Where's the PPT?

Today's post is about one of the big tribulations of conference interpreting: getting the conference materials you need ahead of time so you an review, research, prepare, and do a great job at the actual event. Fellow conference interpreters are probably already nodding their heads in agreement that unfortunately it can be very, very difficult to get clients to give conference interpreters the materials they need ahead of time. We don't really have a good answer as to why that is the case (we have some ideas, though), but here are some thoughts on this subject:


  • Contracts. In all our conference interpreting contracts, we always include a clause stating that all speaker PPTs, reference materials, etc. must be received no later than five days prior to the event. The deadline can be a bit flexible depending on when the conference is. Now, clients usually agree to this clause, but what if the deadline comes and goes and no materials have been sent: now what?
  • The options. One option is to enforce the contract--depending on how you have written it, of
    course--and state that you will not interpret unless materials have been received, as per the contract. The usually gets the client motivated to find the materials. Let's be clear: we know that conferences are complicated beasts with many moving parts. After all, we have been speakers at conferences ourselves, and we know they are logistical challenges. However, it's in everyone's best interest to get the interpreters the materials they need ahead of time: it's good for the audience, the speakers, the client, and of course the interpreters. If we had a nickel for every time someone said, "Oh, it's just general topics!" only to then have a speaker who made broad connections between cryptocurrencies and the price of steel in Nigeria at breakneck speed, we'd be sitting on a beach sipping cocktails out of a coconut. The other option you have is to tell the client that they will have to sign a document saying they will assume all responsibility for the quality of the interpretation because you, the interpreter(s) has/have not received the  documents that you need in order to do a good job. We like to tell clients that we are like surgeons: we can't operate without a scalpel and without knowing which surgery we are performing, no matter how skilled we are. Yet another option is to insist on none of these things and just do the best you can without any sort of material, which is scary and usually not the best option. But sometimes it's the only option. The problem is that if you do not do a good job, it will reflect poorly on you and only you: the audience will have no idea that you didn't have preparation materials for this conference on reverse financial hedging strategies. All they will know is that you didn't do well. And that's unfair, of course, because you have been set up to fail.
  • Don't get us wrong: many times, clients (usually an LSP) will go to great lengths to ensure that you get the speakers' slides and sometimes even the showflow (those are our favorite clients!) ahead of time. Once in a while we even receive translated (poorly translated, but still) PPTs from all speakers, which is amazing. Sometimes for conferences on financial topics and big industry conferences (think Consumer Electronics Show, where Judy interpreted in January), no materials will be released to anyone, period, because of confidentiality issues. Other times the LSP simply does not understand the value of getting the PPTs for the interpreters (a sign that this isn't a very good LSP if they do not understand the profession), and does not want to "bug" the end client for the slides. Other times speakers will be working on their slides until the very last minute and simply won't have anything to share until the 11th hour. We worked at a conference that featured the speaker changing his slides AFTER the rehearsal, which was about 10 minutes before it went live and was broadcast to the world. That was less than ideal, but we made it happen.
  • Roll with the punches. Like all interpreting fields, the working conditions in conference interpreting can be imperfect, and you need to be prepared for that fact. It does get tricky at times when you have to find the precarious balance between enforcing the minimum standards of what you need to do a good job and being flexible and providing good customer service to a client who might be working under less-than-ideal conditions himself or herself. Bottom line: don't be a diva but do insist on the basics. Here in the U.S. you'd be surprised how often the client does not see the need for a booth for conference interpreting in a large ballroom and wants to use mobile equipment instead! There's no real answer on how to best handle all this in general, and we've interpreted with both a full deck of translated PPT presentations and a complete showflow and at events where we have had no idea what was going to come out of the speakers' mouths; not even a general idea (those aren't good situations).
  • Find what works for you. In conclusion, the best you can do is find what works for you and stick to it as much as possible. It also depends a bit on the client and your relationship with them and your ability to decipher how much you can push without alienating them. Usually, explaining that we need a scalpel to do surgery, we mean, that we need a booth and preparation materials to do conference interpreting, is a good start for clients and LSPs alike. Another important point we like to make to clients is the following: You want your company to look good in other languages, right? Then give us the materials we need to so can prepare and make your company shine in the other language.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, dear fellow interpreters. 


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