How does a Chinese interpreter prepare for a meeting? And why you need a professional one?

How does a Chinese interpreter prepare for a meeting? And why you need a professional one?

By Dora Tan, Senior Interpreter and Translator (Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and English) 

My colleague, Panpan Wang, and I recently provided simultaneous interpretation for a series of medical workshops where doctors from China and Europe gathered on Zoom to discuss multidisciplinary approaches to treat refractory cases. It would be a lie to claim that we were not intimidated at all when the client sent this request our way, as all the attendees were top specialists in their own field, and the clinical cases to be discussed during the workshops were the ones which those experts found to be most challenging. Furthermore, since it was a multidisciplinary workshop, there were surgeons, rheumatologists, dermatologists, sonographers, nurses and dieticians present at the meetings, each of whom represents a unique terminological and knowledge system. This means that as interpreters, it was not enough for us to just understand the surgeon’s view of the disease, we had to understand every aspect of the disease.

We knew from the very beginning this was going to be a tough nut to crack! So, how did we crack it?

Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.

I cannot emphasise this enough. Our clients sometimes find it hard to understand why experienced interpreters still need several days to prepare for a meeting. This is because each meeting, each agenda and each speaker is different. We may have already successfully delivered a workshop on ulcerative colitis, and a patient focus group on psoriasis, but if the next meeting is on endometriosis, then I believe any gynaecologist would agree there is again a sea of new information to learn.

Some clients may think the documents they currently have are of little value to the interpreters, but believe me, anything, even just a list of participants is extremely valuable to us. We can run research on the participants’ academic and professional backgrounds. We can look for their previous interviews and speeches on YouTube to familiarise ourselves with the way they speak. We may be able to find their publications which give us information on their academic and clinical interests. All of these will help us to better anticipate which topics might be covered during the meetings.

For this particular series of workshops, we were lucky to have all the presentation slides beforehand. We carefully studied and annotated all of them. But studying the slides was far from enough, we also did further readings on topics covered in them. For example, ultrasound was one of the main diagnostic tools, so we created a dedicated glossary for sonography, and learnt basic skills to read scan results. We even took a step further by signing up for a short online course on anatomy fundamentals. Since I already had basic anatomical studies as part of my Yoga Teacher Training, I also managed to spare some time to listen to lectures by renowned specialists in the field. As all of the PowerPoint slides were in English only, we also took lectures offered by Chinese medical schools to familiarise ourselves with the jargons used by Chinese doctors.

Once we felt confident about the subject matter, we started looking for interviews of the main speakers on YouTube, and carefully listened to and analysed the interviews together. Medical therapies are evolving constantly, and new treatment methods emerge all the time, often accompanied by controversies. It is important for us to understand and align ourselves with the positions of the speakers.  As interpreters, we are not mechanically rendering the debate into another language word-by-word, we must be able to fully comprehend the speaker’s intention and logical reasoning in order to deliver clear and easy-to-understand interpretation. 

Preparation can be time consuming. As a rule of thumb, it takes a professional interpreter a whole day to prepare for a one-day meeting. Which means an interpreter who has worked on a week-long conference for you would have spent the whole of the previous week preparing for it. In fact, it took us 3 days to prepare for each of these one-day workshops. I often hear people say that interpreters overcharge for a day’s work, all we do is turn up and turn the mic on. But remember, all the hard work is going on in the background. As the old Chinese saying goes: 1 minute glory on the stage takes 10 years of hard work off stage.

So why you need an experienced interpreter?

Many believe that people with technical or medical backgrounds are better equipped than professional interpreters to deliver language services for highly technical events. In my view, this might be true in the world of translation, where the translator is fully in control of the pace and intensity of the project. In the world of interpretation, however, the interpreter is put on the podium, taking notes of several minutes of speech crammed with terminologies, numbers and names. It takes years of training and practice to hone the skills of efficient note-taking and memory retention. Non-professionals tend to summarise, or they give in under pressure. I remember when I accompanied a Chinese delegation to visit an engine manufacturer, they initially assigned a bilingual engineer to interpret for the CTO, but the engineer soon find himself unable to memorise long sentences with dense information and desperately signalled to me to replace him on the podium.

In a simultaneous interpretation setting, only interpreters with professional training and years of experience can handle the speed, different accents and styles of speech. They are able to multitask and process large amount of information in a split second, while non-professional will struggle with the speed and intensity. If you happen to be multilingual yourself, and you are not yet convinced by me, try to simultaneously interpret Boris Johnson next time when he addresses the nation. If you find Boris Johnson challenging (He speaks clearly, slowly and without technical content), then imagine interpreting for a doctor who mumbles twice as fast as him.


About the author:

Trained at the University of Bath, Dora is a United Nations (UN) accredited interpreter - an accreditation awarded only to the most outstanding interpreters. Dora has over 8 years of experience providing interpreting services to the public and privates sectors.

Dora has interpreted for the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, on several occasions, including his state visit to Rwanda and at the G20 Summit.

She has extensive experience in working with clients in the following industries: telecommunication, medicine, investment banking, intellectual property rights (IPR), automotive, engineering and insurance.

In the public sector, she interprets on a regular basis for the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the Ministry of Finance (China), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (China) and HM Treasury.

In the private sector, she is a talented interpreter trusted by many global brands, such as the IMD Business School, IBM, BMW, Porsche, Pratt & Whitney, MAPFRE Insurance, Sanofi, Takeda Pharmaceuticals and the Peking Union Medical College Hospital (PUMCH).

Get in touch with Dora Tan, Senior Translator and Interpreter (Mandarin Chinese and English), He and Partners at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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