Speaking with an Interpreter

Even in the United States, we sometimes feel by the audience reaction that we need an interpreter. We may think, “I am speaking English to an American audience. How can they look so clueless?” We’ve all been there.

However, speaking through an interpreter as I did a few weeks ago in Natal, Brazil, is an even more humbling experience. First of all, you are at the mercy of the person standing beside you. My interpreter was telling the audience in Portuguese what I said in English. I just hoped he transmitted the message that I intended. Knowing that there were a few bilingual people in the audience pretty much assured that he would be as accurate as possible since they would understand both of us!

Since many of us occasionally speak to global audiences, some lessons I have learned in delivering speeches through interpreters might be helpful to you as well.

  • Get to know the interpreter before you speak. Talk to the person in advance of your presentation. I find that the better I know the interpreter, the better that person can share the feelings behind the words.
  • If you have an hour of real time to speak, then you should prepare a 30-minute presentation. By the time you wait every couple of sentences for the person to translate, you will more than double the speaking time.
  • Jokes should be limited to your own culture. Leave jokes and one-liners out of your presentation. Much of our humor comes from a play on words or an inconsistency in the way we do things and people from other cultures might be more confused than entertained. For example, “I used to meditate a lot, but now I only do it every now and zen,” perhaps would not be appreciated in a different language.  Neither would “She was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still.”
  • On the other hand, a humorous comment can usually be understood. For example, “You can imagine that I never made that mistake again!” at the end of a personal experience story would be quite understandable. 
  • If you use a poem, be sure the message is not dependent on rhyme or meter.
  • Determine that you are using the correct terminology in English or you can confuse the audience. For example, in Brazil distance is measured by meters instead of yards and kilometers instead of miles.
  • Slow down your rate in order for the interpreter to understand your message. Speak only two or three sentences at a time. Use simple words. Don’t be afraid to rephrase if you catch yourself using a word that maybe your interpreter does not understand. Remember that even an excellent interpreter cannot know every possible vocabulary word you might use.

All in The Family was the first sitcom to address the differences in the way men and women communicate. One famous line that only Archie Bunker could say was, “The reason you don’t understand me, Edith, is because I’m talking to you in English and you’re listening to me in dingbat.” In addressing an international audience, we want to make sure that we are speaking in English so that the audience members can listen and understand in their own language.

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at www.sboyd.com. To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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