Integrity Languages


Tag Archives: preparation

Interpreters Climb Inside Your Head for a Living

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 30, 2017

Yesterday, I talked about why preparing for an interpreting assignment involves a whole lot more than just looking up terminology. Today, I want to take that a bit further. As I am realising with this job especially, interpreters have to do more than understand what you are saying, we need to get inside your head.


There is one particular speaker at this event. When I read his speech, I can understand him on one level. When I watch him on YouTube, I understand him better but I will learn the most about him by doing deeper research on his writing, his affiliations and the things he has done in his work. Nine times out of ten, the trickiest terminological and phraseological issues are resolved by context, not by dictionaries. If I want to understand what someone is saying, I need to understand what they are trying to do with what they are saying.


For a trained interpreter, that is well-trodden ground. Most of us will have heard of or have been trained in speech act theory – the idea that people do things with the words they say. But when you are interpreting, you need to go even further than that. To interpret someone well, you need to really get a hold of why they are saying what they are saying and who they are saying it too. Even more, you need to be able to figure out the best way to project that to a brand new audience – one they might never meet or talk to personally.


To allow yourself to be interpreted is to trust someone to produce a version of what you said in another language that means the same thing somehow. They become your voice and your door to an entirely new culture. As long as you are being interpreted, you live in two (or more!) languages and cultures at once.


At this conference, it is clear that speakers will be trying to convince and argue, persuade and prompt, debate and describe. For our interpreting to even come close to working, we will need to figure out ways to allow them to do that an entirely different language, with entirely different ways of convincing, arguing, persuading, prompting, debating and describing. And all that while having no control over the pace or technicality or even clarity of the words we hear. It’s hard work but it is always worth it.

Doing Great Marketing? Then #BackItUp

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 17, 2017

If your marketing budget is greater than your CPD budget, you have a problem

As is probably clear from all the posts on working with a CRM, pitching and writing for clients, I have been on a marketing binge so far this year and it is really paying off. I have caught the attention of new clients and have projects in various stages of being booked in. But it’s not enough to have great marketing; you have to #BackItUp with exceptional delivery.


By #BackItUp, I don’t mean having copies of your data stored in lots of places, as good an idea as that is. I mean that every hour spent on marketing needs to be supported by an hour spent on improving practice, especially since no one grows accidentally.


You can sell yourself as a premium provider all you like but if you deliver services that are more akin to the stuff you might buy out of someone’s car boot on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, you will hit a problem. The most powerful form of marketing is still recommendations and people will soon know whether you are as good as you claim to be.


Why do we think that some companies have massive rates of client turnover? If their marketing is good but they aren’t paying enough to work with great people, clients soon find out and look elsewhere. Whether you are an event interpreter, equipment supplier or events management company, if your marketing budget is greater than your CPD budget, you have a problem.


Since I am a French to English and English to French and conference interpreter based in Edinburgh, I absolutely have to be pushing my language and interpreting skills on a regular basis. That means keeping up-to-date with the latest research, practising specific areas of my performance, keeping my French honed and even listening back to myself.


So what do you do to #BackItUp? We can all learn from each other and get great new ideas for improving our practice. Why not share this post, alongside how you work on your skills and add the #BackItUp hashtag? Marketing is great but what we all need to #BackItUp.

Preparing to Interpret at Special Events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 21, 2016

Every event is special. No two conferences are exactly the same. But, for even the most experienced conference interpreters, there are occasions where they are asked to apply their skills in settings that are definitely not run of the mill. This is how I get ready for such events.


Only provide interpreting where you know you can excel


Before we even look at preparation, I need to make sure that one thing is clearly understood. While, at the beginning of our careers, wemight find ourselves outside their comfort zone, interpreters should never take on work unless they are trained for it and are sure they can deliver. So, in my particular case, I leave medical and court interpreting to the specialists and check topics and contexts carefully before accepting an assignment. It does you no good to turn up and do a poor job.


Even with that proviso in place, there are times when you end up using familiar skills in slightly less familiar environments. I have interpreted in muddy fields, on factory tours, in a power plant and on tour buses and for cartoon pandas and theatrical performers. Each time, those extra little quirks and changes in location or interpreting mode have meant a shift in preparation.


Same interpreting skills, different environment


While in the booth, it’s all about concentration management and delivery skills, outside of the booth, you need to rely on situation management. Suddenly, you are a lot more visible and your interpreting is just as much a part of the conversation or the tour as anything else.


My next assignment is very much in that vein. It has whispered interpreting, consecutive interpreting during an extended QA session and an artsy feel. Suddenly, performance and attitude will mean as much as accuracy and terminology.


So how do you prepare for special events?


If there is a single secret to preparing for special events, it is to try to tap in to the ideal experience of the event. What will send people home happy? What will make the organisers glad they invested? Why is the event even taking place in the first place?


While every event will require terminology preparation, watching videos of speakers, reading the agenda and such like, for some, it is just as necessary to try to understand what the organisers want people to feel during and after the event. Cultural events often aim for an impact on people’s hearts as well as their heads. Product launches often aim to leave people amazed enough to pull out their wallets.


Understanding that experience and practising interpreting in a way that is still accurate but it tuned to that situation is vital. This means not just interpreting videos of the speakers in ways that get information across but taking time to work through ways to get across their tone and enthusiasm and the atmosphere they create. Product presentations might need you to express enthusiasm and attention-to-detail, emotive speeches might require you to carry some of that emotion across suitably too.


So for this next assignment, one of the biggest but most rewarding challenges will be to put myself in the shoes of both the speakers and the organisers and find a way of speaking and interpreting that will fit in seamlessly with the event itself. After all, as soon as you bring an interpreter into a performance or any kind, they become performers themselves. Once you understand that, preparation becomes something you do with your whole body and not just your mind and mouth.

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.

Soft Skills and the Successful Interpreter

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2016


I have a fascinating conference interpreting assignment at the end of this week and I will be blogging regularly in the run-up, to show a little bit of the work that goes into preparing for an assignment. In almost all cases, preparation has to be woven round other business work, although a rough guide is that a day of work requires a day of preparation. Obviously, this does depend on the assignment.


Before we get that far, however, it is useful to start with some of the skills that interpreters need to have. Sure, we all have to be on point with our simultaneous interpreting techniques, our notetaking, our terminology management and the like but the ability to use all those skills intelligently hangs on our “soft” skills.


For me, soft skills are those personal skills and character traits that give meaning, power and direction to our “hard” or technical skills. So soft skills would including negotiation, sales, determination, self-control, creativity, ability to work in a team, marketing, situation management, ability to read context, change management, calmness and so much more.


There has been a bit of a needless ruckus in parts of the translation community as to whether you actually need soft skills or whether having excellent technical skills is enough. Five minutes thought will suffice to settle that. Unless you are truly irreplaceable, there are only so many personality faults you can have before your clients have enough to leave. How many of us have left utility companies, mobile phone companies or banks due to poor customer service?


For interpreters, soft skills make up the majority of the skills we need. Those who have heard me speak will have heard my catchphrase: “I used to think interpreting was a language skill with people attached; now I know it is a people skill with language attached.” Our entire job consists of keeping people talking long enough for them to agree, or learn, or gather evidence, or fulfil whatever the purpose of the meeting was. If we can’t get on with people and don’t want to understand people, we aren’t interpreters at all!


Now, I am a conference interpreter (I also do some business interpreting work), so my perspective may be a little skewed on this but here is how I see it. When clients see interpreters, their impression of all of us is determined by their impression of each of us. Simple things like shrugging off last minute agenda changes, accepting it when texts of speeches arrive three minutes before they are due to be delivered and laughing at the organiser’s attempts at humour go a long way towards creating a good impression and, on some jobs, that impression will be a large factor in the client’s view of our performance.


Yes, we all perform better when we receive good, accurate, and comprehensive information early, the event is predictable and the speakers are cooperative but as a speaker myself, I can tell you that last minute changes can happen for a variety of reasons, not all of them to do with poor preparation.


Great people skills and the ability to present yourself as a solid, dependable and creative professional give clients that feeling of being in good hands. Without good marketing and sales skills, we won’t get any clients in the first place. Without the technical competence, we won’t keep them. Without people skills, we can’t tune into what they want.


The only problem with soft skills is that they can be hard to teach. How do you teach the skill of reading a room? How do you help someone learn to defuse unnecessary tension and survive necessary tension? How can we help new interpreters acquire the ability to look calm, even when their nice prep has been thrown out the window by some unforeseen glitch?


I don’t know the answers to those questions but I am absolutely certain that the soft skills I have picked up from other interpreters, and good old real-life, will be vital on my next job.