In today’s interconnected world, businesses and organizations of all sizes find themselves working with people around the globe, many of whom speak a different language. With the help of an interpreter, that language barrier can be overcome to collaborate effectively and embrace the broader talent pool of non-English speakers.

On a recent trip to Japan, I worked closely with an interpreter, and the experience was beneficial to how I approach my facilitation practice. When relying on an interpreter, I found myself less likely to ramble and more likely to be concise—takeaways that I’ll apply more broadly to my facilitation.

Interpretation is the real-time translation between languages. For facilitators, interpretation involves some changes to their practices, as the interpreter is not just interpreting one individual giving a speech, but multiple people having a discussion. Skilled facilitators should be able to work comfortably with interpreters to still curate productive meetings and sessions.

In this article, we’ll go through key tips for facilitators to successfully work with an interpreter, as well as what takeaways I learned from my recent time working with a foreign language interpreter.

3 Types of Language Interpretation

In the United States, more than 350 languages are actively spoken or signed. When you open your meetings and other facilitation events to the entire world, the number of languages increases tenfold.

Fortunately, there’s more than one method of interpretation, so facilitators can find the language interpretation type that works best for their needs. Let’s break down the most common types of interpretation. 

Simultaneous Interpretation

Simultaneous interpretation is probably what you think of when you envision interpretation. In this method, the interpreted person will speak (or sign) in their language, and the interpreter will translate into the target language at the same time. Simultaneous interpretation is often conducted via headphones and allows for a conversational experience.

Simultaneous interpretation works well for translating to signed languages, like American Sign Language. The NIH National Library of Medicine explains, “In interpretations between a signed language and a spoken language, simultaneous interpretation is common, because the vocal-auditory channel and the gestural-visual channel do not compete.”

During my trip to Japan, this was the type of interpretation that occurred. Simultaneous interpretation is a highly efficient practice, which reminded me to focus on efficiency in my facilitation.

Consecutive Interpretation

In this type of language interpretation, the speaker takes breaks in their speech at regular intervals to allow for interpretation. This can mean that the meeting or conversation can take significantly longer to complete, given that interpretation does not occur at the same time as the initial speaking.

The American Translators Association says, “Settings for consecutive interpreting include small meetings, person-to-person communication, and question-and-answer sessions, such as attorney-client interviews and physician-patient encounters.” 

Whisper Interpretation

A less commonly used form of interpreting language is whisper interpretation, which occurs when the interpreter sits beside or behind the relevant participants and literally whispers their interpretation to them. This can be used for speeches or events where there is limited discussion and only a person or two needs spoken interpretation. 

Whisper interpretation is also called elbow interpretation or its French name “chuchotage.” This language interpretation model has waned in the face of the growing availability of technology that allows interpreters to speak through headphones or sign through video conferences, causing less of a distraction and providing a better experience for the participants.

8 Tips for Facilitating with an Interpreter

Experienced facilitators should not see working with an interpreter as an obstacle—consider the below tips to improve this experience.

Prepare technology ahead of time.

Today, language interpretation can typically be performed remotely, making it much more accessible than in the past. However, you should still dedicate time to preparation to ensure a smooth experience for everyone involved.

If your interpreter is working remotely, make sure you have all the right technology in place and test that technology prior to the session. Check with the appropriate parties to see if the interpretation requires anything special—for example, remote interpretation of American Sign Language will require both audio and video components so the interpreter can communicate with the person relying on interpretation. 

Speak directly to the participants, not the interpreter.

The interpreter exists as a conduit, not a participant. To show respect for the participants, facilitators should speak directly to the relevant participants and encourage all other attendees to do so as well. 

When interpreting in Japan, I found it highly beneficial to have formed a strong relationship with the interpreter. When facilitating, my conversations were always with the participants, not the interpreter, but I found it highly beneficial to be able to count on an established mutual feeling of respect with the interpreter.

Speak clearly.

Many people don’t realize how quickly they are speaking, which means some words can feel garbled together. In many everyday situations, we can breeze over the words we may not hear clearly since we have a natural context to the conversations. 

When using language interpretation, though, these moments can cause a real misunderstanding between participants. To avoid this, take time to think about what you’re going to say, and then say it clearly and slowly. 

Slow down debate.

Remind participants to show respect by not speaking over one another, as the interpreter has to interpret beyond just the facilitator’s words. If debate is becoming too fast, take a moment to pause and allow any interpretation to catch up. Facilitators can also help provide clarity by recapping what’s discussed in a concise manner.

Be thoughtful with jargon.

We all use slang and jargon in the workplace, often even using terms that are specific to just our office. These terms can be difficult to interpret and cause confusion between parties. If you need to use jargon, clearly explain what it means.

Consider if there is any industry-specific jargon or terms that you may want to share with the interpreter and applicable party ahead of time. If the interpreter needs to spell out any terms that cannot be translated, they should have easy access to those details.

Don’t ramble.

During meeting facilitation, some facilitators may ramble as a technique to continue to generate ideas and see where they go. However, this can cause confusion and make the interpreter’s job significantly harder. Take time to gather your thoughts, and, if you feel yourself beginning to ramble, take a pause. 

In my own facilitation, I sometimes find myself rambling in order to seek out additional ideas and keep the thought process going. However, when working with an interpreter, that rambling can have a negative effect and put stress on the interpreter. I strive to be more concise in my language when working through a language barrier.

Budget extra time.

When a language barrier exists, it’s important to budget extra time for the meeting. Even when facilitators use simultaneous interpretation, which utilizes the least amount of time, the language barrier itself means you will need extra time to explain any terms and provide clarity. 

Consider a specialized interpreter. 

Many language interpreters specialize in dedicated industries and fields, such as healthcare and law. These interpreters will have a more thorough understanding of the topics you’re going to discuss, providing a more seamless experience.

Can’t I Just Use a Translation Tool for Interpreting?

With the growing presence of artificial intelligence and other technology, some facilitators may wonder if they can simply use an online translation tool or app to handle their interpretation.

The answer is no.

Translation and interpretation are two different practices which should not be substituted for each other. Translation is for written language, and interpretation is for spoken (or signed) communication. Translation is a much longer process that typically involves multiple rounds revisions, while interpretation occurs in real time.

Additionally, interpreters (as well as translators) have the unbeatable benefit of being able to understand the context of the culture, industry, and other factors that affect how the language is being utilized. Tools and apps cannot have this level of nuance.

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At Voltage Control, our Facilitation Certification program heavily emphasizes connection and collaboration between people of all backgrounds, and language interpreters make that possible. To learn more about innovative, inclusive facilitation techniques, join Facilitation Lab, a vibrant community of facilitators and collaborative leaders committed to lifelong learning. Facilitation Lab hosts a free virtual meetup every week that you can attend to get a taste of the community.

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