Interpreting for web geeks.

Monday, October 1st, 2012

My Twitter stream these past few weeks was awash with anglophone web geeks speaking at conferences in Germany, Italy and Portugal. Jeremy spoke in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands earlier in the year, and last week he was in Norway. Other people we know have given talks in France, Poland and Switzerland. Look at just about any European country, and you’re likely to find web folk organizing conferences with international speakers (and that’s just Europe—there are conferences in China, Japan, South America…the list goes on).

This welcome internationalism goes hand in hand with a somewhat tricky issue: multilingualism. For better or worse, English is the lingua franca of the web, and English tends to be the lingua franca of web conferences throughout Europe (France, unsurprisingly, being an exception). And while your average young Continental European generally has a good-to-excellent grasp of English, it’s not entirely unusual for conference organizers in southern Europe in particular to provide simultaneous interpreters* for attendees who might struggle to follow a native English speaker barreling full-tilt through a technical presentation.

To be fair, when speakers or attendees actually notice the presence of interpreters at a web conference, they usually express interest in what the interpreters are doing as well as a degree of sympathy for the difficulty of the job. But this sympathy often has an overtone of bemusement, like “Ho ho ho, just wait until [insert name of speed-talker] gets on stage—those interpreters have their work cut out for them!” Well, yeah, they do, and that work becomes a whole lot harder, if not actually impossible, when presenters make no concessions to the interpreters laboring on their behalf.

The process of comprehension, interpretation and expression that I talked about in reference to written translation applies to interpreting as well, but on a massively compressed timescale (i.e., instantaneously) and with added technical issues. For an interpreter, it’s not a matter of just talking (or signing) faster to keep up with a speedy presenter, it’s a matter of speeding up the entire input/output process—and even for the most proficient interpreters, there are cognitive and physical limits to how quickly you can absorb information, process it and spit it out again in a different form.

If this all seems too abstract, here’s an exercise you can try to get a feel for the job of an interpreter. Pop some headphones on and fire up James Burke’s talk from dConstruct this year. Just for fun, skip ahead to about 1 minute 40 seconds where he talks about the “speak/listen event” and try shadowing or parroting what he says, when and how he says it, while doing something else at the same time, like writing a list of numbers.

To kick it up a notch, try it again, but instead of simultaneously parroting him, stay about a phrase (or a “unit of meaning”) behind him and, using your own words, reformulate or paraphrase what he says as he says it. Do this for 20 minutes at a clip, on and off, all day long—and you still won’t be performing the mental and physical feats demanded of simultaneous interpreters, but you’ll have more of an idea of what the interpreters are going through as speakers blast through presentations on stage.

You might think it’s not your job as a presenter to cater to an interpreter, it’s the interpreter’s job to keep up with you no matter what (I’ve encountered speakers who seem to take a perverse pride in doing absolutely nothing to accommodate an interpreter—an arrogant, self-defeating attitude if I’ve ever heard one). But if you care at all about accessibility—and surely you do if you’re working on the web—then you should understand that interpretation (signed or spoken**) is an issue of accessibility, and this accessibility goes two ways: Interpreters are there to make your presentation accessible to others, but they can only do that if you make your presentation accessible to them.

In an ideal world, the interpreters would get the text of your presentation, or at least an outline or even just the slides, in advance. But I know how these things go in real life (talks are tweaked late into the night, slides are context-dependent), so I know in most cases this isn’t going to happen—though if it does happen, you will probably have the interpreters’ eternal gratitude.

If nothing else, providing the interpreters with a list of technical terms, acronyms or unusual product names can be helpful so they don’t waste time trying to parse something like “whatdoubleyoujee” as a word when you’re actually talking about the WHATWG. Also bear in mind that numbers are tricky; they fly by quickly when spoken and are constructed differently in different languages (the relatively pithy “ninety-nine” in English is a mouthful of “quatre-vingt-dix-neuf” in French), so rattling off long lists of dates or statistics may cause your interpreters to struggle. If those numbers are important to you, say ’em clearly and slap ’em on a slide to boot.

If you can’t give the interpreters a heads up on your presentation and you won’t go to the lengths really required to internationalize your talk (e.g., taking out language-based jokes and specific cultural references), then the least you can do when you get on stage is be aware of the interpreters who will essentially be giving your presentation along with you while translating it on the fly at the same time.

Presumably you want your words to reach as much of the audience as possible. The interpreters are there to help you do that, and you can help them help you by speaking clearly and at a moderate speed (which you should be doing anyway, right?). I know from experience that a measured pace of speech is usually the first thing to fall by the wayside during a public presentation, but it’s worth working on this—not just for the sake of interpreters or a foreign audience, but for any audience anywhere.

At the very least, there needs to be communication between conference organizers, interpreters and presenters. Organizers can let presenters know well ahead of time if there are going to be interpreters at a conference, presenters can speak to the interpreters about potentially problematic parts of a talk, and interpreters can request as much advance information as possible from the organizers. If everyone is prepared for the situation, it’s a lot more likely that everyone will be happy with the outcome.

There’s no way around it: Interpretation is an effort, providing interpreters at an event is an effort, and adapting a talk for a multilingual audience is an effort. But it’s an admirable, necessary effort, and by making it, you show that communication, accessibility and people are important to you. As a speaker, not making the effort is the equivalent of saying “I don’t really care whether anyone understands what I say”—in which case you may as well be speaking to an empty room.

* A brief note on translators versus interpreters: Translators work with written documents, interpreters work with spoken/signed language. At conferences, the people muttering into microphones at the back of the room or the people signing at the front are simultaneous interpreters, not simultaneous translators.

** Incidentally, while conferences rightfully get kudos for providing sign language interpreters, they rarely garner the same level of public praise for providing spoken language interpreters, even though the two kinds of interpreters are doing the exact same job for the exact same reason—one is just doing it more visibly than the other.

Note: In the course of writing this, I came across an article with tips for an interpreter-friendly presentation in the August 2012 issue of the American Translators Association magazine. The article goes a bit further than I do, but the gist is the same: There is an effort to be made and it’s worth making it.

Also, if you’ve worked as an interpreter at a web conference recently, or if you’ve organized or spoken at a conference with interpreters, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment!



Interesting reading - and definitely makes me see things from the point of view I’ve never had (since the conferences I’ve attended have always - bar one - been in English).

For me a few things need to come in to play:

  1. Organisers must connect with the speakers ahead of time to get as much info about their talk to pass on to translators. As a conference organiser myself, I definitely see this being my role.
  2. There are a good handful of speakers who give the same talk (me included occasionally) where the session is recorded - I imagine if the translator had that recording ahead of time, it would be of great value?
  3. The speaker might be able to attempt to cater for translation during the writing of the talk in the first place. Personally it’s never crossed my mind - but if you’re starting to do the international circuit, or you know it’s a new talk that will be translated, you could cater for that in the initial talk (as you mentioned, localised jokes, pace of the talk, etc).

I think 1 & 2 could be something I do by default now on though.


What a brilliant article, Jessica ~ thanks for sharing your insights.


Well said. And it was about time the tables were turned on conference speakers. They need to be told how they can make the interpreters’ lives easier. Being able to work with interpreters should be a core presentation skill in a globalised world, shouldn’t it? Most articles I come across only seem to ask the other question, i.e.: What can interpreters do to deal with difficult situations during a conference. So if the ATA is also taking this approach, this might actually mean there’s going to be a change in the general attitude. Let’s spread the word!

Posted by HarschLanguage


@Remy - You’re absolutely right, presenters can adjust their talks to varying degrees (even developing a new talk with its future translation in mind), but they can only make adjustments for interpreters if they know in advance that a conference is going to have interpreters—and that’s where the organizer comes in. I do realize, though, that as a conference organizer, you have the issue of dealing with speakers who can’t or won’t provide details about their talks well in advance…

And your comment on recordings is spot on; interpreters should definitely seek out or be given access to audio/video recordings of speakers whose talks they’re going to be interpreting—that would be tremendously helpful.

@Prisca - I’m glad you enjoyed it, thank you!

@HarschLanguage - It was, of course, our interpreting gig last year that first made me realize how oblivious speakers can be to the interpretation process, and how there is a point at which it is simply impossible to translate a presentation because of its speed and/or construction. And yeah, this is a massively important issue in a globalized world, whether you’re a web geek or a historian or a scientist or a sales rep or whoever. And no one else is going to stand up for the poor linguists stuck in the booths at the back—we have to do it ourselves!


Another great article! When I attended a school for foreign language correspondents in Germany and was considering going to a school for interpreters afterwards, my teacher said ‘the salary isn’t bad, but they all have their first heart attack in their mid-thirties, just like the stockbrokers.’ Suffice it to say that I went into marketing instead and am now switching to web design ;)

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