How To Speak Effectively Through Interpretation

Interpretation students (University of Bath, United Kingdom)

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts on “the how” of public diplomacy.   This post is about simultaneous interpretation in a formal setting.  Many people working in the field – in combat or development environments – rely on interpreters (sometimes called “terps,” and usually indigenous personnel, although some are not) as well.  You can find advice for operating with interpreters in those environments, which I found both interesting and useful, here.  Those participating in religious missions have posted similar advice. I’ve read all of this and think it’s worth adapting to the formal setting as well.

If you work at the international or multilateral level in business, diplomacy or academia, at some point you are going to have to speak through interpretation. You will never speak every language and not everyone will speak yours.  Most multilateral organizations provide interpretation for their formal meetings: NATO, the OECD and the European Union provide interpretation into French and English, the United Nations into English, French, Arabic, Russian and Mandarin.  Other regional organizations, such as the OAS, the AU, and the OSCE, with their exotic political permutations, provide equally interesting language interpretation.

I love interpreters and found the NATO interpreters among the most interesting, intelligent, personable and witty professionals I met while working in Brussels.  Speaking through these skilled professionals to foreign, skeptical, and occasionally hostile audiences made every difference in being understood.  So getting to know the interpretation staff taught me a few things I would never have otherwise known about this highly selective, brilliantly trained, and absurdly underappreciated art in diplomatic tradecraft. (If that’s not clear enough a dedication, I’ll state it here: this post is for my friends on the NATO interpretation staff and the many interpretation students I worked with while in Brussels!)

First, a few things to clarify. Interpreters work with the spoken word. They are distinguished from translators who work with texts. You will only speak to a translator at a cocktail party. (At NATO, and I presume at the European Union, translators and interpreters worked in the same section.)  Nobody “translates” spoken language, it is “interpreted”.  (I also knew writers and public diplomacy officers at NATO who worked in several languages but were not interpreters or translators, and for them I had an especially unique respect.)

There are, generally, two forms of interpretation. Most commonly seen by the public is consecutive interpretation – that’s the man or woman hovering around the President and Prime Minister, interpreting large blocks of spoken word uttered one at time in sequence between the two principals.  More commonly heard by the public is simultaneous interpretation – what they’re more likely to hear on television or the radio during the live broadcast of a foreign speech, for example.

Simultaneous interpretation is what makes large international and multilateral meetings among people speaking different languages possible. Interpreters, most often listening in on microphones, interpret the words spoken by individuals, as they are speaking, into another language, which the others in the audience listen to on headsets. It is something to watch and even more amazing to listen to if you happen to speak two of the languages being interpreted.

But this is an art.  The interpreters are highly trained and are constantly improving. And they confront in us – the often oblivious speaker – a daunting array of linguistic challenges: a machine-gun or molasses speaking pace, incomprehensible accents and regional dialects, down-home idioms and mixed metaphors. And so on.

I was surprised and thrilled to learn from the NATO interpreters that they did not consider themselves passive observers of events but more like aides to a process (they wouldn’t go so far to say active participants of course).  So to borrow a phrase, I am writing this to help you help them help you.  Here’s what I learned mostly from them but also from extensive practice speaking through interpretation in about a half-dozen languages (including relay interpretation):

Rule #1: Talk to Your Interpreter. Professional interpreters are usually native bilingual, highly trained, with years of experience interpreting on a wide array of subjects.  In many cases, interpreters are also subject-matter experts.  At NATO, the translation and interpretation section had compiled a dictionary-sized French-English lexicon dedicated to NATO-related procedure, jargon and acronyms, which most of my colleagues had committed to memory.  Now imagine that kind of expertise applied to the war crimes tribunals, ASEAN, the World Trade Organization, the IAEA, the OSCE, or the subject matter granddaddy of them all, the United Nations.  Meeting interpreters is kind of like encountering two brains.

Rule #2: TALK TO YOUR INTERPRETER.  Actually, I can’t emphasize this enough.  Those are sound-proof, not bullet-proof, cabins they’re in, and interpreters are not furniture.  They are fonts of knowledge and the critical fulcrum on which pivots your ability to communicate successfully with a foreign and possibly unfriendly audience.  You can and should talk to them in advance. My experience has been that they are usually delighted to meet speakers.  Tell them what you are talking about, how long you plan to speak, and whether you plan to take questions and answers. The more information you can provide them, the better. Ask them what they need to interpret you.  Ask them about the language they are interpreting, if there are any linguistic quirks that they think you should know.  For example, German famously places verbs last in sentences, which usually delays interpretation to and from English.  Georgian, I learned, has an ancient and complex grammatical construction that usually requires “packing” into English and “unpacking” English into Georgian – demanding feats of mental gymnastics from the interpreters.  No wonder there are always two of them on hand!

Rule #3: It’s preferable to speak normally and well-prepared but NOT from a text.  This was a surprise to me.  But when we speak extemporaneously we are repetitive and iterative, using the same phrases and vocabulary again and again.  Interpreters pick up on these patterns very quickly and it helps them anticipate the speaker’s intent.  A text, by contrast, is comparatively rigid and linear in thought, construction and vocabulary and is much more difficult to interpret from speech alone (see Rule #4 below).  As for “normal speech,” I was always told I spoke too fast, and I suppose I still do.  At the same time I was told NOT to speak too slowly, either, because it’s often hard to follow a person’s train of thought when they don’t speak at a normal pace (there’s a spooky element to this art that makes really good interpreters seem almost like mind-readers).

Rule #4: If you have to use a text or PowerPoint presentation, provide it to your interpreter in advance.  This relates to Rule #3.  If you are required to use a text or (God protect us) PowerPoint – especially if you have a hard time speaking publicly or need to be precise in your language – provide all of it to the interpreters and if possible walk them through the text and the presentation and indicate where you might deviate and what you might digress about.

Rule #5: No sports metaphors.  The rest of the world does not play baseball and football, and metaphors like “switch-hitting,” “the whole nine yards,” “batting cleanup,” “fourth and goal” and the rest will likely go uninterpreted or worse, precisely and literally translated into absolute jibberish.  Don’t worry, Americans are not the only ones guilty of this: the British are so notorious for flinging around incomprehensible cricket terms, I’ve been told, that entire classes at interpretation and translation schools are available for students to learn them.

Rule #6:  Avoid colorful metaphors and idiomatic expressions to speak as clearly and literally as possible.  Interpreters are exceptional professionals who are constantly trolling their languages for exotic idioms, but there will always be a few that catch them by surprise – which means you may not be able to transmit a point across the language frontier.  I happily and deliberately stumped an entire group of interpreter applicants at NATO sitting for a board exam with the phrase “political pinball.”  A famous, if apocryphal, story has Billy Joel concluding one of his first concerts in the former Soviet Union just after the collapse of Communism by exhorting the crowd, “Don’t take shit from anyone!” This was interpreted to the perplexed audience as “If someone offers you excrement, refuse!”

Rule #7: Avoid acronyms and jargon.  Depending on your audience and the situation, try to purge your language of acronyms and jargon.  Not everyone will know what you’re talking about when you say SACEUR and SECDEF flew MILAIR to KAIA, rode MRAPs to ISAFHQ where they met COMISAF, UNAMA reps and NGOs.  If you have to use this kind of shorthand – in some circumstances you simply can’t avoid it – brief the interpreters in advance.  I usually try to apply the Associated Press rule: it your acronyms are not commonly understood (e.g., UN, NATO), spell them out on first reference (World Trade Organization, United States Trade Representative), label them (WTO, USTR), and then use the acronym after that.  Be very much aware of jargon that may be common to you but not understood by the general public, or may be translated unclearly to your audience.  All the more reason to talk to your interpreter in advance (see Rule #1 and Rule #2).

Rule #8:  At the end, thank your interpreters on the hot mike for everyone to hear in both languages. They know more than you do.  In fact, if they’re not completely exhausted, chat them up afterwards and ask them for tips on how you can improve for the next time.

During the session, you can speak to your interpreter over the mike, for example by asking them to clarify a statement or asking for the previous speaker to repeat what they said.  (Don’t ask for an “explanation” or linguistic disquisition!)  Help your interpreter out by being aware of both what is said and what is not said and by keeping an eye on the glass – interpreters will cue you if the microphone is not hot by knocking on the window, for example.

Particularly for English speakers, it is easy to swim in a wide language sea at a suitable temperature. But there are still nearly 7,000 distinct spoken languages in the world.  Even possibly the most linguistically gifted man in the world speaks only 11 of them.  Others have claimed to know five times as many, but that’s still a fraction of the whole earth. If you want to speak to rest of the world, you’re going to have to lean on somebody.


About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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