they tackle a particular difficulty or subject. When you are not actually on the air yourself, switch over to the other booths to hear the words being used - this may be of great help because the delegates speaking those languages will be using the same words. This is also an excellent way to improve your vocabulary in your passive languages.

Your Conference diary

Keep careful note of all your conference commitments to avoid any overlapping or duplication. Reply promptly to offers of work. If you are not available, the recruiter will need to contact someone else and cannot afford to waste precious time. Be sure that someone is available to answer your telephone, someone who knows your availability - otherwise invest in an answering machine and check your messages daily, even from afar. Wherever you may be, be sure to check your e-mail messages regularly and respond to them, otherwise you may find you don't get a second offer.

Open your documents early

Be sure to open e-mails or postal envelopes containing conference documents immediately, even if you do not need to study them until later. Contracts, programmes or details of change of venue may be hidden among them and organisers are justifiably irritated when you telephone for information that has already been sent to you. Do not leave it until the last minute because you need to see, well ahead of time, how difficult the subject matter is. Some conferences require more preparation than others - you may need to go to a reference library to study a difficult subject before you start work on the conference documents themselves or to research the subject on the internet. On the other hand, if the subject-matter is easy, or one that you have done frequently in the past, three or four days may be enough. But - better safe than sorry.


Professional interpreters generally have squared "date cards", the size of a postcard, printed like a calendar for each year. Across the top they put their name, telephone and fax numbers and language combination and the year. The months are in a vertical column down the left-hand-side, the days across the top horizontally. Twice a year they mark their assignments by blocking out the corresponding squares and send these to their regular clients so that conference organizers can see at a glance when they are free, thus saving unnecessary telephone calls. It is also a useful way to keep in touch with potential clients and remind them of your existence without pestering them by telephone.

Preparing for a meeting

It is a good idea to work out your own system to keep track of documents, past and current, on a particular subject or for a particular organisation. You should also work out your own method for indexing key words, including titles of officials and committees with their translation into each of your working languages. The better your mastery of the organisation's structure and jargon, the better your chances of being recruited again. It is also important that freelance interpreters identify with the "corporate image" of the organisation.

At least two weeks before the conference you should receive a complete set of documents in each of the working languages containing, for example, a full programme, agenda, list of participants, minutes or previous meetings, reports, invitations and all the documents which will be available to the other participants or which might be helpful in the preparation for the conference. Minutes of past meetings and proceedings of earlier congresses are very useful too.

Make sure you keep time free before the meeting to study all of these papers in depth. If this is the first time you have worked on the particular subject, you should also read up as much as you can in whatever library is available to give you some background understanding that will help you cope with fast or difficult speakers and give you the feeling you are on top of the subject. Some people think interpreters simply transliterate words without understanding the idea conveyed by the message, but interpreters know that it is quite impossible to reproduce messages without a full comprehension of what the speaker wants to say and this, in turn, is impossible without some knowledge of the subject matter. The various search engines on the internet are of course invaluable for this purpose. The first time you work for an International Organization it is advisable to ask them for a set of the Basic Texts governing that organization: Charter or Constitution, Statutes, Standing Orders and so on, which you will keep with the glossary you have prepared during the meeting for future reference.

When sorting out the conference documents you are about to study, you will need a system to index them so you can find any document you need in the booth in a hurry (for example, Committee documents, Plenary documents, working documents, conference room documents). Pay particular attention to key words and also the titles of officials (which vary according to the organization, for example in some there may be a Deputy Secretary-General, in another a similar post may be called Assistant Secretary-General or Vice-Secretary-General). Prepare your own multi-lingual glossary, noting carefully the "in-jargon" of the technical or professional organization concerned. You will find that "Commissions" are generally bigger than "Committees" and "Committees" more permanent than "Working Groups."

You will also need to list the official names of the various Committees (Standing Committees, and so on) in your languages for each Organization to keep on file. It would seem that "Executive Committee" is obviously "Comité ejecutivo" and "Comité exécutif" but it may not be in some organizations. In the International Telecommunications Union where telephony is concerned a "Recommendation" is not "une recommandation" but rather "un Avis" and an "Opinion" is "un Voeu" in French . "Steering Committee" or "Management Committee" has various translations depending on the organization, as well as "Council", "Board", "Governing Body", "Junta", "working group"," ad hoc group" and "task force". Sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason, but that's how it is and you just have to memorize these idiosyncracies. (Also, "le Comité exécutif a renvoyé la question pour examen au Comité X" , "referred" in English and "remitió este asunto a la consideración del Comité" ).


Source : Conference Interpreting – Principles and Practice., Tayor-Bouladon, Valerie, Crawford House Adelaide. 2001


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