Simultaneous Interpreting

Simultaneous Interpreting

What is simultaneous interpreting?

Simultaneous interpreting is - as can be discerned from the name  - interpreting for someone in another language while the speaker speaks without interruption. This is the opposite of consecutive interpreting, because in consecutive interpreting, the interpreter awaits his turn and does not start speaking until the speaker allows him the time to do so. Simultaneous interpreting is one of the most common type of interpreting, but it is also the most difficult. Very few interpreters can do it, and not all interpreters that do it can do it well.

When is it necessary?

Simultaneous interpreting is used when there are attendees at an event who cannot understand what the speaker says and there is no time or opportunity to let the speaker pause regularly.

Some examples...

  • A stockholders meeting in English, but several trustees or members of the board and several stockholders, speak Japanese and could have difficulty with the English language. Perhaps you are expecting questions to be asked in Japanese which the English speaking people present should also understand. In that case it is best to use an interpreter booth, one or (preferably) more simultaneous interpreters, and a sound system with microphones for the interpreters, microphones for the speakers, and headsets for everyone.
  • You are a marketing research company. You are going to have interviews with some respondents - in Japanese. But an English speaking representative of your foreign client wants to listen in on several interviews. In that case, you reserve an extra room for one or more simultaneous interpreters and your guest, put a video camera and at least one microphone in the interview room, and a sound/video system connected to it in the other room, with a set of headphones for the interpreter.
  • You are organizing a conference with Japanese speakers, but are expecting a number of English speaking visitors. In that case you would hire one or more simultaneous interpreters, and a so-called whispering or guide set for the sound (microphone, infrared transmitter and sets of headphones).
  • You are organizing a conference with both English-speaking and Chinese-speaking speakers and visitors. There will be speeches and discussions in both languages. You reserve a conference center or hall, an interpreter booth, microphones, headphones and... simultaneous interpreters.

How many interpreters are needed?

In the examples above you may have noticed the mention of a need to hire more than one interpreter. Now you might be asking yourself, "How do I determine whether I need one interpreter or more?" In order to answer that question, you need to know how a simultaneous interpreter works. It is really a very complex process, one that only very few interpreters can handle well. First, the speaker is speaking, and that speaker does not stop or pause. He keeps talking. Therefore the interpreter must do the following while the speaker is talking:

  • listen to what the speaker is saying
  • translate it in his mind
  • render the translation in his microphone, and
  • (and this is the most difficult part) continue listening to what is being said while he is speaking himself

This is why it it is nearly impossible for even the most experienced simultaneous interpreters to be able to interpret continuously for more than about 15 minutes without taking a break, and if you are having a one or two hour lecture...well, you can see the problem. The most common remedy for this is for simultaneous interpreters to work in pairs. One will translate while the other listens to the presentation to keep up to speed and then they switch. While the first is taking a break and recovering, the second will continue with the translation. If the team has experience working together, those listening to the interpretation may not even notice that there is more than one interpreter.
The difficulty of simultaneous interpreting is taken seriously by most agencies and of course by the interpreters themselves. If it is determined that a project is too difficult for a single interpreter you will be recommended to hire two for the project. As I hope you can see, no one is trying to stick it to you here, they just want to provide the highest quality service possible. (Note: Most agencies will kindly ask you to look elsewhere for services if you are unwilling to pay for the extra interpreter.)