Why Conference Interpreters Need Background Information?

Some event and meeting planners have experience working with conference interpreters. Others have none. Nevertheless, there is always a first time. Although securing an interpreting team in the correct language pair is important, it is equally vital that the team be familiar with the subject material. Why does that matter?

First, how many words are in the language? English boasts over 470,000 entries (and thousands of foreign vocabulary). Italian has almost 160,000 (plus foreign words). Spanish contains over 93,000 terms (and thousands of foreign entries). Various websites searched in 2019 state for the languages I listed, the average person knows 20,000 to 40,000 terms. I would confidently state that there is no interpreter who speaks English and Italian that knows over 630,000 words on demand. To ensure accurate interpretation, the team must be informed what exactly is the theme of the event. A Norwegian-English interpreter was apprised that the speakers would discuss dairy cows and milk production. At the venue, the presenters spoke about fodder and animal feed processing. Two completely different subjects!

Have you ever listend to a TED talk and repeated the lecturer’s words? Visit this one, set your timer, and try it for five minutes. How well did you do without knowing the subject ahead of time? Now imagine listening to it, remembering it, understanding it, translating it, preparing the proper grammar rules, and then regenerating it orally into the target (foreign) language WHILE continuing to listen, remember, understand, translate, prepare, and regenerating the message for 30 straight minutes. Conference interpreting is a premium service, and the team does not charge you for event preparation. Having a program, glossary, speeches, outlines, and slides all assist in multilingual success.

Second, who are the presenters? You may think, who cares, all you have to do is interpret from the booth.  Listen to these speakers for less than two minutes.  Now ponder any one of these people speaking English for 30 minutes. Are you capable of listening, remembering, understanding, and repeating their words correctly for a half hour? If anyone is old enough to remember the late 1990s and early 2000s, if you had a computer issue and called its customer service line, you usually were connected to someone with a thick accent. It was terribly difficult to understand the technician, and that increased your angst.

A colleague once told me of a multilingual event with multiple interpreter booths (English, Spanish, Italian, and others).  One orator had a heavy accent; the Italian interpreting team could not understand the message.  The A/V technician connected the Italian team to the Spanish interpreting team feed; then the Italian team could interpret from Spanish into Italian.  As part of their research, the team scours the internet to find audio bites and speeches for these speakers.  Even when a speaker has an accent, interpreters can prepare and increase their comprehension. However, no information puts your interpreting team at a disadvantage and disrespects your multilingual delegates. 


In conclusion, you want repeat business. That is why your event must be spectacular.  Conference interpreters want to contribute to its success by performing their best rendition. When you collaborate and provide these materials with ample time, your entire audience benefits. Otherwise, when the interpreting team arrives, they will find the presenters and obtain the necessary information.  After all, their professional reputation is literally and figuratively on the line.

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