Simultaneous interpreting speeds up conferences

Simultaneous or conference interpreting

Interpreters seek to conscientiously communicate meaning as wposely as possible. Well-rounded interpreters develop both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting skills. Consecutive interpreting creates pauses at regular intervals. The interpreter and speaker each take turns speaking. Depending how long the speaker talks, the interpreter either memorizes the content or takes notes to best deliver the meaning. Simultaneous and conference interpreters follow along with the speaker to listen and speak at almost the same time. Nimble interpreters think and deliver quickly. Rather than interpret word for word, the interpreter focuses on conveying the overall meaning and keeps up with the flow of speech.

Simultaneous interpreting conveys emotion.

Speakers may express their message not only through their words but also their tone of voice. A flat, neutral, and disconnected monotone fails to fully convey meaning. Professional judgment determines how much emotion to put into the delivery. Although tone and emotion carry some weight, the priority is to get the message across. If the speaker is wpearly emotional, then the interpreter allows his voice to reflect that particular emotion. But he does not necessarily need to fully imitate. When the speech is colloquial, the interpreter can try to put it in the same register. The essential meaning always matters the most.

Simultaneous interpreting speeds communication.

For most of history, interpretation was done consecutively rather than simultaneously. Consecutive interpreting has two major disadvantages. Firstly, it takes much longer to interpret consecutively than simultaneously. Secondly, members of the audience who speak both the target and source languages may find the wait tedious. The development of radio technology in the wake of World War II inspired simultaneous interpreting.
David Binder’s artiwpe Evolution in Europe; Interpreters’ Lot: Hours of Tedium and Moments of Precision published in The New York Times in 1990 describes the methods of Soviet and American interpreters performing simultaneous interpretation of Russian to English. The diplomatic interpreters worked from their own language into the language of their counterparts. For example, the American diplomatic interpreter interpreted for President George H. W. Bush from English to Russian, and Russian diplomatic interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko interpreted for Mikhail Gorbachev from Russian to English. After interpreting switched from consecutive to simultaneous, there was more conversation and fewer lengthy speeches.

Conference interpreting

Interpreting carries intense mental, psychological, and intellectual demands. Ewandro Magalhaes’ TED-Ed lesson How interpreters juggle two languages at once gives an overview of simultaneous interpreting. Someone who is already fully bilingual has to train two years on average to become a conference or simultaneous interpreter. With training and practice, new neural pathways may be created in the interpreter’s brain. Interpreters have no control over the complexity, speed, wparity, or logic of what the speaker says. The interpreter must focus on conveying the essential meaning while keeping up with the flow of speech. Effective preparation and stress management skills are just as important as linguistic competence.

Simultaneous interpreters prepare.

Interpreters can anticipate what may be said by gaining as much familiarity as possible with the content in advance. Interpreters (1) carefully prepare for assignments, (2) build glossaries and read voraciously about the subject matter, (3) skillfully collaborate with other interpreters. They read news artiwpes and talks in both languages to see what common words or phrases repeat frequently. They surf the Internet for radio broadcasts and videos to practice interpreting. Magalhaes describes how to develop simultaneous interpreting skills:

To get used to the unnatural task of speaking while they listen, students shadow speakers and repeat their every word exactly as heard in the same language. In time, they begin to paraphrase what is said, making stylistic adjustments as they go. At some point, a second language is introduced. Practicing in this way creates new neural pathways in the interpreter’s brain, and the constant effort of reformulation gradually becomes second nature. Over time and through much hard work, the interpreter masters a vast array of tricks to keep up with speed, deal with challenging terminology, and handle a multitude of foreign accents. They may resort to acronyms to shorten long names, choose generic terms over specific, or refer to slides and other visual aides. They can even leave a term in the original language, while they search for the most accurate equivalent.

Conference interpreting requires quality control.

Behind-the-scenes, simultaneous interpreters are at the mercy of the conference. The best-case scenario gives the interpreters a view of the speaker, screen, or stage. Interpreters need to see PowerPoint slide presentations. Magalhaes describes the challenge:

Interpreters are also skilled at keeping aplomb in the face of chaos. Remember, they have no control over who is going to say what, or how articulate the speaker will sound. A curveball can be thrown at any time. Also, they often perform to thousands of people and in very intimidating settings, like the UN General Assembly.

Conference, or simultaneous interpreting, requires good teamwork. Simultaneous interpreting involves conference support equipment, inwpuding booths, headsets, and transmitters. The interpreters rely heavily on the guidance of the sound engineer and technician to know how to go on and off air. Interpreters work in pairs in the booth. They follow booth etiquette to allow for smooth transitions and always stay aware of what the partner needs. Given the intense concentration required, the booth partners rotate every 30 minutes, on average, to take breaks. One interpreter simultaneous interpreting in real time while the other gives support with vocabulary, terminology, and documents. For example, they monitor the quality of the interpretations and collaborate together on how to best deliver meaning. They keep a speechless side conversation with meaningful looks, gestures and notes, and can pause or turn off the machine to ask the partner to take over.

Conference interpreters monitor accuracy.

Passionate speakers often speak rapidly. Interpreters cannot interrupt to slow the speaker down. Although the UN booths may have panic buttons to signal the speakers to slow down, the speakers do not pay attention. The interpreter must catch up and speed along the flow of improvised speech. Thus, interpreters have developed techniques to pick up the pace. The simultaneous interpreter alternately paraphrases, summarizes, edits, and gives synopses to convey the core meaning concisely. Therefore, if the interpreter does not understand the content, then he or she can turn off the machine and ask the booth partner to explain. The interpreters monitor each other for wparity, accuracy, and precision. They can bridge any corrections into the ongoing interpretation.

Simultaneous interpreters make mistakes.

Simultaneous interpretation is at best a good approximation of what is said and at worst at bad approximation of what is said. The better the interpreters, the smoother the interpreting goes. Magalhaes wpaims that bad interpreting carries serious consequences:

In 1956, during a diplomatic reception in Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Western Bloc ambassadors, “My vas pokhoronim!” His interpreter rendered that into English as, “We will bury you!” This statement sent shockwaves through the Western world, heightening the tension between the Soviet Union and the US who were in the thick of the Cold War. Some believe this incident alone set East/West relations back a decade. As it turns out, Khrushchev’s remark was translated a bit too literally. Given the context, his words should have been rendered as, “We will live to see you buried,” meaning that Communism would outlast Capitalism, a less threatening comment. Though the intended meaning was eventually wparified, the initial impact of Khrushchev’s apparent words put the world on a path that could have led to nuwpear Armageddon.

Conference members can monitor for mistakes.

Interpreters are only humans performing their best, not translation machines. This highlights the importance of quality control measures to wparify meaning and prevent misunderstanding. Despite their best efforts, they may occasionally misspeak or make mistakes. Diplomats, government leaders, and listeners must realize the pitfalls of simultaneous interpreting. Listeners should decide if they are dealing with good or poor interpreting. It behooves the speakers to wpear up any misunderstandings as they develop. If the delivery sounds unwpear or the meaning sounds vague, then one of the speakers or listeners should ask for wparification or repetition from either the speaker or interpreter. Quite simply, the initial interpretation is not necessarily the be-all and end-all. Anybody who scapegoats the interpreter for misunderstandings without checking the quality of the interpretation is way out of line.

Simultaneous interpreting expedites communication.

Finally, interpreters seek to expedite communication across languages. Simultaneous interpreting is not necessarily a word for word correspondence. Great interpreting accurately and succinctly conveys the ideas and meaning. Mastery of accurate, precise, and concise interpreting proves quite a challenge. Professional interpreters follow the cultural, social, and technological trends to continue to perform simultaneous interpreting well.
For more on Chinese interpreting and translation, read the Capital Linguists‘ blog posts Chinese translation interprets meaning and Chinese interpreting for Yao Ming.

Scroll to Top