Trials And Tribulations Of A Conference Interpreter In A Low-Cost World

With ever-increasing pressure on cutting costs today’s meeting planners are understandably tempted to try teleconferencing and remote interpreting. On the face of it, what could be more logical? Your multinational board meeting takes place abroad while your UK board members are comfortably ensconced in their London office listening to the discussions in their own language effortlessly conveyed through an interpreter in the adjoining room. Reality, however, is less straightforward.

Imagine your interpreters in their own room, complete with generous supplies of coffee and biscuits, straining to hear what is being said across the Channel. They have been given headsets to which their mini-mike has been attached so that they can speak directly to the UK participants in London over a telephone line. The headsets have earpieces which have no useful function and which actually block whatever feedback is coming from the discussions. There is a video of the meeting but it is impossible to know who is speaking so that it does not in any way facilitate understanding.

An alternative is to use Skype which is fine for having a chat with members of your family abroad. Have you ever witnessed the scene, however, when a delegate in Africa is trying to communicate with fellow participants at a meeting in London? The sound is bad enough for those who do not need interpretation and certainly does not allow for simultaneous interpreting. It can often degenerate into a glorified Punch and Judy show with the exiled delegate disappearing unexpectedly to have a sandwich or a comfort break.

Another cost-cutting exercise is the misuse of the “tour guide”. This handheld microphone was originally intended for factory visits or – as the name suggests – for groups being led by a tour leader. It was fit for purpose with the interpreter standing close to the speaker and participants keeping up at their own pace whilst receiving the translation through their headsets.

Nowadays it is used indiscriminately in high-level meetings to save on the cost of soundproof booths and microphones. The interpreter can be placed at the end of a long board-room table with no microphones whilst the important statements are made at the other end of the table with no sound amplification. In fact, the more important the meeting, very often the softer the voice. Sometimes the interpreter can sprint round the table, clutching the microphone, in a desperate attempt to keep up – this is distracting for the participants, embarrassing for the interpreter and an unnecessary strain on everyone concerned.

The ubiquitous tour guide has also made its way into the amphitheatre where a fortunate interpreter may have found a place in the front row in order to be able to hear the presentation, delivered without a mike. Unfortunately this is not the end of the story. Either the interpreter speaks in a whisper so that she can hear the presentation. Alternatively, the foreign participants have to strain to hear the message. Alternatively the interpreter speaks loud and clear but cannot hear the original presentation which is masked by the interpreter’s voice.

In conclusion, it is essential that organizers consult their interpreters before taking a decision on the type of interpreting or sound system. For simultaneous interpreting there are two major principles which must be respected: there has to be a direct audio feed into the interpreters’ headsets and a close-up view of the speakers, either live or on screen. Low-cost meetings should not mean low cost-efficiency.