How does simultaneous interpreting work?

In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter reproduces a speech in another language as it is being delivered (i.e. simultaneously). The source and target languages often use different grammatical structures – for example, in German the verb often comes at the end of the sentence, while it appears after the subject in English. Interpreters therefore have to actively reformulate what is said in order to convey the meaning as precisely as possible in the other language.  This means there is a lot more to simultaneous interpreting than just passively “repeating” a speech in another language. The interpreting process requires extremely high levels of concentration, which is why simultaneous interpreters sit in soundproof booths to stop them being disturbed by background noise.

The following video provides a very clear explanation of the process involved in simultaneous interpreting. It was produced by an interpreting graduate from the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Winterthur, Switzerland.

What different types of interpreting are there, and when are they used?

Interpreters distinguish between simultaneous, consecutive, whispered, liaison and escort interpreting.  Whispered interpreting (also known as chuchotage) is similar to simultaneous interpreting in that it involves turning a speech into another language as it is being spoken (i.e. simultaneously). The difference is that in this form of interpreting the interpreter does not sit in a soundproof booth like a simultaneous interpreter, but “in the audience” – i.e. next to the people listening to them. That’s why this form of interpreting is only suitable for a maximum of two listeners. In escort interpreting your interpreter will accompany you, for example on a foreign business trip or factory tour. Booths cannot be used in this setting, which is why portable interpreting equipment is used instead. In consecutive and liaison interpreting, on the other hand, the spoken word is interpreted into the other language with a delay (i.e. consecutively). The difference between these two forms of interpreting is that in consecutive interpreting the interpreter uses a special technique to take notes and uses them as a memory aid, whereas in liaison interpreting the interpreter alternates with each speaker, interpreting sentence by sentence. You should allow double the usual amount of time when using either form of consecutive interpreting. We will be happy to discuss your needs and work with you to find the right interpreting solution for your event.

What's the minimum number of interpreters I need per team?

Simultaneous interpreting requires very high levels of concentration, especially if the content is technically demanding or complicated. That’s why professional conference interpreters work in pairs when interpreting any speech lasting 40 minutes or more; this ensures the quality of the interpretation remains high, as well as protecting the interpreters’ health. If the total speaking time is over 5 hours, there should be 3 interpreters per team.

What makes a professional interpreter?

Anyone can call themselves an “interpreter” or “conference interpreter”. This means that quality in this market segment varies enormously. The best way to ensure quality and peace of mind is to use a professional interpreter with an internationally recognised specialist interpreting qualification. Membership of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (aiic), whose members have a minimum of several years of professional experience, is another sign of quality; an interpreter can only joint AIIC if their professionalism and skills are endorsed by active members. You can find out more about an interpreter’s job description and working life on our “Press” page.

What equipment do interpreters need?

Simultaneous interpreters generally work in soundproof booths, which are rented and assembled specially for the event. In the booth, the interpreters listen to the speaker using headphones and deliver their interpretation into a microphone. The audience hears the interpretation via headphones connected to a small radio or infra-red receiver.
When interpreters work on the move (for example during factory visits), they use portable, radio-based equipment consisting of a microphone and headphones. The interpreters cannot use a sound-proof booth, which makes working under these conditions more difficult. They also sit in the same room as their audience while they are interpreting, and some people might find their presence in the room distracting. This is why portable equipment should not be used for long assignments or for large groups.

Why do interpreters need background material?

Just as lawyers have to familiarise themselves with every new case, so, too, professional interpreters prepare the content and terminology for each individual assignment. As the event organiser, you can support your interpreters by making sure they have access to all the relevant documents, such as the agenda, the list of speakers, the list of participants, all the documentation circulated to participants, texts of speeches and background information. It goes without saying that any information provided will be treated as strictly confidential.

I am a speaker, what should I be aware of?

We have included everything you need to know in our “Tips for speakers”.

What do I need to bear in mind as a conference organiser?

You will find everything you need to know in the menu under “Check-list”.