An overarching principle: It is the participants' workshop - every single participant who has agreed to give their time to the workshop deserves full attention and has a right to shape the discussions.
And here are the key steps I follow when facilitating multi-language workshops:
- Take plenty of time for preparation (see also my earlier post on participatory facilitation - click here). Find out what languages the participants speak and understand well. In many cases (for example, in countries that have experienced colonisation), the participant's mother tongue is not the language they use for work. Ideally, you should ask each participant about the languages they feel comfortable with (e.g. in a preliminary survey).
- If you find out there are two "dominant" languages in the room - for example, the number of English speakers is roughly equal to that of French speakers, it is a good idea to alternate the main language of the sessions - for example, use English as the main language for facilitation and discussion in the mornings and French in the afternoons. It helps if the facilitator speaks both!
- Do not expect participants to translate for each other - it would keep them from participating! If you have no budget for interpreters, find volunteers. You need two interpreters for each "extra" language: for example, if you have English, French and Arabic speakers in the room and the dominant language is English, get four interpreters (two for Arabic, two for French). This is because interpreters can't concentrate any more after 30-45 minutes of translating and must take a break. If you discover during the workshop that there is someone whose translation needs have not been taken into account, some degree of improvisation is necessary - but that should be the exception.
- Start looking for interpreters as soon as you begin organising the workshop. Professional interpreters charge high fees, especially when they are contacted at short notice. The earlier you get in touch with them, the better your chances are you find someone you can afford. Check their CVs to make sure they have simultaneous translation experience.
- When people break into smaller groups, it can be more comfortable to work in single-language groups (e.g. two French speaking sub-groups, two English speaking sub-groups), but often people prefer to or need to mix. See how you can arrange things with the interpreters - if group work does not exceed 45 minutes and is followed by a coffee break, then the interpreters could split up to look after two small groups (1 interpreter each).
- Simultaneous whisper translation ("chuchotage" - i.e. low-voice translation while people are talking) will ensure everyone in the workshop can participate in "real time". Many amateur translators shy away from simultaneous translation, but if they are really fluent in both languages, they will pick it up quickly - provided they work in pairs and can rest every 30 minutes (see above).
- If you cannot get simultaneous translation, work with consecutive translation (the interpreter speaks after people have finished a sentence, or a few sentences). Your workshop will take at least twice as much time with consecutive translation. If you want accurate translation, ask the interpreter to translate sentence by sentence, and make sure the participants stop after every sentence, or every second sentence, for translation. The interpreter must not summarise - that distorts the message, leads to confusion, extra questions and ultimately loss of time. Consecutive translation is just as tiring as the simultaneous one - here, too, interpreters must work in pairs.
- Brief the interpreters a few days before the workshop. Share the programme with them, the participants' names, materials that will be distributed and background information that helps them to familiarise themselves with the concepts and the vocabulary that will be used.
- Get audio equipment: One can hire special whisper translation equipment - basically, wireless headsets for everyone who needs translation and wireless microphones for the interpreters. Ideally, it should be combined with a public address system so that the speakers' voices are amplified. Professional interpreters know where to get such equipment. For workshops where participants move around, do NOT get translation cabins and systems that need a lot of wiring: that would be awkward for the participants, and people might trip over the wires and hurt themselves. Working without cabins may take some negotiating with the interpreters because they tend to enjoy sitting in their quiet boxes, away from the din of the workshop. If you operate on a tight budget, you can also use a simple public address system only: 2-3 portable microphones (take spare batteries!), an amplifier and loudspeakers. The person who presents or who asks questions uses the microphone; the interpreter sits near the group that needs translation and translates at a low voice (hence "whisper" translation). If someone speaks from the group where the interpreter sits, the interpreter takes the microphone to translate directly into the main workshop language.
- At the beginning of the workshop, introduce the translators and explain how translation will work. Tell people: "If you don't understand something someone said, do not ask the interpreter but ask (through the interpreter if needed) the person who made the original statement."
- Make use of the first break of the first day to find out about any problems the interpreters may have, or the participants may have with the interpreters, so that they can be settled quickly. Keep checking throughout the workshop and make sure the interpreters really take their breaks (and don't spend their free time translating some complicated text, for example). Explain to the interpreters - from the very beginning - that they must not take any phone calls or text messages while they are translating. If it happens all the same (and I have seen such cases), remind them!
- Try to get note-takers who understand all the languages used at the meeting - if not, place them near the interpreters they need.
- Remember, at the end of your workshop, to lavish thanks on the interpreters and on everyone who has cooperated in overcoming the language barriers!