Almost every consultant interpreter will have been told at some point that conferences in tech or medicine tend to be English-only. “Everyone speaks English and interpreting is expensive so we just have the entire conference in English” say some organisers. While it seems to make financial sense, is it a good long-term decision?
Let’s start with a story.
I was interpreting at a negotiation. A French company were trying to get investment in their newest sure-fire, profit-making product. At least one of the two senior managers could have managed in English and the investor had decent enough French, so why did they hire me?
The problem wasn’t so much in terminology, although there were terminological differences, but in culture. The investor came from a culture where the point of a meeting was to quickly dive into the financial detail, especially the profit margins and earnings forecasts. He expected that everyone would want to get straight down to the figures and returns.
The French company were into building relationship, talking history, vision, and extolling the virtues of their community engagement. They needed an interpreter not just because of linguistic differences but to help them navigate the cultural difference.
English-only events exist because there is an assumption that people all know the same terms and so they can communicate perfectly. If the majority of the terms are the same in every language, there is no room for miscommunication, right?
Wrong! Just ask the Italian construction industry experts who fouled up a presentation of their company’s best ever project in front of hundreds of other industry bods because they presented in (broken) English, instead of Italian. Ask the British manufacturing company who almost lost a deal because they defined a word differently to a visiting buyer.
Terminology is just one part of language and often, it is the least relevant part. While it is possible to take the idea too far, it is well-known that different languages have different views of the world. A US company might look at a widget and see three parts to it, a company in Germany might see six. In some cultures, it is absolutely vital to show due respect to your hosts with a flowing, artful thank you at the top of your presentation; in others, that marks you out as a time-waster.
English-only events create an illusion of understanding and implicitly exclude ideas and thinking that don’t fit easily into English-language norms. For that reason English-only tech events block more innovations than they promote. How can machine translation experts learn to create more flexible and useful systems if they work, present and test in largely monolingual environments? Why else would so many companies chase after the low-value market for “instant interpreting on the go“, if not because their founders rarely speak anything but English?
The business case for English-only events is becoming weaker as time goes on. We know that people buy more, are more easily persuaded and learn more if they read and hear in their native language. Could it be that they think better and innovate more in that language too? And if that is the case, could it be that interpreting, rather than being a big expense could be the smartest investment that a company can make?