AIIC Staff Interpreters discuss quality in conference interpreting

AIIC interpreters working for organisations around the world delve further into the realities and perceptions of what makes for effective international communication.

The AIIC Staff Interpreters’ Committee (SIC/CdP) met via a virtual platform on Saturday 21st January 2017 to address the issue of interpretation quality. International organisations, all diverse, each unique, make their public and private statements in a particular setting, against a specific backdrop and to a specific audience. This shapes the way interpretation services are provided and the perception of its quality by users. 

Despite these differences, there is necessarily a common qualitative thread running through all our work. “All” and “our” being the operative words. Because quality cannot be solely lain at the interpreter’s door. The interpreter is one among many, he is part of a community; all stakeholders collectively contribute, through the conduit of a speaker, to an effective, on-target message. 

Combining her own research with essential input from Katalin Fedineczné Vittay and Petra Van Eynde-Neutens, Dominique Maréchal gave an insightful and thought-provoking presentation on this holistic notion of quality. 

All for one and one for all

Speeches, like the spark with which the universe lurched into existence, start somewhere. No chicken and egg conundrum here: conference organisers are the information source both before and after the conference.  Interpreters need to have these preparatory documents and they also need a record of their work, post facto, for their own debrief and training. This creates a virtuous cycle, necessarily beneficial for interpeters and organisers alike.  But like any virtue, the more it becomes dilute, the more the wine turns to water: often there are many intermediaries between the organisers and the interpreters, and the flow of information can be inadvertently siphoned off, adulterated, spilled and carried albeit very benevolently in a punctured bag. Speakers probably want to speak wine rather than water, on the assumption they wish to engage with their audience.

No pharaohs without pyramids

So just how do they engage? Dominique posits a communication triangle with the speaker at its peak and the interpreter and the interpretation user at each angle of its base. Assuming the organisers have chipped in and done their bit, the speech’s success now rides on the speaker, now sits on his lecturn. And from this high vantage point at the top of the triangle, is the keynote reading or speaking extemporaneously? If he’s reading, is he oralising?  If he’s oralising, is he too fast?  Has he calibrated message to speaking time? And what if his target audience is not in the room?  What if his audience is the reader of the minutes?  Or the transcript? Or does his sole presence speak for itself, irrespective of his message?  Sometimes the organisers are not privy to the true objective of a speaker… 

From his angle the interpreter can see, both high up and at some distance, rostrum and speaker. Despite the organisers’ best efforts, the text didn’t trickle down to the booth prior to delivery: does the speaker assume the interpreter is not part of the communication process? From his angle in this triangular room, the interpreter looks across at his audience: some headsets are being donned. Does the speaker realise he’s now talking primarily to an interpreter and not to his audience? Was he told? 

Looking at his listeners, he wonders: from what angle do they see him and the lofty speaker? Is the listener, in his corner of the room, aware of the constraints he is now working under?  Is the listener benevolent? Can he be benevolent? In other words, does he know how interpretation works, can he run his mind along the triangle and see the problem from all angles? 

Successful communication through interpreters, Dominique held, depends on a stakeholder’s clear line of sight from each angle of the triangle. But for this to be the case, the organisers need to have already traced that triangle firmly on the page and have the page passed to speakers, to listeners and to interpreters alike. 

Feedback, training and rest

The conference is over but remember, our cycle is trying to be virtuous while losing nothing of its potency. Organisers need to channel feedback to interpreters, listeners and speakers, in keeping with the exigencies of the triangle. Was the speaker clear? Was the interpretation usable – was it interpretation or communication? Were you able to build a link with your audience? It was pointed out that someone can only give feedback based on what he knows about a process: the better his knowledge, the more useful his feedback, the greater the scope for training and improvement.

Organisers can also up the quality of interpretation (and therefore conference success) by factoring in the value of rest and recuperation. Many a student will tell you (many an acknowledged genius, in fact) that solutions to problems often come when the body and soul are at rest, even through dreams… If the dream of an organisation is top quality interpretation, then sufficient room needs to be afforded it and probably not one with a desk…

Members responded to Dominique’s presentation from various viewpoints. Mention was made of speaker-side anxiety impairing the speech’s delivery. Some organisations institute interpreter contact points who liaise informally with delegates over a cup of tea. Other organisations are more remote and place laminated speaker instruction cards in front of microphones: awareness raising good, direct contact bad. Members referred to interpreters’ strategies to shield themselves from speaker stress seeping into their headset. Others again spoke of speakers and listeners deliberately destablising the interpreter, applying pressure for certain key words to appear in the rendition, under pain of public correction; while such instrumentalisation of staff interpreter work cannot be controlled, it was argued, the interpreter’s hierarchy can feasibly intervene on his behalf. Regarding court interpretation, where there is a public presence in the gallery, it was suggested a questionnaire could be circulated to elicit lay impressions of interpretation quality.

The discussion proved very valuable and the topic, potentially marathon, is far from exhausted… 

Members in attendance:

Christina Edwards (UNON – Chair), Andrew Constable (ICC – Vice-Chair), Christopher Davies (STL –  Secretary), Marina Marton (IMF – Group Coordinator), Polycarp Ambe-Niba (ECCC), Julia Antony (UNOG), Francisco Garcia Hurtado (UNHQ), Brigitte Kraushaar (OECD), Dominique Marechal (ECJ), Ludovic Martin (UNOV), Christelle Petite (SPC), Petra Van Eynde-Neutens (EP), Jennifer Fritz-Alcalay (ICAO), Christopher Guichot de Fortis (NATO) and Luke Tilden (CoE); Sergio Alvarez Rubio (SMP Observer).

This report was written by Christopher Davies, Secretary of the Staff Interpreters Committee.

Recommended citation format:
Staff Interpreters. "AIIC Staff Interpreters discuss quality in conference interpreting". April 27, 2017. Accessed May 25, 2017. <>.