Why are accents so important for interpretation?
If you’re planning a multilingual event that requires the services of interpreters, you may notice that, for certain languages, your language services provider will ask you who your target audiences are or what accent they may have.
You may ask – well technically, it’s the same language, right? So are accents that important for interpretation? Do they matter anyway? Do I even need to hire a native speaker?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding YES.
For starters, accents are indicative of someone’s native language. And it is essential to the quality of the translation or interpretation that you select language professionals who are native speakers. We all have a grasp of our own mother tongue or native language that is incredibly difficult – some might say impossible – to achieve in a foreign language. The interpretation and translation world describes this phenomenon with the terms A, B, and C languages. No matter what an interpreter may say, they are better at working and speaking in their native language.
That’s true for an interpreter’s command of foreign languages, as well as for their accent. Studies have indeed proven that people consistently overestimate how good we sound in a foreign language. We might think we sound perfectly fine in our second or third language, but more often than not, those listening to non-native speakers require extra attention to listen to us speaking an acquired language. That can be tiring if it goes on for long, especially if they are jetlagged or tired after a long trip to your conference or event. It can also require an adjustment period, even when listening to someone who is native or completely fluent, which means that some audience members might miss some important information or be generally uncomfortable during the event.
Sometimes, guests will have to listen to their second language, another reason why native speaker interpreters are absolutely necessary. For example, if the overwhelming majority of your audience understands English, you might choose to have your event interpreted from the foreign language into English, even though a few audience members may not be native English speakers. Now, if they are listening to a foreign language and on top of that they have to navigate a non-native accent, it may be an extremely arduous experience for them.
This last fact is also true when it comes to differences between regional varieties of the same language. You might not think this is a problem at first, but digging into personal experience is the best way to understand this challenge. In our daily life, we all seem to think we can understand pretty much anyone who speaks the same language we do, that is until we meet someone with an accent so different, that we do not understand half of what they’re saying. We’ve all been through those moments when we know the person in front of us or on the radio or TV speaks the same language, but our brain refuses to register a single word. If you’re from the US, you may have trouble understanding varieties of English accents from Ireland, Scotland, Australia or New Zealand; if you’re French or Belgian, you may find it hard to understand a fast-speaking Quebecois.
Still, that’s not accounting for the fact that the language itself – meaning some of the grammar, and more importantly the common vocabulary – may be used very differently. And, of course, this is twice as hard for non-native speakers. If someone has learned English as a second language in India, it might be too difficult for them to follow a presentation on a complicated or nuanced topic if struggling to understand the interpreter because of a heavy Southern US accent.
Another phenomenon that can happen when interpreters are from a very different region is “accent shock”. This is best illustrated by the following example: when government officials from the different Canadian provinces meet, it is customary for the representatives of the French-speaking regions to speak French – even though most of them can speak English – and for their speeches to be interpreted into English for the English-speaking officials to understand them. The English interpreter who worked on a three-day meeting of all the Canadian ministers of education reported that, at the end of the event, when the time came to thank the interpreters, one minister said: “We thank the interpreters. But I must say I found it very odd to listen to my colleague from Quebec speaking English for these last three days with a perfect British accent”.
In this instance, this is more an incongruity than a true problem, but, as a rule, it is might be preferable to stick to interpreters from the same region as the members of the audience – in this case, North American. Yes, Britons and Canadians might speak the same language and they even have the same head of State – but it might be best to “keep it local” when choosing interpreters.
This is probably all starting to look like a minefield. But are there standard accents that can help us navigate this? Well, first, it should be said that there is no so-called “standard” or “normal” way of speaking a language. Every regional variation has evolved because of local, historical circumstances, and every individual speaker will have their own speech idiosyncrasies, also known as an idiolect. That being said, you can’t go out and look for interpreters from the exact hometown of each and every audience member. A language that divides us this much would defeat the purpose of even speaking the same language. So, granted, when it comes to interpretation, there are universal conventions and we can group accents and dialects together to make this easier.
These conventions depend on the language. For example, French from France is considered the standard in the francophone world. For Spanish, the best accents are considered to be Colombian or Castilian Spanish. For English, accents are usually grouped together in big categories such as British and derived accents (which includes Australian) or North American and derived accents. If in doubt, you should ask your service provider to avoid mistakes.
Also, keep in mind that accents are extremely important for diplomacy. For instance, you do not want to hire an interpreter with a Taiwanese accent for a conference exclusively with political leaders from Mainland China. A mistake, in this case, has often caused a bit of a stir, and you should be aware of these details in order not to hurt sensibilities.
So, what should you do?
To establish smooth, effortless communication with your target audience, you should always – always – make sure to use the services of native speakers and, whenever possible, pay attention to regional variations within a language, as those will impact how well your guests will experience and, in turn, respond to your event.
At Chang-Castillo and Associates, we are used to handling this kind of challenge. We work with highly trained conference interpreters, who will make sure your message gets across to your audience completely and flawlessly so that you never have to worry about the result. We also guarantee the same result for virtual meetings, thanks to our Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI) services.
For any further information or to start on your first or next interpretation project, contact us online or give us a call at +1(877)708-0005. We will be delighted to help you.