Three things you should know about interpreting in Europe

 | Interpreter insights

Europe is home to many more conference interpreters than any other region, largely thanks to the international organizations headquartered there, which promote multilingualism and help to train professional interpreters. Moreover, since many countries also boast dynamic private sectors, European interpreters are highly versatile. Nevertheless, if you are considering holding your next meeting in Europe there are a number of pitfalls to avoid, as Danielle Grée explains.

Dublin's Convention Centre - a great destination for Conferences and Conference Interpreters


Thanks to the hundreds of international organizations headquartered in Europe there is, a priori, no shortage of high-level interpreters. Many of the freelance interpreters on whom they rely also work on the private market, where they are in demand from the major banks, pharmaceutical laboratories and flagship national industries. And yet a large-scale international event or global sporting championship can rapidly deplete the supply of certain languages. So, this is what you need to know:

Which European cities are conference destinations

The three cities where you will find the largest pools of professional interpreters are: Brussels (with its plethora of freelancers working primarily for the institutions of the European Union), Paris (with UNESCO, the OECD and the World Bank) and Geneva (headquarters of many organizations in the United Nations family). All three capitals are major conference destinations. They have universities training interpreters to a very high standard, host several international institutions recruiting dozens of freelancers every day, and have a very dynamic private market. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (which has agreements with most of those institutions) has around 300 members in each of the three cities. So Paris, Brussels and Geneva are the cities where you will most easily find local interpreters.

Other cities are hot on their heels, but have a smaller pool of professionals: Rome, Vienna, Berlin and London, for example. While there is strong demand for interpreters from ministries and other public-sector bodies in these dynamic capital cities, there are fewer international organizations (notable examples being the FAO, OSCE and IMO). Each has around one hundred interpreters offering a wide range of languages.

Finally, let’s not forget other cities: economic capitals with particularly active private sectors, each with a local pool of around thirty extremely versatile interpreters. They include Munich and Zurich as well as Milan and Florence, Barcelona and Madrid, Amsterdam and The Hague, Lisbon and Istanbul. Every day the professionals based there provide simultaneous translation for a wide variety of conferences, ranging from finance to football, legal medicine to reinsurance.

Which key dates to avoid

Nevertheless, even with such a large pool of interpreters, it is important to be aware of the dates of major national and international events so that you can take full advantage of having local freelancers.

If you are planning a multilingual meeting during a plenary session of the European Parliament, it is worth bearing in mind that hundreds of interpreters with EU languages are booked more than six months in advance by the EU institutions. You will still find bilingual translators on the Brussels or Strasbourg markets without too much difficulty, but it will be virtually impossible to recruit interpreters working in certain “minority” languages, such as Maltese or Slovene, however far afield you look.

The same applies if your event coincides with the International Labour Conference, which is organized by the ILO in June of each year in Geneva. Three hundred interpreters work there, making it very tricky to recruit Chinese, Arabic or Russian interpreters for the same dates. Similarly, a significant number of interpreters are recruited to work at UNESCO’s General Conference in November of every odd-numbered year; the FAO Conference and Council in Rome, with their many side events, also absorb a large proportion of the resources available. During such conferences it is very difficult to find even Spanish simultaneous translators on the local market.

And don’t forget the major sporting events: the Olympic Games, or, in football, the European Championships and World Cup draw heavily on the local markets or the pool of interpreters specialized in the subject concerned. Meeting organizers are therefore advised to book interpreters well in advance.

How to navigate the labyrinth

As you can see, it is no easy matter to find your way through this labyrinth, and that is where your Consultant Interpreter comes in.

As stated above, these large events mainly require multilingual interpreters, which means that bilingual interpreters (local language + English, for example) will still be available. However, bear in mind that, even though we have access to a plethora of professional conference interpreters in Europe, professionals working with rare languages, such as Korean, or to a lesser extent Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, are in short supply.

Some markets are specialized in certain fields: Munich in industrial patents; Lausanne in sport; and Zurich in banking and insurance services. Berne and Brussels, being capital cities, mainly host meetings of political parties, lobby groups and trade unions.

Finally, if you require sign language interpreters for your meeting, be sure to make your request at least three months in advance. And one detail: there is no such thing as English sign language! However, Maya de Wit, will be able to offer you British Sign Language (BSL), American Sign Language (ASL) and a wide range of other sign languages. Similarly, bear in mind that there are significant differences between German Sign Language and Swiss-German Sign Language.

And why not combine business with pleasure and organize your meeting in a country with particularly attractive conference venues, such as Portugal (both on the mainland and in Madeira or the Azores) or Dublin, where the new state-of-the-art Convention Centre with its 2,000-seat auditorium is eager to welcome you? Not forgetting Italy, which has the added attraction of art and gastronomy, from the Aosta Valley to Sicily via South Tyrol and Puglia.

Calliope-Interpreters, a global network of Consultant Interpreters, will be delighted to guide you through this labyrinth, sharing its knowledge of difficult dates and rare language combinations, and advising you on how soon you need to book and the obstacles you need to avoid. Contact us as soon as possible to discuss your interpretation requirements.

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