English is the lingua franca. More and more people speak English in a professional setting, therefore also during technical conferences. While there has been extensive research and numerous articles on interpreting non-native English speakers, the other end of this phenomenon also deserves consideration: non-native English listeners. During my job as a conference interpreter for the English language at a Federal Ministry, I had to interpret many statements from German into English for a non-native English (NNE) listener or an audience of NNE speakers. Whether there was no interpreter available for the corresponding native language of the counterpart or the counterpart declared he/she would be able to have the discussion in English, I was responsible for enabling proper communication between a German native speaker and an NNE counterpart. Here are my observations.
Assessing their level of understanding
Although the NNE counterpart might state that they speak English sufficiently well, this self-declaration can vary largely. Try to get an understanding of the level of English they understand well. This includes toning down your most British or American accent for a more middle-of-the-road accent, if necessary. You might also need to adapt your terminology – it has once happened to me that the counterpart was not familiar with the rail term “gauge”, but understood when I described it as “track width”. Another observation I made is to not underestimate somebody’s comprehension skills, only because their output is rather poor. Instead of judging the counterpart based on his or her speaking skills, try to observe the counterpart while you deliver your interpretation and assess how well your accent and terminology are being understood.
Adapting to their needs
I have also experienced situations in which the counterpart’s level of English was insufficient for a conversation. Another interpreter then formed part of the situation. Read more about working with two interpreters in a consecutive setting in another blog post. However, in some cases, other delegates assume the role of the interpreter and transfer the English interpretation into the counterpart’s native language by somewhat summarising what the original speaker/ the interpreter said. In these cases, you might also consider adapting your interpretation style to make sure that the non-professional delegate transferring the statement is able to submit as much information as possible. You could for instance pre-summarise the original statement, leave more unnecessary details out than usually, or make more pauses than the original speaker did to give your lay colleague the chance to deliver as much of the message as possible. However, this strategy deviates largely from the consecutive interpreting style that we usually apply and might resonate negatively with your client who might not understand the intention behind your choices.
Considering your client
All in all, interpreting for NNE speakers can lead to particular challenges in addition to everything that we already need to consider when interpreting in such an intimate (business) setting. Always keep in mind that your main objective is to enable smooth communication between your clients and their counterpart.