Integrity Languages


The Hidden Variables of a Visible Conference

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 7, 2016


Great interpreters have learned to never take things at face value. The crumpled suit can be wrapped around a genius AV guy. The book that is falling apart can be a real jewel.


The same goes for conferences. Sure, the heading might talk about changing the world or raising the standards or whatever but most attendees might be happy to go home with a few extra business cards, some useful snippets and memories of nice meals. For interpreters, the gap between the publicity material and the real measures of success can be a source of confusion.


Take one assignment I had for an industry that manages and processes a raw material (no, I can’t tell you which). If I remember correctly, the conference publicity was all about the bright future of the industry and how to revolutionise it. (Odd how those things always go together.) The French delegation, however, were simply flabbergasted to have an interpreter who knew the right terms and could help them gather the data they needed to make key business decisions.


The strange thing that I have found both in my PhD research and in practice is that there can be a chasm between what the organisers want from a conference and what the delegates want. Actually, it’s unusual if there is perfect agreement.


So what’s an interpreter to do?


Here’s a simple case. I have a bit of Fisheries Policy work under my belt. In those meetings: the organiser wants to get a paper draft that everyone is happy with; the fishermen want as many fishing rights as they can; the scientists want clarity and precision; and the environmentalists want the fishermen to have as few rights as possible. The only workable solution I have found is to interpret in a way that keeps the communication channels open as long as possible and helps people to understand each other. Eventually, with nudges in the right place from a skilled chair, you get agreement in the end.


A happy room = a happy chair = good feedback to the agency = more work.


With the assignment I am preparing for this time, in a completely different setting, my first job is not to read every shred of paperwork but to comb the website for the purpose set out by the organisers and comb the talks for every indication of what the speakers are trying to do. And no, “inform” is not enough.


A finance talk might actually be saying “we are managing your money well, so keep paying your dues on time”. A tech talk might actually be a sales talk in a white coat. A case study might actually be there to show off the capabilities of an organisation, so that they gain a bit of prestige, or more funding, or both!


One of the skills of a successful interpreter is being able to correctly read those purposes and yet not overdo it when it comes to actually interpreting. We might be wrong, after all. However expert our preparation, it has to be subject to our skill in reading the room and understanding in real-time what is really going on.


It’s all about context

Interpreting researchers never get bored of letting people know that meaning is dependent on context. The chair saying, “I think it’s time we moved on” means something entirely different if someone is asking a rambling question than it does if everyone is excitedly engaging with the speaker. And those two meanings can and should lead to the interpreter saying entirely different things.


Among other business duties, today is the day I will really dig into all that and take an initial view of what the conference is actually for and what will put a smile on the faces of those there.

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