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10 Tips for planning multilingual conferences

Oct, 2015
Written by Anja Peschel, translation by Anja Peschel

English is often used as a lingua franca at conferences, even when it isn’t the native language of most of the speakers and attendees. At high-profile events – or if not all of the speakers and attendees speak English – simultaneous interpreters help to overcome the language barrier.

German MP Gernot Erler, then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, was surprised at the difference interpreting services make: “Although my English is quite good, listening to the translation showed me how much one can miss in a foreign language.”

It may be well worth spending money on interpreters in order to make sure that all important messages are brought across.

We’ve put together several tips to ensure that your collaboration with an interpreting service runs smoothly:

  1. Specify the language combinations: Which languages will be spoken and which languages should be made available for listeners at your event? The answer to this question depends on the structure of the conference and the linguistic origins of the conference attendees. However, the languages spoken do not need to be the same as the languages heard. For example, it might make sense to limit the spoken languages to English and German, but have both languages interpreted into French.
  2. Plan your budget. Good conference interpreters and technical conference equipment cost money. That’s why we recommend soliciting quotes at the beginning of the planning process. This leaves enough time to find sponsors or adjust other factors (such as the program) in order to reduce costs.
  3. The right interpreting technique – simultaneous or consecutive – depends on the type of event. For a one-hour press conference, consecutive interpreting is probably most suitable. If the event is held in more than two languages or lasts for at least a day, simultaneous interpreting is the best solution.
  4. Booking your interpreters. The sooner you book the interpreters, the better. Conference interpreters who specialize in specific technical fields are often booked out well in advance. Booking early also allows you to use local interpreters when possible, saving you travel and accommodation expenses. Most conference interpreters are freelancers and can draw on their network of colleagues to put together a suitable team. As “interpreter” is not a protected profession, it is important to check that the candidate is sufficiently qualified (university degree in conference interpreting). Membership in professional organizations (AIIC, VKD) are another sign of professionalism. Speaking to an interpreter directly is the best way to find out how qualified he or she is and also allows you to determine if he or she has a pleasant voice.
  5. Book the technical equipment. Large conference centres often have their own technical equipment. Other conference locations can rent interpreting equipment. Ask your consultant interpreter if he or she can either recommend reliable providers or book the equipment for you.
  6. Include interpreters in programme planning. To avoid having too many interpreters, and thus higher costs, it’s good to know that a team of two interpreters per language combination can cover a total (pure) presentation time of around 5.5 hours. If the presentation program is longer, a team of three is needed for each language combination. If you discuss the programme with your consultant interpreter at an early stage, you may find that by shortening the program slightly or splitting the attendees into language groups during workshops, it may be possible to get by with a smaller team of interpreters.
  7. Notify speakers and potential attendees If you have decided to have your event interpreted, make sure you also let the speakers know. Some speakers may be pleased to have the opportunity to give their presentation in their native language, rather than in English, and the number of potential attendees may also increase significantly. Ask your speakers to make their talks (PowerPoint presentations, scripts) available in advance so that the interpreters can familiarize themselves with the specific subject.
  8. Encourage speakers to present in their native language if it’s one of the conference languages. A German who addresses his audience (that may also be 80% German) in English will typically speak less freely. Speakers seldom have the same range in a foreign language that they have in their mother tongue.
  9. Request preparatory materials Conference interpreters need as much information to prepare for an event as possible. Apart from the programme, slides and background information about the speakers and/or the subject matter will be appreciated, Set an early deadline for the submission of presentations and make the slides or scripts available to the interpreters to help them prepare. If films are to be shown, the script or a link to the film is imperative as the typically quick rate of speech may otherwise make the film impossible to interpret.
  10. Communicate changes to the program If there are changes to the program, don’t forget to inform the interpreters.
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