How to make sure your interpreter-assisted web conference gets off to a good start?

How to make sure your interpreter-assisted web conference gets off to a good start?

By Philip He, Head of Interpreting (Mandarin Chinese and English), He and Partners

I worked on an anti-dumping investigation for the European Commission last week. All parties concerned took part remotely via Webex. That, was unthinkable before the pandemic.   

In the past, trade investigators and their interpreters had to jump through several hoops before the actual investigation could take place. They had to first navigate through the airport obstacle course with their wheelie bags, try to maintain inner peace while sandwiched between burly strangers at 30,000 feet for anything between half a dozen to a dozen hours, before being bundled into a car and driven to a far-flung industrial town where the factory was located. The next day, feeling jet-lagged and fragile, they would be joined by the representatives of the company and its bright-eyed and bushy-tailed lawyers for a week-long toing and froing.

A spiky little virus changed everything. The entire travel industry grinded to a near halt. However, the flow of goods and services never stopped. Nor did the communication underpinning that flow, which simply moved online. Although vaccination is gradually gaining the upper hand in the fight against the virus, the return of unrestricted international travel is still some way off. Especially when it comes to jetting off to China, a country with a zero-tolerance policy for COVID-19, quarantine-free visits to the country are not envisaged in 2021.

Therefore, if you still want to have a conversation with your Chinese clients but would rather not subject yourself to strict COVID measures adopted by the Chinese government (which includes anal swap tests on arrival), you may want to ask a Chinese interpreter to give you a hand with your Zoom meetings. The next question, which flows naturally from it, is how can you make sure such meetings get off to a good start?  

How to make sure your interpreter-assisted web conference gets off to a good start?

Here are some useful tips for chairing or organising an interpreter-assisted web meeting:

Before the meeting

  1. Make sure you send meeting documents to the interpreters beforehand – good preparation is what sets a professional interpreter apart from an unprofessional one. 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 works on a week-long conference for a client usually spends the whole of the previous week preparing for it. You will want to encourage that kind of dedication by providing them with as much meeting documents as you can. Agenda, PPT, written speeches, minutes from the last meeting and background reading – hand them all over. You are helping your interpreters to help you.  
  2. Advise those who will speak at the meeting to use good quality headsets (wherever possible) - the quality of the incoming sound determines how well interpreters can do their job. Microphones that are built-in to mobile phones or laptops do not provide sound quality that is sufficient for interpretation purposes. If you want to hear clear interpretation, make sure the interpreters have clear sound to work with.

At the meeting

  1. Ask all participants to keep their microphones on mute when not speaking – there is nothing more irritating to zoomsters than microphone feedback and unmuted side chats. Your interpreters can’t make sense out of them either.
  2. Keep extraneous noise to a minimum – there may not be much you can do to stop your toddler from gate crashing the webinar you are hosting, but there are certainly things you can do to avoid being personally responsible for creating distracting noises, such as rustling of paper and tapping. Simply follow good web meeting etiquettes.
  3. Ask speakers to speak clearly and at a normal pace – some people have a tendency to speak very fast when presenting. Apart from coming across as slightly nervous, it is usually acceptable to a home crowd. However, when it comes to cross-cultural communication, you usually end up losing your audience faster than you can speak. You will find that it is much easier to win over a foreign audience when you allow them the time to digest the message.
Is the future remote?

Given its current prevalence and prominence, it is perfectly legitimate for one to ask the question whether remote interpreting is the future? The answer, as you might have guessed, is yes and no.

Remote interpreting has certainly made simultaneous interpreting more accessible. Simultaneous interpreting was once reserved for ‘prestigious’ international organisations and ‘glamorous’ mega conferences due to the hefty price tag or upfront investment that comes with it (i.e. mostly made up of equipment and sound engineer/technician hire). Many videoconferencing applications support simultaneous interpreting and can be made available at the click of a button.

Given the significant cost saving afforded by remote interpreting technology, firms that found simultaneous interpreting too costly prior to the pandemic will want to continue with such technology. However, for organisations that had already invested in hardware to facilitate simultaneous interpreting prior to the pandemic (mostly international organisations), it is most likely that they will go back to using traditional technology when things return to normal as they know such technology is superior and more reliable. Still, it is possible that some kind of hybrid model will be accepted by such organisations in order to accommodate those who are unable to attend physically and to meet carbon emission targets.    

However, for activities requiring consecutive interpreting (i.e. the interpreter delivers their interpretation after the speaker finishes speaking), such as site visits and negotiations, remote interpreting will simply become unfit for purpose when unrestricted international travel returns. Remote consecutive interpreting has only become acceptable because the unique situation the world finds itself in at the moment. Everyone is forced to attend meetings remotely means everyone is disadvantaged on an equal footing. When people begin to meet in person again, a remote interpreter will be the only person who cannot see or hear properly. It will be immensely frustrating and impractical for users of such service. Also, it could potentially render subtle but crucial messages lost in translation given the absence of body language and facial expressions from the interpreter’s line of vision. For the trade investigation mentioned at the beginning of this article, six Chinese participants attended from the same meeting room sharing one camera, it was hard enough trying to make out their respective gender, let alone any facial expression.


About the author:

Philip He has more than 10 years of high-level interpreting and translation experience. He has had a successful career with the European Commission as an in-house translator prior to founding He and Partners.

He has been a European Union-accredited conference interpreter since 2010 and worked for a number of international organisations including the European Council, European Parliament and agencies of the United Nations.

In addition, Philip is a non-practising solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales. He trained with a London-based law firm and was admitted to the roll in 2017.

Philip specialises in providing the most effective interpreting and translation solutions for businesses. He has successfully assisted companies in the fields of automotive, engineering, law and technology to fulfil their communication needs.

He is also a teaching fellow at the University of Bath and a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster for their prestigious postgraduate courses on interpreting and translation.

Get in touch with Philip He, Head of Interpreting, He and Partners at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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