First-time posters: please review the site's moderation policy

The English booth (which, on the private market in Germany, is usually a two-way booth, i.e. German-English/English-German) increasingly works for non-native English speakers. Should the interpreters adjust the level of their rendering to the proficiency of the non-natives, esp. when they realize (e.g. in the Q&A sessions or sometimes already during the presentations) that the knowledge of English in the audience is not sufficient to really understand/communicate. Should they slow down, use simple phrases, if necessary repeat (when a speaker does not get a question, for example)? Or just ignore the problem and trust that people, who don't understand, ask back for further explanations?

asked 12 Nov '11, 15:13

LiA's gravatar image


edited 21 Jan '12, 01:46

Delete's gravatar image

Delete ♦

12next »

In some meetings, English interpreters have been asked to "dumb down" their language and syntax to adapt to a non-native audience.

As an interpreter, my feeling is that we are there to facilitate communication and to make sure people understand each other and not to make it more difficult.

In the Spanish booth I will adapt my Spanish if I know that the majority of the audience comes from Latin America and I won't use Spanish references particular to Spain.

permanent link

answered 13 Nov '11, 09:44

Marta%20Piera%20Marin's gravatar image

Marta Piera ...

I agree that we adapt to our audience, but I wouldn't call it "dumbing down". There are simple things, like good enunciation of EN for a predominantly non-native speaking public, that are common sense. Others are just good interpreting, such as avoiding run-on sentences that too often can be hard to follow for even native speakers. And let's remember that passive knowledge of a language is usually better than active knowledge, so should we really be judging participants understanding by our perception of their speaking ability? The old adage KISS should be "translated" as Keep in Short and Simple, not Stupid.

permanent link

answered 17 Jan '12, 15:31

Luigi's gravatar image


I agree interpreters should strive to be effective communicators above all, so to the extent that we are not omitting important information, we should slow down the pace, adjust the register, etc

I remember an assignment where the client found a brilliant way of facilitating understanding even further: at an international conference, in addition to your regular booths from and into several language combinations, they arranged for an extra English<>English booth so that any participant with a relatively good understanding of English could follow the proceedings in that language in a single, hopefully neutral, accent. Had these non-native-English participants been forced to hear all the different English accents of speakers from all over the world, many of whom were non-native-English speakers themselves, they would probably have had to resort to interpretation into one of the other official languages of the conference.

permanent link

answered 28 Mar '12, 15:15

Laura's gravatar image


edited 30 Mar '12, 13:51

I find it is increasingly the case that the English booth needs to keep their output sufficiently under control for it to be clear to a wide range of non-native speakers. In a way it is one of the more frustrating developments in the interpreting world over the last 15 or so years: I often find myself paraphrasing any particularly colourful idioms that may have just slipped out when I'm working to make sure they are also clear to the whole audience, and I notice my colleagues doing the same.

(On a personal note, this "self-editing" on a daily basis makes it even more wonderfully enjoyable to just let rip on the extremely rare occasions where I know that my audience is made up not just of genunine native speakers but of Scots to boot! Only happened twice so far though...)

permanent link

answered 05 Apr '12, 15:20

Helen_Berlin's gravatar image


...methinks we very much must adapt...and it doesn't have to be to non-native delegates only, eons ago I interpreted EN>PT a very long series of hospital administration talks for the benefit of three different target groups, MD's, nurses and administrators, given by the same speakers (from all three groups) to all three groups of listeners. It soon became apparent that one could not interpret in the same way the same speaker giving the same speech to these three different audiences in succession... lest we lose them, albeit for different reasons.

permanent link

answered 15 Nov '11, 17:03

msr's gravatar image


I fully agree that we should adjust our rendering to our audience and that Luigi's version of KISS is most appropriate. This does not mean that we belittle our audience, it means that we prize communication above excelling in our job

permanent link

answered 18 Jan '12, 18:19

Vicky%20Massa's gravatar image

Vicky Massa

Many times, I am certain that if do not adjust the level, the communication would not really happen... (I work in a Pediatric Hospital)

permanent link

answered 23 Mar '12, 14:12

Shoam's gravatar image



According to this video about interpreting for Health Care Services, the interpreter should brief the doctor and ask him to adjust to the level of the patient:

(24 Mar '12, 05:54) Angela

I believe you have to adapt you level of language all the time and 100%.

In fact, you have to be always mindful of

  1. on behalf of whom you are speaking and
  2. who you are talking to.

We have good examples of this all the time at ILO.

Example for case 1:

Its tripartite structure makes it that we work for governments, employers and workers and you don't have to be an expert to realize that Sarkozy or Putin do not talk the same way that workers in an agriculture sectorial meeting. Why should we "make them speak" the same way then?

Example for case 2:

These same people do not speak the same way when they are meeting in their own groups than when all three groups meet together in the plenary. And in my opinion it is due to the fact that the people they are talking to are different. If they adapt, I don't see how we wouldn't.

In my own ideal world, we should strive to chose the same words/expressions/phrases our speaker would have chosen in our mother tongue had (s)he been able to.

permanent link

answered 30 Mar '12, 10:44

AnaP's gravatar image


edited 30 Mar '12, 10:49

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

I also agree that interpreters should adjust their register to that of the speaker but that does not quite answer the original question, which specifically asked whether interpreters should make an extra effort to express themselves in an articulate and simple language when they know for a fact that they are translating for 'clients' who may be struggling with that language.

To come back to your point - which probably ought to be turned in to a separate question on ii - what do you make of cases where the speaker's and the audience's registers are very much apart? Do you give it to them like the speaker intended (but was he or she even aware of the register gap?) or do you try to find some common ground?

(30 Mar '12, 11:03) Vincent Buck

Sorry, you are right, Vincent, I got carried away by the heat of the thead. I suppose it would depend on the situation too, and in the best case scenario, we can only hope our speakers adapt themselves too (i.e. Obama doesn't make the State of the Union speech in the same register than he speaks when he is campaigning in Detroit).

In any event, I agree with Laura and others, we are communicators. Beautiful sentences are all of the sudden less beautiful if nobody understands them. It happens often that Portuguese speakers listen to the Spanish booth in the UN institutions. I would rather be undestandable to my Brazilian delegates (without being dumb -as others suggested) and keep my idioms for a meeting where I am sure they carry the intended meaning.

(30 Mar '12, 11:27) AnaP

A difference in register can actually be very funny. I remember once, in an Olympic press-conference, a journalist asking an athlete: "is it true that yesterday you told your coach to f** off?", which the very well educated French interpreter rendered as: " est-il vrai que vous ayez eu avec votre entraîneur un... écart de langage?". Everyone found it hilarious, in particular since everyone had understood the original.

permanent link

answered 07 Apr '12, 16:00

Danielle's gravatar image


Isn`t that called Register? We refer to this as "registro" in Portuguese (Brazil). And yes, I think we should always ajust our "register" according to the target audience, and by no means it is "dumbing down" the rendering. Content, as everything, can be said in many different ways. Actually, sometimes lowering the "register" can be quite a hard task. A good way to improve your register range is to make use of synonyms and antonyms dictionaries, as well as collocations. Cheers!

permanent link

answered 25 Mar '12, 06:36

AlexAlcantara's gravatar image


In a traditional conference setting, interpreters have always been expected to adjust their register to match that of the speaker, but not to the supposed language proficiency of the audience. You could say that it's the speaker's responsibility to figure out who is in the audience and how best to address them. The question here is more specific and relates to the commonly held but false assumption that anyone going to a conference will understand natively spoken English.

(25 Mar '12, 06:57) Vincent Buck
Your answer
toggle preview

Follow this question

By Email:

Once you sign in you will be able to subscribe for any updates here



Answers and Comments

Markdown Basics

  • *italic* or _italic_
  • **bold** or __bold__
  • link:[text]( "title")
  • image?![alt text](/path/img.jpg "title")
  • numbered list: 1. Foo 2. Bar
  • to add a line break simply add two spaces to where you would like the new line to be.
  • basic HTML tags are also supported

Question tags:


question asked: 12 Nov '11, 15:13

question was seen: 7,663 times

last updated: 13 Jun '12, 06:14 is a community-driven website open to anyone with questions and/or answers about interpreting, i.e. spoken language translation

about | faq | terms of use | privacy policy | content policy | disclaimer | contact us

This collaborative website is sponsored and hosted by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters.