Choosing the right provider of interpreting services

A big multinational company convened a last-minute press conference in the run-up to a major product launch. Five minutes into the Q&A session that followed the CEO's address, English-speaking journalists were complaining that what they had heard through the interpreter was unintelligible.

A big multinational company convened a last-minute press conference in the run-up to a major product launch. The CEO chose to address the journalists in his native German, in an attempt to reach out to the German media that had been rumouring less than rosy prospects for the new product line. Interpretation into English was provided for the international press. Five minutes into the Q&A session that followed the CEO's address, English-speaking journalists were complaining that what they had heard through the interpreter was unintelligible.

An internal investigation later established what had gone wrong: The booth had been manned by a translator without much experience in simultaneous interpretation techniques. He had worked for slightly under two hours on his own. He had translated from German into English, neither of which was his native language. He had arrived in the booth with no idea of what the meeting was about. He had been hired on the strength of his CV by a simultaneous equipment rental company. The rental company's client was the posh hotel where the press conference was being held. The hotel had assured the professional meeting planner contracted to mastermind the event that they had a good record in arranging simultaneous interpretation services. The professional meeting planner had believed this and had concentrated on organising the press kits, the floral arrangements and hostesses instead...

A total of four intermediaries, plus a - by now very dissatisfied - client, had unfortunately failed to understand that, as far as the English-speaking press was concerned, the CEO's address would only be as good and convincing as the interpreters in the booth. None of them realised that bad interpretation is worse than no interpretation at all.

The above anecdote shows that selecting the right provider of conference services is the key to the credibility of your international meeting. This is especially the case if you have never worked with interpreters before. However, making the right choice is easier said than done.

Since the profession of conference interpreter is not legally recognised and protected in most countries, unfortunate though that may be for such a highly specialised activity, many people claim to be conference interpreters when they are anything but, and even more people maintain that they can arrange impeccable conference interpretation services. But is that true?

Providers of interpretation services usually belong to one the following categories, (listed below in alphabetical order):

  • Convention centres,
  • Equipment rental companies,
  • Hotels,
  • Individual interpreters,
  • Interpretation agencies,
  • Professional conference organisers (meeting planners),
  • Translation agencies

It must be said that all of them can potentially offer excellent interpretation services, but most are in no position to provide the services or vouch for quality themselves. Accordingly, what they offer will only be as good as their sub-contractors. Let's take a closer look at who does what:

Convention centres are in the business of renting out meeting facilities. More often than not, these will include rooms with ISO-compliant built-in interpretation booths and equipment. Many reputable congress centres work in collaboration with one or more consultant interpreters or interpretation agencies to whom the recruitment of interpreters' teams for specific events is hived off.

Simultaneous equipment rental companies sell, rent and operate SI hardware. The bigger ones will even be able to provide the full range of audio-visual technology for large congresses, from barcos to voting systems. Of course, state-of-the-art SI equipment and proficient sound engineers are crucial to any event with simultaneous interpretation. Some rental companies will tell you that they can also provide the interpreters themselves, along with the equipment.

More and more hotels nowadays offer comprehensive meeting facilities, including built-in interpretation booths. Sadly enough, there are many examples of hotel booths laid out at the whim of an architect who did not realise that the interpreters might one day need to stretch their legs under the table, or keep their meeting documents and laptop close at hand, or that looking at the projection screen through a pillar might prove slightly tricky. In most cases also, hotel booths have not been wired to a sound system, which means that a rental company has to come in with its own SI equipment whenever interpretation is required.

Whereas most freelance interpreters do not recruit teams of colleagues themselves, some have made a real speciality of it. In AIIC's jargon, they are called consultant interpreters. Some of them work in association with partners and have formed companies (interpretation agencies, interpreter cooperatives, partnerships, economic interest groups, etc.) Being interpreters themselves, they know how to compose quality teams, especially if they work with a large network of interpreters, such as those linked together world-wide through AIIC. Another advantage is that most of them offer totally transparent services: you will sign a contract with all the interpreters on the team, and a master contract with the consultant interpreter or company, so that you know exactly how much the interpreters and the recruiter get for their work.

Professional conference organisers, or event planners, are in the business of taking care of every aspect of any meeting, from a bar mitzvah to big fundraising events, including trade conferences and party conventions. They will sometimes offer interpretation services along with hotel bookings, attendee registration, hostesses and flowers.

Some translation agencies will claim that they are "the premier provider of a full range of interpretation services anywhere in the world" and that they manage a "world-wide network of thousands of tried and tested, competitively priced, professional conference interpreters speaking over two hundred languages". Well, for one thing, there simply aren't professionally trained, university-educated conference interpreters in 200 different languages, but 50 at the very most. And no organisation on the planet can boast a network of more than two hundred conference interpreters, except AIIC which gathers over 2500 members world-wide. So beware of overclaim if you deal with translation agencies. However, some of them do recognise that interpreting is not their core business, and will subcontract the recruitment of a team to a professional interpreter.

Whomever you decide to work with in the end, quality can only be guaranteed if a professional conference interpreter is putting the team together: Interpreters should be short-listed on the basis of their language combination, past experience, subject affinities, and availability. And even though the recruitment process can be considerably facilitated by customised software, having a big database and powerful software is not enough. The human touch remains all-important in a stress-prone profession where team-work in confined spaces is the name of the game. Knowing the interpreters personally and how they work is essential, as is being able to draw on the resources of a world-wide network of reputable colleagues.

At any rate, to make sure that you are getting real value for money and to avoid putting your CEO or keynote speaker in an uncomfortable position at your next event, ask the following questions:

  • Who is the provider and how do they recruit interpreters? Are they knowledgeable enough to hire interpreters themselves or will the task be hived off to someone else? If the latter is the case, how much commission does each of the intermediaries take?
  • Does the provider have a good record in organising meetings with conference interpreters or is it something they do on the side?
  • Who are the interpreters? Ask for the interpreter's references, CV, professional affiliation and language combination.
  • Will you be allowed to liaise directly with the interpreters or the team leader before and during the meeting? Terminological preparation requires that the interpreters receive background documents, minutes of previous meetings and speeches well ahead of the event. Will the interpreters be able to contact you directly if they have specific questions? The more intermediaries between you and the interpreters, the more difficult that process becomes.
  • Is the provider willing to explain its price? Ask for a detailed breakdown of prices for the SI equipment, the interpreters' fees and the consultancy fees. Whatever your vendor says, you can only know exactly how much the interpreters are really getting for their work if you sign an individual contract with them.

And never forget that, when the big day comes, your speakers will only sound as good and convincing as the interpreters in the booth.

Vincent Buck is a Brussels-based freelance conference interpreter. He was a member of AIIC's standing committee for the private market sector between 2000 and 2006.

Recommended citation format:
Vincent BUCK. "Choosing the right provider of interpreting services". October 12, 2000. Accessed July 7, 2020. <>.

About the author(s)
Vincent BUCK

Vincent Buck is a Brussels-based freelance conference interpreter and IT systems analyst

Message board

Comments 12

The most recent comments are on top



Hello Marianna,

hope all is well on your side. I'm a conference interpreter and would like to exchange about the profession as well.

Hope to hear from you soon,


Total likes: 0 0 | 0



Hello Lucas,

I'm a conference interpreter and read what you wrote and I can tell you it is the same here in Canada.

In order to be respected as a professional we often have to fight to obtain what we deserve.

thanks for your comments!

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Marco Walsh


Anda, chica! Tienes toda la razon!

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Hazel Cole


Are there any immediate plans to translate this article and the one on hiring SI equipment into French?

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

ALAN @Powerhouse Audio & Production Services Limited


Having read your article relating to choosing the right provider> I would like to re-inforce your comments.

We are Powerhouse Audio. A BBC approved Sound & Audio provider. We are the Production professionals who are called in to iron out many of the problems highlighted in your article. And it is essential to underline that not hiring the best Sound Engineers and Equipment can be the most serious error and leads to major problems.

If a major client has hired the services of a SI professional he will be most upset if the booth fails to generate distingiushable speech or

the AV equipment fails. The equipment being used must be of good and tested quality.

We have on many occasions had to site test other peoples equipment and replace due to the hirer ( in this case a major Hotel chain) having chosen the cheapest option. Please remember it is the equipment that delivers the skilled interpreters message and ensure that the correct equipment is in place to deliver that message.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Brigitte Schön


Although Vincent Buck's story is about sloppy conference organizers and lousy pre-meeting briefing, we are still dealing with an interpreter who actually accepted working into - at best - a C language. So the ultimate blame, in my opinion, lies with the interpreter for not refusing to do this, for not knowing his limits.

It is okay to say "No, I can't do this.!" It won't help our profession if we actively support the silly notion that every interpreter can translate from every language into any language he/she happens to know. Other professions wouldn't dream of living up to these popular expectations. An ophtalmologist wouldn't perform open heart surgery, and a pilot trained on Learjets wouldn't fly a Boeing 777 (I used the latter example in my negotiations with a client myself, by the way, and the client all of a sudden understood what simultaneous interpreting is all about).

So just say no!

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Ilja Moser


May be, the interpreter was not so bad after all. Sometimes the speakers do not speak into the microphone, they don't switch it on, and then it is impossible to understand and to translate them.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Marianna Matakova


I have Diploma in English and German from Moscow State University and am now finishing ISTI in Brussels. My working languages are RU-EN-FR-DE. I have experience in consecutive and simultaneous interpreting. I am looking for advice or help in finding interpreters' groups that might be interested. Thank you.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Hayley Goodstein


As a graduate of an AIIC recognized school, I take offense to the idea that those who have recently graduated can not provide acceptable services.

Mrs. Alemndar writes: "The most recent trend, much like in your article,however,is finding incompetent novices barely out of some school, who are more then happy to work for 1/3 of the daily fee of a true proffesional. Then anything goes..."

Admittedly, we do not posess the 10-20 years experience that most AIIC members have. Thus, it would be inappropriate for us to charge what someone with more experience is worth. I think that if I tried to charge what my Senior collegues do, I would certainly never be hired. This does not mean that I have any interest in promoting a gray market, quite the contrary - the professionalization of Conference Interpretation can only benefit my future career. However, as recent graduates we have spent two, sometimes three rigorous years dedicating the majority of our time to improving our techniques and skills, only to find that our degrees are scoffed at due to lack of real-world experience. Is it therefore preferable to gain experience by working our way up through the gray market and forego the two years formal training?

In order for us to be able to avoid such an embrassing situation like the one Vincent described, I believe the key lies in working with the service coordinators (hotels, organizers, etc.) and the client to make it clear just how important finding an appropriately trained interpreter is; in other words, use an interpreter whose qualifications match the setting. I may have a short time working as a real-world interpreter, but my knowledge from other professional and personal endeavors should be taken into consideration in cojunction with my years of study. Everybody has to start somewhere.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Lucas Amuri


Your true story is so common here in Africa that I need not bother to recount variations of it. Only to thank you for the write-up because one can always show it to a potential recruiter.

For them to see what can happen if things are not done right. However, it is we the professionals who must also insist on our ethics.

With the cut-throat competition brought on by deregulation some of us sometimes encourage recruiters to lower fares in order to undercut colleagues.

As the saying goes 'charity begins at home' so if let us stick to out professional standards no matter what and the competition will be left in the dust.

Thanks again Vincent for sharing.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Mrs.Nigar Alemdar


The true story cited in your article on "Providers of Interpreting Services" sounds so familiar !! In recent years some young technicians providing technical equipment for conferences here in Istanbul have begun to think simultaneous interpreters can be boxed,transported, and put to use much like their equipment. The cheaper the fees, the better. Who cares about subject matter or how long the job is, or if the recruited person is really a qualified interpreter. They are renting their equipment, so they can also "rent" an interpreter they know. To make the customer happy by offering a good deal, they provide one interpreter instead of a team of two.

In the past three years I have found myself all alone 1)at a supposed 1.5 hr job that lasted 5 hrs 2) at a very technical computer job which was introduced to me as a brief marketing meeting, 3) at an extremely technical meeting on "Acoustics in Music Halls" held at Istanbul Technical University, which the technical company introduced to me as interpreting at an opening ceremony of a meeting at the same university!

The most recent trend, much like in your article,however,is finding incompetent novices barely out of some school, who are more then happy to work for 1/3 of the daily fee of a true proffesional. Then anything goes...

However, when customers rely on the wrong persons and receive bad sevice they should not really be upset. It is we recognised professionals who should be careful in not falling into the trap of these over ambitious so called "organisers" who know nothing about interpretation standards,work conditions or business ethics. I suppose the best thing to do is to conduct a lot of PR and help raise consciousness among hotel managers and other conference organising entities.

Your article was a comfort to me. We seem to share not only AIIC membership, but also some problems that I used to think was only local. It is good to exchange ideas.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Mr Mushingirwa


I love working as an interpreter and have worked as as freelance interpreter in Nairobi,kenya. Now,having resettled in the U.S,I would wish to find employment with a team/company of interpreters.I hold a BA in English and I can translate from English into French and vice versa.Can you help?

Total likes: 0 0 | 0