Interpreting Incomprehensible Speakers

 A few months ago, Dagy witnessed any interpreter‘s worst nightmare: during a large conference organized by a multi-level marketing company, one of the speakers turned out to speak an almost incomprehensible Austrian dialect (he was from the southern province of Styria). 

Is this Judy or Dagy interpreting? We actually don't know.
Dagy was in the English booth and understood him alright (here’s to the advantage of working from your first language). However, this meant trouble in other booths staffed by excellent interpreters who were working into their native language. Not surprisingly, they understood very little of what the motivational speaker was saying since his German had almost no resemblance to the kind of German usually spoken at conferences. Apparently, after a few moments of shock, my fellow interpreters did the best they could, which involved mostly guesswork. At some point, they decided to switch to the English channel and work from there into their languages, which was probably the best call. 

However, in the meantime, many conference participants who depended on the interpreting service had already started to complain to the organizer, which prompted her to send up members of the organizing team who grabbed the microphone from the professional interpreters and tried to do their job. This only made matters worse. These staff members might have understood the Austrian German, but they spoke only basic foreign languages and had absolutely no training in interpreting, which is why they threw in the towel after a few minutes. To me, that’s one of the biggest imaginable affronts that any interpreter might experience in their professional life. I felt vicariously humiliated and decided to mention it to the client after the conference.

But it got even worse: the company’s CEO spoke on the following day and actually made fun of the hard-working interpreters and their troubles on the previous day, while thanking just about everybody else for their work. This struck me as particularly offensive, given that it was the company who had hired an incomprehensible speaker whom even a lot of native German speakers in the audience did not understand (I overheard many conversations to that effect during the coffee and lunch breaks).

I later e-mailed the client about this matter and she mostly dismissed my concerns, which considerably lowered my willingness to work for this client in the future. What would you have done in such a situation?  We would love to hear your opinions. 


Ben Karl on April 12, 2017 at 8:56 AM said...

What a challenging situation! This sounds like it was a breakdown in the responsibility of the organizers: it should be their responsibility to know who will be speaking and any idiosyncrasies about their speech. They either should have ensured that the interpreter they hired for him understood his dialect or asked him to speak in Hochdeutsch for the purposes of the conference.
I've read a lot about interpreters' difficulties working with Trump's speech, and am wondering what Dagy (and Judy!) think about that?

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 12, 2017 at 4:58 PM said...

@Ben: Yes, indeed. This sure was a breakdown on many levels, and we really feel for the Italian booth. An awful situation for sure. The reality is that in most conference interpreting situations that we've been in, no attention is paid, whatsoever, to whether the speakers are able to speak in a comprehensible way or not. Oftentimes -- in their defense -- many organizers have no idea (because they can be third parties) who the speakers are and don't really care that much as long as they show up and speak as agreed. This leaves interpreters in a very vulnerable position, holding the proverbial short end of the stick, and it's tough. You usually just have to do the best you can with what you've got, and most conference interpreters are very used to working with incomplete information, which is, of course, not a good situation to be in --but it's oftentimes the reality.

In terms of interpreting Trump: where do we start? We wouldn't want to do it ourselves, but there are enough clips out there, at least, to help interpreters prepare (or at least try to prepare). We are not surprised that he is terribly difficult to interpret, and we think whoever interprets him should be very well-versed in American culture (pop culture, obscure references, etc.) and should probably have resided in the US for a while to really understand all the nuances. That said, there's a significant lack of substance in his speeches that is not too unfamiliar to interpreters who work with politicians on a regular basis, but his particular way of speaking certainly does present a challenge. Our hats are off to the interpreters who accept those assignments and make it work.

Ms Li Tin CHU said...

MIC OFF! the silence will attract the organizers to come over to the booth for a session of good education from the interpreters!! I have applied this in my career, not too many times, of course, for incomprehensible speakers (clients in Taiwan love to ask Non-English speakers to speak English to save money because the EN-CH combination is the cheapest!) and machine-gun speed speakers (speakers who READ their speeches). Instead of burning up our brain in guesswork which might be wrong and cause confusion to the audience (besides the interpreters always get the blame), I prefer the "silence is gold" rule, and take advantage of educating the client. Hope this helps!! happy interpreting! Warm regards from Taiwan!

FSM, POA, 25 e 26 e3 Jan de 2012 on April 24, 2017 at 8:19 AM said...

In case of unstranslatable speakers, the last resort is the "silence is golden" rule, but before shutting up I explain to the audience that the accent or both accent and machine-gun speed od the sepeakers delivery make the translation impossible.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 23, 2017 at 2:02 PM said...

@Ms Li Tin CHU: Thanks for reading and for commenting! Ah yes, turning the microphone off is the last resort indeed, albeit a measure that will greatly affect precisely those people who are not at fault and who need our services in the first place: the listeners. And then of course one does not know how upset listeners will translate (pun intended) into action on behalf of the conference organizers to try to get the speaker to slow down. Lots of moving pieces indeed, especially in events with mobile booths and conference organizers who have not worked with interpreters much. We do think the microphone off rule works quite well at international organizations with permanent booths and direct (or at least easy) communication abilities with the speaker. And don't even get us started on speakers who read their speeches at breakneck speed! Our hats are off to you for trying to keep up.... And greetings from Vegas and Vienna. So lovely to have a commenter all the way from Taiwan!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 23, 2017 at 2:05 PM said...

@FSM: Sorry about the late response (super busy travel schedule) and thanks for your comment. Your approach is similar to @Ms Li Tin Chu (who commented above), and we very much like your approach of explaining to the listeners what is going on before going silent.

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

Subscribe by email:


Twitter update

Site Info

The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

Translation Times