What a Speaker’s PowerPoint Won’t Tell—And the Interpreter Needs to Find Out

[PowePoint presentation]

The more skillful and/or experienced a speaker, the more likely the content of his talk will be in his head rather than on his slide deck. Some speakers will stuff each of their slides with text and simply read them out to the audience, and if the interpreters are able to get hold of the PPT presentation beforehand, they just need to study the text and terminology carefully in order to complete their job with flying colors. Now, if the interpreters are not given the slides until just before the talk, then the interpretation becomes a sort of sight translation (provided that the presenter doesn’t speak too fast and the interpreters have a solid grasp of the topic, then the interpreters are likely to do a great job).

Here are a few tips for eliciting vital information from the speaker that is not contained in the PPT. If you can have access to the presentation beforehand and reach the speaker before the day of the presentation, that’s great, but if you’re not that lucky and can only see the speaker on the day of the presentation, you may be able to cull the information you need some 30 minutes before the talk (if the presentation is not too lengthy and exceptionally complex, that is).

This is what you should check with the speaker:


Are there any acronyms or abbreviations the speaker intends to use that are not reflected in the slides? Make sure you take note of these and spell them out. I remember an assignment early in my career where the acronym “SAP” just appeared suddenly and no – it did not mean “Secondary Audio Program”! It was the first thing that came to mind and caused me trouble since I had not chatted with the speaker beforehand.

Unusual terminology/Difficult concepts

In the case of technical presentations, you should also ask about unusual terminology that does not appear in the slides and key concepts that may not be explicitly reflected in the PPT. Again, take note of the relevant terms and also jot down keywords for any concepts that may be particularly challenging. Time permitting, don’t be shy to ask the speaker to explain a concept more than once if necessary. I recently interpreted a physician whose PPT contained slides with some quite elusive concepts and absolutely no explanations, and I was quite annoyed the day before the assignment because my online search of the concepts did not yield ANY meaning information. I was finally face to face with the speaker before the presentation and he explained that those were brand new concepts he was developing, and this was the first time he was discussing them in a presentation!

Puns/Plays on words

It is virtually impossible to convey a pun or play on words to the other culture successfully if you only have two or three seconds to process it.

It is virtually impossible to convey a pun or play on words to the other culture successfully if you only have two or three seconds to process it. It makes all the difference if there are no surprises and you know exactly when a witty remark will come up and what the point will be. I once interpreted a talk by a psychologist whose topic was “Denial.” His opening slide was a glossy picture of the Nile River in Egypt, to which he commented: “This has nothing to do with the topic of my presentation this morning. Let’s make it clear…” I admit I was unable to get it across effectively and made a firm decision to always ask about any potential puns and plays on words from then on.


Some scholars and scientists who are on the leading edge of their fields will often tour the world with a keynote presentation, which means that they will tweak and perfect it as they go along (interpreters really need to study the topic and slides very thoroughly). To make the interpreter’s life even more difficult, as these featured speakers hop from country to country they hear stories from peers that they are all too happy to include in their talks, and guess what—chances are that these will come straight from the speakers’ memory, without any hints or cues in the slides (which would probably not make a significant difference if you are not familiar with their details beforehand). Make sure to ask the speaker to give you at least an overview of any stories they intend to tell during the presentation. And if there are any jokes, you obviously need to fully understand the punchline. From the audience’s perspective, it is really discouraging if you hear a confident and knowledgeable interpreter describing complex technical processes and ideas one minute and then a hesitant interpreter fumbling for words the next.

In a nutshell, a conference interpreter’s source of information on an assignment cannot simply be a PowerPoint presentation or an Internet search on the topic. Make sure you exercise your inquisitive side ahead of the presentation and try and delve into the mind of the speaker as much as possible.

[Marsel de Souza]

Marsel de Souza is a full-time interpreter and translator based in Brasilia, Brazil. He has a BA in English>Portuguese translation from the University of Brasilia and a certificate in advanced French studies from Alliance Française. He is an ATA-certified English>Portuguese translator and a member of AIIC, APIC, Abrates, and Sintra. He works primarily in Brasilia and across Brazil, but his assignments have also taken him to Africa, Asia and Europe. To read other articles Marsel has written, you can follow him on LinkedIn.

Image of PowePoint presentation by neonbrand via Unsplash.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/whats-a-speakers-powerpoint-wont-tell/

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