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  • Writer's pictureLara Fasoli


One of the most common – and dreaded – questions translators and interpreters are asked all the time is: “How do you translate [insert vague word] into [insert language]?”, as if consulting a dictionary. All linguists have the same reaction: we take off our internal glasses, inhale deeply, and then we ask “could I have a bit of context?”.

This situation perfectly sums up how interpretation and translation are much more than an automatic act of word-matching or equivalence finding: words don’t just exist in a vacuum. This is why machine translation still isn’t able to substitute human translators and why prior preparation when it comes to an interpreting assignment is nothing short of pivotal to ensure a quality service.

I am certainly not trying to deny the usefulness of vocabulary and terminology research (my 17 tab Excel file turned glossary can testify to that), but how can interpreters put to use all those new words they memorised if they can’t actually make sense of what’s happening? In order to provide a quality interpreting service in a room where most likely everyone knows each other and where the interpreters are the only ones who haven’t got a degree in the subject-matter at hand and don't know what’s happened before between the participants, preparation is the only way of surviving and everything – every little single detailbecomes useful: the agenda of the day, the names of the speakers and the titles of their presentations, the location, minutes of previous meetings, any PPT, document or video used during speeches, and so on.

FSL Language checklist for accurate Italian interpreting preparation.
A checklist for organisers to help their professional interpreter prepare ahead of a meeting.

All of this helps professional interpreters research the topic, helping them to find and memorise the technical terminology and the jargon used, but most importantly it allows them to get to know the people who will be in the room: who are they? Do they know each other? Do they have an accent? Are they fast speakers? Do they tend to go off a tangent? What have they talked about before? What is their opinion?

The eye-opening experience I had whilst acting as an Italian sports interpreter for Mr. Pierluigi Collina sums this up perfectly: I was given his presentation beforehand, I had time to research him as a speaker to understand the way he speaks and I had listened to previous speeches he gave that were available on YouTube. All of this, combined with my knowledge of sports and football, allowed me to understand him perfectly and anticipate the logical thread of his speech: in this way, I could focus more on the delivery rather than frantically trying to make sense of what he was saying, which translated into a complete and accurate rendition for the audience.

In short, the earlier the interpreter has access to materials for preparation, the better the interpretation will be in terms of accuracy and speed. From experience, the mindset of the interpreter entering the booth or sitting at the table is completely different: interpreters are trained to deal with the worst situation possible by relaying on copying mechanisms and strategies, which means a clear, coherent and accurate message will still be created, but other aspects might have to be sacrificed – specialised terminology, secondary details and idioms are the first things an interpreter is willing to compromise on when under pressure. With thorough preparation, the pressure dictated by the unknown coming at you at full speed is taken out of the equation and the interpreter is free to focus on delivering the best possible interpretation drawing on the hours of study put in prior to the assignment. And it’s not just professional interpreters who claim that knowing all of this is pivotal: a few research papers from academics have now shown that preparation has an impact on the interpreting performance (Díaz-Galaz, 2015).

Let’s hit pause: if interpreters have all this material to prepare with, then are they not simply parroting or reading off the documents they have already had access to? Nothing could be more distant from the truth: no matter how well-prepared interpreters are, they still have to read their speaker’s mind and deal with all the potential incoming curve balls: a last minute change in the presentation or the speaker itself, the latter going off a tangent or suddenly starting to speak, or worse, read, at breakneck speed – the possibilities are endless. Denying the interpreter the documentation saying it’s like “cheating” can be the equivalent of complaining because the doctor requires your medical history before giving you a diagnosis.

Interpreters do appreciate some information and documents might be confidential and therefore clients might be reluctant to share them, but rest assured: professional interpreters abide to a very strict deontological code, of which confidentiality is one of the most important pillars, and they are more than happy to sign NDAs before receiving documents.

Professional Italian interpreters prepare ahead of time to ensure a quality service.
Reasons why preparation is an integral part of the interpreting service to ensure a quality performance.

Now that you’ve learnt why preparation is pivotal for a quality services, stay tuned to learn about my very own process of preparation, which I use to guarantee a professional Italian interpretation – it will be published next month!

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