The language question

I’m off to Poland today for Professional Outsourcing Magazine, helping to judge an awards scheme and to attend the gala dinner and presentation. I’m looking forward to it – the magazine’s been a pleasure to work on for this last year and there will be people I know there.

Often I visit other countries and speak. A couple of weeks ago I faced an international group for media training, which was fun and stimulating. There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you face a multilingual audience.

Ignore the obvious

On two occasions I’ve been advised to speak slowly to give the other language speakers a chance to keep up. That’s actually so obvious I wouldn’t have mentioned it here if people hadn’t been drawing it to my attention already.

Something on which you do need to focus if your audience will have English as a second language is the quality of the AV. Last time I presented to a tiny group I was using a video to illustrate a point, but the speaker on the TV set wasn’t working. We put the volume as high as we could on my iPad but the back row struggled to hear. Would they have stood a better chance if they’d been English speakers by birth? Probably. Would it have been a better idea if I’d brought a backup speaker just in case? Absolutely, and I’ve acquired a couple. Lesson learned.

The other thing to watch is humour. It doesn’t necessarily travel, no matter how hysterical you might consider your own brand of comedy.

A few years ago I was presenting on social media in Italy, just after the fall of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. One of my slides had a picture of Rupert Murdoch. I said “I don’t know how this man affects the non-English-speaking world. He’s a media magnate who has undue influence in our political world and many of us can barely believe it – I explain this in depth because I know nothing like that could ever happen in Italy.”

One person laughed uproariously but otherwise there was silence. No reaction. I started to wonder about actual violence from the audience if I’d offended them that badly.

I continued with my next point and then the laugh came – I’d forgotten about the gap while the interpreter caught up with me. Of course they loved the Berlusconi gag, they just hadn’t heard it yet apart from the fluent English speaker, who had laughed immediately.

Lesson learned again – allow a gap for the interpreter! And given that humour relies largely on timing, think very carefully about how important a joke might be when that timing is going to be in the hands of a translator rather than your own.

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