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Conference Interpreting - Reflections of an interpreter.

Conference Interpreting as Published in the NEWSLI magazine, by Stephen Ellis-Menton

I’m writing this after just completing a two-day Government conference in Liverpool however when I look back, conference interpreting was not something that I ever aspired to do when I first began interpreting. The idea of standing up in front of large audiences, interpreting such complex language and ideas was not something I saw myself capable of (or wanted to do!) I was thrust into conference interpreting while working for a Deaf organisation in Liverpool as part of a team of interpreters and since then I have never looked back.

My first experience was both thrilling and terrifying. Looking back, I was massively underprepared (although I knew the topic and domain well) I was only in attendance to support our other staff interpreters working the event. The team ended up an interpreter short for a main presentation with no one else available to fil the slot except me. I quaked my way through the presentation, looking to my co-workers for support with figures and names and tried my best not to let me nerves show; though I am sure that the majority of the audience, most of whom were Deaf, could tell.

Since that first experience, which turned out to be really positive in the end, I have grown to love conference interpreting and I now regularly interpret for conferences large and small. I initially spent some time shadowing other interpreters at conferences to help me learn the ropes, learn how best to deal with conference organisers and to ensure that as much as possible could be done behind the scenes to ensure a successful interpretation and experience could be provided. I learnt invaluable lessons working with and observing other interpreter such as how to work with such as sound and lighting, best positioning, logistics of getting from stage to stage or agreeing cues to swap with co-interpreters. I love that conference interpreting presents us as interpreters with a unique set of challenges that we seldom find elsewhere. I find the challenge of interpreting for high profile conferences a real thrill. I love being challenged with complex presentations and jargon, I love finding new ways to express meaning in a culturally and linguistically appropriate way.

The challenge for interpreting in this field is that much of what is delivered has been rehearsed by the speakers, they often read carefully crafted speeches or presentations that have taken a long time to perfect. When conference materials are available and provided to interpreters in advance of an assignment, this can be a real help as we can spend time preparing how to best interpret what the speaker will say, how best to interpret complex jargon or concepts that might otherwise have us flummoxed without an in depth knowledge of the subject being interpreted. However, highly rehearsed or scripted presentations can also cause issues for us, in that speakers often read at an unnatural pace which means that we have to have a really good control of our time lag (distance from the source language) in order not to make too many miscues.

For interpreters wanting to move into conference interpreting I would say that Dean and Pollard’s ‘Demand and Control Theory’ (2001) in particular EIPI (Environmental, interpersonal, paralinguistic and intrapersonal) is a great to employ here. Interpreters need to be able to be able to assert their needs in order to have the ‘tools’ they need to provide a successful interpretation hey need to understand what the demands are in relation to conference interpreting and to identify controls that will work for each conference they undertake.

While preparedness and theoretical models can help you immensely, you need to have a degree of flexibility about you too. One of my funniest moments of the last year (and most cringeworthy too) was while working in London at the National Nursing Awards when in between announcing award categories the host announced that they would be welcoming a band to stage. Neither my co-worker or I had been informed that there was going to be any sort of performance. I was the ‘on’ interpreter, having only just took to the stage, expecting the host to announce the next category of awards, so had no option but to stay and interpret what came next. What ensued was a set list of 80’s/90’s dance music with the added bit of rap and beatboxing. I’m sure I was able to provide a dynamically equivalent experience for the Deaf nurses in attendance (who laughed and clapped the whole way through) and the twitter storm they started afterwards hinted to the same but I was thoroughly mortified to boot. My co-worker was great, she laughed from the side-lines and of course also relayed the beatboxing that I missed too!

Conferences can be rewarding, tiring, thrilling and embarrassing at times but there are a few things I have learned to check before climbing upon the stage, podium or box to interpret them:

· Define the technical conditions will you be working off stage in a booth, audience visibility, equipment to be used and positioning on stage etc

· Availability of documents and texts as the more preparation material available before hand the better.

· Find out all of your co-worker’s details, arrange a pre-brief and debrief to discuss proceedings, for larger conferences it is always an idea to appoint a team leader to deal with coordination of the team and communication with organisers.

· Find out whether the interpretation will be recorded and/or broadcast

· Assess and decide on the mode of interpreting: simultaneous only? consecutive? And prepare for this.

· Social functions: are there any dinners, networking opportunities, breakout groups etc. to be covered by the interpreters?

· Confirm professional fees, travel expenses, accommodation well in advance of the conference and know whom to contact to forward invoices and queries to.

After finishing the conference in Liverpool, my co-worker and I had a discussion about what makes a conference successful from an interpreter’s point of view. It was a hard, long job with little preparation available and both of us agreed that having a supportive co-worker who is attuned to your needs is a massive help. We agreed that this inspires a sense of trust between co-workers and this makes the experience much more positive; as does getting to the dinner queue early for lunch to maximise the time you have for a break!


Application of Demand-Control Theory to Sign Language Interpreting: Implications for Stress and Interpreter Training Dean. R, and Pollard. R,. (2001) The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Volume 6, Issue 1, January 2001, Pages 1–14,


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