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clear voiceNick Burchell says choosing the right interpreter can make all the difference

Effective communication is at the heart of international diplomacy, so choosing the right interpreter or translator is vital if you are to avoid misunderstandings or cultural faux pas.

What to look for:

A good interpreter should be fluent in one or more foreign languages, along with an excellent command of their native language and clear diction.

It is important to understand the way languages are used by native speakers, particularly with informal speech and slang. They should also be aware of regional variations and dialects.

The key strengths of an experienced interpreter are confidence, concentration, the ability to think quickly and a knowledge of the field in which they are interpreting.

Interpreters can be present in the room or the service can be delivered over the phone. Telephone translation is becoming increasingly by popular as it offers a greater degree of flexibility and convenience; once an account has been set up, the user can simply call the designated phone number, enter their log-in details and be patched straight through to an interpreter who speaks their chosen language.

Distinct from an interpreter, who deals with speech, a translator usually works with documents (and very occasionally with audio too). Translators work with a wide range of material, including scientific, technical and commercial documents such as reports, manuals and brochure, legal papers and contract, educational resources, online content, and literary and media projects, including books and film subtitles.

Prices for translation services are based on a number of factors, including the number of words or characters in the source document, the format of the original and translated documents, the language pairs to be translated, the complexity of the material and the deadline.

It may be tempting to cut costs by using a free online e-translator or dictionary, but this can be a dangerous approach. E-translators tend to be confused by contractions, homophones and idioms because they operate at the word level rather than by ‘understanding’ contextual phrases – sometimes with amusing results.

But it’s no joke if things go wrong because decisions were based on badly translated information in a report or contract. And we’ve all seen global advertising campaigns, for example, that have failed to make the transition from one language to another, often resulting in organisations looking foolish or even causing offence. That is why it is vital your words are passed through the prism of a native speaker, who can choose the best way to convey your intended meaning in an appropriate cultural context.

To receive the most accurate translation possible, be sure to brief the translator on what the text is for, where it will be used and who will read it. Style, pronounceability, word choice, phrasing and sentence length will all vary, depending on whether your text is going to be delivered out loud, in a technical manual, on a website or in promotional material.

And if you are working in a specialised field such as engineering or legal matters, the text is likely to contain terminology that might not normally feature in the general vocabulary of even a native speaker, so it also helps to ask for a translator who has some experience in that particular area.

Cultural awareness:

Polyglots provide diplomatic staff with a unique bridge between cultures, leading to a more nuanced understanding of a host of issues. Working with a range of languages can give an insight into how people across the world think about the everyday things that are familiar to us all. Looking at something from a different angle can be amusing as well as enlightening.

For instance, something as simple and universal as the barking of a dog shows how speakers of various languages hear the same sound differently – even though we are all using onomatopoeia (words that sound like their meaning) to do it. While British dogs are going ‘woof, woof’ or ‘ruff ruff,’ that’s by no means the case across the globe. Dogs just across the Channel in France are going ‘ouah, ouah’ while Italian dogs go ‘bau, bau’ and German dogs ‘wau, wau’ (pronounced vow, vow). Further afield, Korean dogs go ‘mung, mung’ and Japanese dogs go ‘wan, wan.’

And that is when all the words are describing more or less the same sound. It gets even more complicated when different societies describe similar situations by the use of popular idioms. So while the British ‘make a mountain out of a molehill,’ people in Estonia ‘make an elephant out of a gnat.’ We may have ‘other fish to fry’ but the French have ‘other cats to whip.’ Gaelic speakers describe a ‘fish out of water’ as a ‘jackdaw among peacocks.’

And there are even differences between people who supposedly speak the same language. Our gardeners may have ‘green fingers’ but in the US they have ‘green thumbs.’

One of the benefits of proficiency in more than one language is gaining a fresh perspective on familiar words, phrases and situations. A good interpreter or translator can make sure your words are plainly and appropriately expressed and, most importantly, clearly understood.


Clear Voice offers high-quality interpreter and translation services and is the only not-for-profit service of its kind operating throughout the UK. The company was established by the charity Migrant Help, which fights human trafficking and supports migrants in need; all of Clear Voice’s profits go directly to the charity.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated clear links between English-language disadvantage and social exclusion and deprivation. Ironically, those who most need to draw on the services of education, health, legal and social welfare professionals and officials may be least able to do this because of language difficulties.

Clear Voice believes it is important that everyone can be understood and is able to communicate effectively when they access services that have a major impact on their lives and wellbeing.

By encouraging recruitment from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and giving profits to charity, Clear Voice is the ethical choice for organisations in need of interpreting and translation services.


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