Preparing to Interpret at a Conference: Lessons Learned from a Healthcare and Court Interpreter

By Liz Essary


[READY]During my training as a conference interpreter, some of the most important advice I got was this: Don’t crush your listener with a wall of sound.  But what does that mean? It took me a while to figure it out. Rather than parroting a word-for-word monotone (and likely meaningless) rendition of what the speaker’s saying, you must process the message within all its surrounding context to produce something meaningful for the listener. As an interpreter, who’s worked in healthcare, court, and conference settings, I find this is something that applies no matter where you’re interpreting.

But how do conference interpreters prepare for an event? I’ve found it to be a bit different than going to an assignment in the healthcare or court setting. Here are some key parts of my preparation before interpreting at an event.

Building the context surrounding the event: Preparing to interpret at an event goes far beyond preparing a glossary of terminology! When I’m getting ready for an event, I read up on the company’s history and key players. I want to know if there’s anything happening internally, like a leader who’s stepping down, or a merger. Is this particular company making big changes, expanding, acquiring another company? I want to know about trends in the industry. Is the location or timing of the event significant? All of this helps me anticipate, within a broader context, what the event will be like. It helps me understand the tone of the event, so I can adjust my delivery accordingly. I don’t want to accidentally go upbeat when the recently-resigned CEO is giving her last address to the company.

“Don’t crush your listener with a wall of sound”

Program review: Who are the speakers? What will they speak about? For how long? Will there be general sessions, meetings, workshops, panels, or a mix? I like to create a spreadsheet with the speakers’ names, short bios, and the topic they’ll be addressing. I can follow along as each speaker is introduced, and this ensures that all of the speakers’ names and their credentials will be properly represented in my interpretation. This is especially helpful when you’ve got someone introducing a speaker and reading their bio at lightning speed from a text.

Speeches and slides: I don’t necessarily need the finished product. I’m not going to take a speech, translate it, and then read it aloud from the booth. I’m not going to take slides and share them with anyone. One of the most helpful drills in my training was to learn to scan the text of a speech and prepare it so I could work with it in the booth. We were taught to scan and mark up the text to indicate links, numbers, and keywords. In the end of training, we were able to prepare the text in about five minutes. While in training, this exercise could feel tedious at times. But it comes in very handy because on many occasions someone has knocked on the door to the booth minutes before start time to hand me a speech.

Terminology: Just like I create a spreadsheet of speakers and their bios, I like to create a spreadsheet of terminology. Believe it or not, it’s not much help if someone just hands me a glossary of terms. The work that goes into researching and understanding industry-specific concepts and jargon is the real benefit of creating a glossary, and not the finished product itself.

Sports: They will always come up at a meeting or event! Every time I’ve interpreted at an event, there’s a speaker who warms up the audience by talking about the buzz surrounding the local team, or there’s someone bragging about his golf game, or some banter in the Q&A or among the panelists about the local sports legend. I always scan the local news to see what’s going on in sports, and I’m always glad I did.

YouTube: If there is publicly available video of a speaker, I’m going to dig in to that.  I’ll know what their style is. Is it fast and energetic, or slow and rambling with a tricky accent? I can then use those speeches to practice interpreting and zero in on any tricky spots and think of solutions before I even step in the booth.

“When I’m getting ready for an event, I read up on the company’s history and key players”

Contacting my team: Any time I work an event, I contact my team ahead of time to introduce myself and let them know that I’m looking forward to working with them. I’ll share any materials I’ve got that might be useful to them, and if possible we’ll meet in person before the event and talk about how we think it’ll go, and discuss any experience we’ve had interpreting for this particular client or in that particular field.

Making this kind of effort to prepare makes it less likely that I’m going to feel backed into a corner by one word. And there’s always the booth mate who’s by my side (rarely resting), researching, looking up last-minute words, and jotting down numbers when they come flying at us.

An added benefit to my training in conference interpreting is that it completely changed the way I prepare for healthcare and court assignments. After so many years working in healthcare and legal settings, it’s exciting to find new techniques to weave into my preparation and practice in those settings. I’m more assertive about asking for more information from a client so that I can practice ahead of time and clean up any problem areas before I go in. I do a much better job about asking for what I need, before and during an assignment. In the end, it’s a better experience for me, and for the people listening to me. And isn’t that what’s it’s all about?



Liz Essary has been interpreting in healthcare and legal settings since 2002, and training interpreters since 2009. After years of supervising interpreters in the hospital setting, she finished her Master’s of Conference Interpreting at the Glendon School of Translation in Toronto in 2016. She currently works as a freelance interpreter and trainer based out of Indianapolis, IN. You can find her blog at


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