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Tips on Organising a Multilingual Conference

As old hands at organising successful multilingual conferences we continuously come across clients who may be unaware of all the different considerations that need thought in the planning stages. The tips below offer an initial insight into the main areas of importance.


The Floor Language

The main language of the conference that will be used by a chairman or principal speakers is known as the floor language.

In simple format conferences there will only be one floor language with the occasional short intervention of another language, such as in Q&A sessions. The floor language is what will be termed the "active" language and all others "passive" languages.

In more multilingual conferences there very well may be a number of speakers/presentations in many languages. In such cases there will be multiple floor languages.

It is important to assess whether there will be one or many floor languages as this will impact the interpreters you need.


Active and Passive Languages

The reason it is crucial to understand what floor languages will be used is so the interpreting agency can assemble the right team to ensure the translations are as seamless as possible.

Interpreters classify their abilities according to active and passive languages. If, for example, an interpreter considers Danish to be their active language they will work into and out of Danish. However, they will only translate out of their passive language into Danish.

You may sometimes come across interpreters stating their language abilities according to 'A', 'B' and 'C'. This means 'A' is their native language (active), 'B' is their language of habitual use (also active) and 'C' language(s) is their passive language.

If you have a team with a large number of active languages, a lot more language combinations can be accommodated. If there are interpreters who do not have one of the floor languages as one of their active/passive languages they will rely on a common feed, i.e. if someone is speaking in Farsi and most of the interpreters do not know Farsi as either their active/passive language they will rely on one interpreter to translate into English and the rest will work from the English feed.


Getting the right team 

Conferences that use large numbers of languages can be logistically difficult. This is due to the number of language combinations that are needed. For example if a conference includes English as the floor language then most interpreters will have it as an active language and others can work off them. If however the floor language is Greek and this is to be translated into Urdu, Czech and Japanese then it is a lot more difficult to accomplish.

This should be taken into consideration when inviting speakers to make a presentation at a conference. Always consult with your interpreting agency as to what they can advise and whether certain language combinations can be accomplished.


Room Layout 

If the interpreting agency is also providing simultaneous interpreting equipment it is always a good idea to provide a map of the room layout. This helps properly plan out where to place booths, tables, microphones and cables.

There are three conventional room layouts:

  1. Theatre style: Speakers at the front (on stage or at table) with delegates in rows of chairs facing them.
  2. Classroom style: Speakers at a front table with delegates in rows of chairs with their own tables facing the top table.
  3. Boardroom style: A round a single table.

The positioning of interpreting booths is crucial to the smooth running of operations.  If possible the following guidelines should be observed:

  1. Allow interpreters direct eye contact with the speakers
  2. Interpreters should be able to have a discrete means of leaving their booths and the venue
  3. The booths should be grouped together
  4. Allow room for the technician's control position next to the booths.


 Inform the Interpreters 

Conference interpreters take great pride in their jobs and always strive to give quality work. This however is only possible with the support of the client. It is critical to give interpreters as much information beforehand as possible.

Organising conferences are stressful and much of the time very last minute so ensure that plenty of time is given to pass the necessary information to interpreters. The usual reference materials interpreters want are:


  • The agenda
  • The speakers' presentations/notes
  • A list of delegate names
  • A list of participating organisations
  • A list of industry-specific acronyms, abbreviations and terminology
  • As much background material as possible
  • Any conference handouts
  • Previous conference notes or minutes


 The Big Day

On the day of the conference try and put into practice the following tips:

  • Assign a member of staff be solely responsible for handing out and collecting headphones and also to explain how to use them (a short illustrated guide is useful)
  • Have a quick meeting with all the interpreters and the technician to ensure that all the equipment is working correctly
  • Speak with the head of the interpreting team to finalise proceedings and floor languages
  • Try and have a member of staff liaise regularly with the interpreters to make sure there are no problems, they have enough water and are happy