Skip to main content

Global Flipchart



July 2016
| Issue #4

Tips: Facilitating multiple languages

By Beatrice Briggs

Achieving dialogue and mutual understanding in any meeting is a challenge. When two or more languages —including sign language— are spoken, the facilitator's task becomes even more difficult. Here are some practical suggestions for supporting all the participants in a multi-lingual situation.

Before accepting the job

When contracting for a facilitation job, ask which language(s) the meeting will be conducted in. Verify whether all of the participants are fluent in these languages. If the answer is "yes...well, almost all," this is a signal that some people will be excluded from all or part of the conversation unless steps are taken to meet their translation needs.

Ground rules

Establish clear ground rules regarding how the language issue will be dealt with. Depending on the situation, one or more of these may be appropriate.

  • Both English and Spanish are welcome (or name whatever languages are appropriate to the situation). 

  • Speak in the language that is most comfortable for you. 

  • The working language of this meeting is... 

  • If you need translation, let us know. 

  • Simultaneous translation is available in the following languages: ... 

  • Whispered translation will be available in this (specify) section of the room. 

  • Speak slowly and clearly. 

  • Use this hand signal (demonstrate it) when you want the speaker to slow down. 

  • Speak into the microphone (so interpreters in the cabins can hear you). 

  • Wait for the sign language interpreter to finish before making your next comment. 

Install 'Speed Bumps' 

People who speak very fast are more difficult for non-native speakers to understand. Ask them to slow down. You may need to remind them more than once! Those who use a lot of slang or technical jargon also can be hard to understand. Ask them to 'translate' their message into words that are more accessible to all. 

Working with professional interpreters

If you are working with the interpreters for the first time, introduce yourself to them before the event begins. Establish an agreement regarding how they will communicate that a speaker is going too fast for them. Be sure that you or someone else on the facilitation team has a direct line of sight to the interpreters so their “slow down” signals do not go unnoticed.

If simultaneous translation equipment is being used, check that it is working properly and that the meeting participants know how to use it. Post signs around the room indicating which language can be heard on which channel.

When this equipment is not available, there are three options:

  • Sequential translation, in which the speaker stops to allow time for interpretation, usually spoken out loud so all can hear, or signed in the front of the room where all can see. 

  • "Whispered" translation in which the interpreter sits near those who need help and translates quietly. 

  • Written translation, in which the interpreter sits beside those who need assistance and translates the main ideas of the person speaking directly onto index cards.

Sequential translation has the advantage of slowing down the process for everyone, giving the speaker time to collect his/her thoughts and the listeners a chance to absorb them. Often speakers get carried away and forget to pause for translations, in which case the facilitator needs to interrupt them. Sequential translation also means that all interventions take twice as long, a factor that must be taken into consideration when planning the agenda. 
Whispered translation tends to be incomplete at best and can be distracting for those sitting nearby. Nevertheless, it can be a great service for those who otherwise would not understand any of what is going on. 

Written translation will not capture the speaker’s every word, but will summarize the main points for those who do not fully understand. This technique is appropriate when simultaneous translation equipment is not available, and when the persons needing the translation are observers rather than active participants, interested in only a summary of the event. It is important, however, not to distract the other participants. This might work well, for example, during a group field visit to a parliamentary meeting.

Volunteer, non-professional translators 

When professional interpreters are not available, bilingual participants often volunteer (or are recruited) to translate. They usually start out with great enthusiasm, but then become tired, distracted or want to participate in the conversation themselves. Be sure to establish clear agreements about what is expected of them, including how often they will get a break. (Professional translators usually work in pairs, trading off every 20 minutes.) 

‘Back seat' translators

Sometimes participants disagree publicly with the accuracy of the volunteer’s translation and interrupt to offer their version. Others act like back seat drivers, calling out suggestions to a translator who is momentarily struggling to find the proper term. Usually this "help" demoralizes and/or confuses the translator, making matters worse. Ask everyone to refrain from offering suggestions unless the translator asks for it.

'Coyote' translators

Occasionally non-professionals let their trickster side emerge while translating, deliberately distorting what the speaker is saying, often in an attempt to be humorous. The bilingual people in the room realize what is happening and start to laugh. The speaker and others are left out of the joke - until someone explains what is going on. This kind of 'coyote translation' is both disrespectful and distracting and should be stopped.

Acknowledge the interpreters

Translation is a difficult and demanding task. Be sure to publicly thank all the interpreters at the end of the session. When facilitators and interpreters work together well, we create the conditions for meaningful dialogue among people who otherwise might not be able to communicate with each other. When this happens, any extra effort required on our part is more than justified.