Interpreting at formal dinners

Interpreting at formal dinners

The time has come – you were booked for interpreting during a formal dinner for the first time. Help! What do I wear, how do I behave, do I need to brush up my small talk? Let’s look into some possible answers together:

The clothes

No matter where you are going to interpret, you should always try to find out how formal the venue and guests will be. Feeling comfortable is key for a good performance, and most people simply do not feel at ease when they are very over- or underdressed. For formal dinners, try to be elegant, yet professional. That’s definitely easier for man than for woman. A gala dinner dress is less recommendable than a formal and elegant business costume. Remember, you are not the star of the show, and you are also not an invited guest – you are a service provider, and should somewhat dress according to you role.

Bring a small bag that can take your notepad and pen. If you are only booked for the dinner conversation and no additional speech, you will probably not need it, as dinner talk does not tend to include long statements. Yet, I would feel very insecure knowing that I did not even bring a notepad.

The agenda

Before the guests sit down at their allocated tables, they usually have a drink standing up. As the interpreter, you should make sure that you stay close enough to your client in case your interpretation services are needed, but not too close so that you might cross personal boundaries. Especially when working with English, your client could decide to speak without an interpreter for the small talk. Yet, in case of questions, you should be close enough to signal to your client that you can quickly respond if needed. 

Then, when everyone is asked to sit down, you follow your client to his, and in the best case, your table. I have heard recent stories of interpreters having to sit behind their client without receiving any food, however, this has not yet happened to me. Do not sit down before the most important person and/or your client have not yet taken their seats. If possible, you should have studied the guest list and all other guests sitting at your table, not only for yourself to be prepared, but also to help your client out.

The food

Formal dinners usually include fancy food. Fancy food is not everyone’s thing (it surely isn’t mine), and fancy food can be difficult to translate. Try to get hands on the menu, or at least take a quick look at it during the event, to be able to translate it for your client if necessary.

If you are as picky as me when it comes to food, prepare to eat whatever you are served. At formal dinners, actually at every dinner, it is rude not to eat what you are served. I have had to eat quite a few dishes that I normally would not have eaten, but you are not there for the food anyway. 

Now the difficulty is striking a balance between having some dinner and being ready to interpret for your client. Speaking with a full mouth is no option, obviously, so I usually try to get a feeling for how conversational my client currently is and when I can take a bite. It would be awkward not to eat anything in constant fear that your client might speak now. 

The drinks

And you are surely not there for the food. While drinking a glass of wine for dinner, like all other guests, I usually tend to ask for non-alcoholic drinks instead. Although one drink does probably not influence your performance, I prefer ordering non-alcoholic drinks.

The small talk

Everyone at your table will be doing small talk, and you will probably also be approached by somebody who is interested in finding out about your right to sit at this table. There is a fine balance between being an approachable guest who chats with others and paying proper attention to your client and his or her needs. The situation gets more difficult if the client is not really interested in the the other guests at the table and hardly speaks, or decides to only talk to you in your native language.

There are lots of things to consider when interpreting formal dinners that I had not imagined before starting the job, hence I hope that my brief summary of impressions was helpful to you!