May 10

Lost in Translation

Janine Castro, Geomorphologist, USFWS & NMFS, Portland, Oregon

I am sitting in an oversized chair in a hotel conference room in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It looks pretty much like any other conference room, in any other hotel, in any other city. I am part of a team of instructors that are providing bank erosion and stabilization training to Cambodian river managers. Simple enough. But what isn’t simple — the entire training is conducted in English and the audience speaks Khmer. Our slides have been translated into Khmer, and our interpreters instantaneously translate from English to Khmer through headsets. All of the course instructors are well outside of our comfort zones, even though we are very experienced teachers and experts in our respective fields. This novel environment provides an excellent opportunity to dissect various elements of presentations that we often take for granted. I’m going to focus on four aspects of presentations whose importance became glaringly apparent: vocabulary, text, pace, feedback, and humor.


Every discipline has its own vocabulary – jargon. As good, conscientious presenters, we avoid jargon and acronyms as much as possible. For our Cambodian workshops, we went to the extent of creating a glossary of terms and had it translated for the workshop participants. But what about those everyday words? We discovered that terms like river, stream, and channel do not mean the same in English and Khmer. And I received lots of laughs over the idea of “river training”. But I digress.

Lesson 1: Minimize jargon, but do not assume that common terms have the same meaning for everyone, even if you’re speaking the same language. A “stream” to me is all-inclusive, but to others it means something larger than a creek and smaller than a river. Define all terms, especially in mixed audiences.


translation pic1It’s one thing to say you’re not going to read the text off of your slides, but it’s quite another to have all of your text in a foreign script. I pride myself on my “text lite” visually appealing slides and knowing exactly what I’m going to say as each slide appears, and yet I found it oddly discomfiting to see my few words lose all meaning. When you look at a slide in an unfamiliar script, it is a harsh reminder of how much space that text occupies.

Lesson 2: Become so familiar with your slides that you can speak no matter what language appears. Perhaps you should convert your entire presentation to a foreign tongue and see if you can still effectively present.


“Instantaneous translation” is a misnomer – it is not really instantaneous. There is a several second delay while the interpreter translates your message. The faster you talk, the further the translator gets behind and is then forced to paraphrase your carefully scripted message. You then become entirely reliant on your interpreter to accurately deliver your message. When I was giving one of my fist presentations in Cambodia, I truly believed I was talking slow. The interpreter starting waving his hand at me – slow down, slow down! With each subsequent talk, I have slowed down even further, and yet it is still a challenge for the interpreter to keep to keep up with me. I started wondering what he was leaving out…

It struck me that this is probably what our brains are doing as we listen to any presentation – filtering for content, trying to figure out what is the most important, and then skimming over everything else. And that’s when we are all speaking the same language!

Lesson 3: Speaking too fast is a common problem when presenting. Leave enough time for your message to be “interpreted” by your audience, especially before moving on to your next topic or slide. For your most important messages, slow down and repeat. Make it easy for your audience to identify what is most important.

Audience Feedback

translation pic2How much do you rely on verbal feedback to determine if your message is connecting with your audience? Do you ask questions, such as “does this make sense?” What would happen if you removed all verbal feedback? Body language, laughter, and eye contact are all fairly reliable ways to quickly assess the impact of your presentation and allow you to make course corrections to re-engage the audience. When you are presenting through translation, it is difficult to evaluate your performance both during and following the presentation because of the time delay, language barriers and, potentially, because of cultural sensitivities (losing face).

Lesson 4: Don’t rely solely on verbal feedback to adjust your talk mid-presentation, or to evaluate your performance once it’s over. Become familiar with body language and eye contact as a less filtered form of evaluation.


Many of us use humor to reduce stress and to engage the audience. What if all of the humor in your talk evaporated? That is exactly what we discovered – humor does not necessarily translate well, especially when relying on colloquialisms. And some of us have potentially become over-dependent on this particular presentation technique. I’m still wondering how “fish squeezer” got translated.

Lesson 5: If humor is the primary method that you use to engage your audience and reduce your stress, consider working in other techniques that reach another part of your audience. Perhaps relating an interesting story or sharing something about yourself.


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