Conferences: What are they good for?

(with apologies to Edwin Starr)

Conference season is in full swing. As I write this, ITI have recently had their annual conference, BAAL will soon be having a conference in Edinburgh and I am preparing to co-chair a panel at EST conference in August. It’s that time of year when people look out their business cards, dust off their elevator pitches and get ready to travel to a foreign country, before spending almost all of their time there inside hotels and conference halls.

But why bother? Why go to the trouble of travelling, registering and even presenting? What do conferences give you that staying at home, playing about on social media can’t?

Oddly enough, looking at the reasons why people go to conferences is part of my PhD. It would seem sensible that, if we want to know what people want from interpreters, we should start with why they are at the conference in the first place.

The real answer might be troubling for interpreters. As Daniel Gile put it “the great majority of delegates … state that gaining new information is not their primary motivation for coming to meetings … . Instead, their responses include: making new contacts and renewing contacts they have already made, exchanging information outside of the sessions, the chance to take some time out for themselves, tourism (!) and other motivations that have nothing to do with exchanging information.” (1989: 659, my translation)

No matter the conference, delegates will mention that having time to network and get to know new people figures high on their list of reasons for coming. Sure, they might learn something in the presentations but the real added value seems to be found in the times between the sessions. It’s little wonder then that most astute speakers recognise that keeping people’s attention has to figure high on their list of priorities. There is just so much else going on.

This means that it is entirely possible that the interpreters could spend a week preparing for a conference, only to realise that their “clients” are paying little attention to them and are more interested in who they can chat to in the coffee break. Ever been there?

What is interesting to note, though, is that there is some evidence that the clients who do pay attention tend to want something different from those who don’t.

Ask clients who don’t rely on interpreters what they want and “tell me what they said” will be their basic (and possibly complete) view. Ask clients who are fully reliant on interpreters and engaged in the session what they want and things get complicated. You might find, like Ebru Diriker, that clients start to explain that they want interpreters to coin new terms or to re-express the gist of what the speaker said. You might find, like Şeyda Eraslan, that clients want the interpreter to bridge gaps arising from cultural differences. You might even find, like Jill Karlik has seen and as I am discovering, that some clients actually want the interpreter to partner with the speaker, sharing at least some responsibility for the success of the talk.

If conferences are as much about networking than gaining information then speakers have to think hard about how to make their talks worthwhile. If speakers have to work hard on making their talks worthwhile, interpreting might just involve a lot more than “saying what they said”. We might just have to rethink what it means to interpret at an event. Are we ready to rethink interpreting? Over to you.