How to Handle Language Interpretation for Virtual Meetings

As associations shift their events to all-virtual formats, there are several elements to rethink, including how to manage language interpretation. Some tips for breaking down language barriers in remote meetings.

Like a lot of organizations, the financial association Million Dollar Round Table shifted its meetings and events to all-virtual formats for 2020. That required MDRT to rethink how it was handling language interpretation for its membership, 80 percent of which is located outside the United States. Where before, interpretation might be managed in person and case by case, MDRT now needed a more efficient and dynamic solution.

As in many other situations this year, Zoom proved to be a life-saver. Through the platform, conference and webinar leaders can assign interpreters and give participants the option to access interpretations through their preferred audio channel. (Zoom sets the native language at a lower volume to allow the listener to grasp tone and intonation, and interpreters can see the people for whom they’re interpreting.) In 2020, MDRT has used Zoom this way live for leadership meetings and webinars, according to Eryn Carter, CAE, MDRT’s senior director for global markets.

“Some of our members in different countries who are used to engaging with our association in person were quite skeptical of using virtual platforms, but the feedback has been very positive,” she says. “It’s almost been a 180 for some of the markets we work in, in terms of changing their minds about how effective those platforms can be, even with interpretation.”

Part of that success comes through advance planning. Carter recommends prepping interpreters with information about the event, speaker, and technical issues. Wi-Fi strength can make conversations lag uncomfortably even when everybody is speaking the same language; introducing interpreters can exacerbate the problem.

“I would suggest doing a dry run without the audience, to get the speaker, interpreters, and staff the support you need,” she says. “The risk of doing these things live is that it’s dependent on each person’s connectivity, and obviously that impacts the experience for the audience.”

MDRT delivered multiple interpretations of its recorded sessions for its virtual annual conference in August. For live events, though, it tries to mitigate technical issues by including interpretations for no more than two languages at a time. To that end, many conversations are regionally grouped—Spanish and Portuguese for South America, Mandarin and Cantonese for China.

“Trying to bring all the parties involved and then adding a language just brings complexity to the equation,” Carter says. “And we’re trying to minimize that as much as possible.”

She says using such interpretation functionality will be essential for associations, not just as a practical matter but a cultural one.

“We try not to limit participation in any aspect of our organization, whether it’s a leadership position or attending a meeting, based on someone’s language abilities,” she says. “We feel that we’re responding to the expectations of the broader marketplace in addition to the cultural expectations of the identity of our organization.”

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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