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What’s the difference between simultaneous and consecutive interpreting?

Hi there. I’m shopping around for interpreters for a conference which my company will be hosting for Financial Directors from various European countries to discuss proposed changes to European tax legislation.

I’ve spoken to lots of people and I’m confused as some translation agencies say I need a consecutive interpreter and some say I need a simultaneous interpreter. What’s the difference and which one do I really need?

Hi Jeanette,

Thank you for your question and don’t worry, many people are confused by the differences, we’re here to help you.

I’ve explained the difference between consecutive and simultaneous interpreters below but from your question the format of your meeting is not clear so the best thing to do would be to call us on 020 7021 0888 or email CustomerDelight@LondonTranslations.co.uk and one of our team will be able to advise you on the best solution for your particular circumstances.

What is a consecutive interpreter?

A good way to remember how a consecutive interpreter works is to think of them as ‘listen, pause, talk’ interpreters.

By this I mean the person speaking says a few sentences while the interpreter listens and then pauses while the consecutive interpreter repeats what has just been said in the target language.

Consecutive interpreting works very well in small groups of people where there is only one foreign language to be catered for. A good example would be a business meeting where most of the delegates are English but a French consecutive interpreter has been hired to help a French speaking delegate participate.

Advantages of consecutive interpreting

One of the great advantages of consecutive interpreting is that it can be used in an interactive environment.

In the example above, once an English delegate has finished speaking and the interpreter has repeated what they have just said in French, one of the French speaking delegates can reply in French and have their words translated into English by the interpreter.

Another advantage is that no specialist equipment is required.

Disadvantages of consecutive interpreting

The major disadvantage of consecutive interpreting is that the speaker must be aware their words are being interpreted and must therefore pause to allow the interpreter time to repeat what has just been said.

It’s also hard to cater for more than one language pair at a time without risking confusion as multiple interpreters try to work into and out of multiple languages.

One way around this is provide each delegate who speaks with a whispering interpreterwho sits next them and literally whispers what has been said into their ear.

As the speaker must pause to allow the interpreter to work, consecutive interpreting is not considered to be real-time.

What is a simultaneous interpreter?

Simultaneous interpreters are the type of interpreter which you have probably seen on the TV working at conferences held by The United Nations or during high-profile trials in court.

The speaker speaks into a microphone and members of the audience listen to what is being said in their own language through headsets.

The interpreters sit in sound-proof booths and listen to the proceedings through headphones whilst simultaneously repeating what is being said into a microphone for transmission to the delegates’ headsets.

Advantages of simultaneous interpreting

One of the principle advantages of simultaneous interpreting is that it’s real-time.

The speaker does not need to pause while the interpreter works, indeed they do not even need to be aware an interpreter is present.

As the interpreters are isolated from the proceedings in their sound-proof booths, there is no limit to the number of concurrent languages which can be catered for. Delegates can simply select their preferred language by changing channels on their headsets.

Disadvantages of simultaneous interpreting

As simultaneous interpreting is usually used in one-to-many scenarios such as those mentioned above, it’s typically not interactive.

It is also much more expensive than consecutive interpreting for the following reasons.

Firstly, at least two interpreters are required per language.

This is because a simultaneous interpreter can only work for 20 to 30 minutes at a time before having to take a break as the level of concentration required is so high. As a consequence, you’ll need to hire a pair of interpreters per language, who will alternate every half hour.

Secondly, you will also need specialist equipment, such as soundproof booths (the linguists need to be in an isolated and quiet environment in order to focus and do their job properly), headsets for the delegates, microphones, wiring and – if the booths will be placed in a different room from where the conference or meeting is happening – you will also need a camera and screens as the interpreters need to have full view of the speakers.

Which type of interpreter do you need?

As you can see, the type of interpreter (and the number of them) you need will depends on the type of conference you are intending to hold.

If it consists of small, intimate meetings which are interactive in nature then consecutive interpreters may be the most appropriate. On the other hand, if the conference is large featuring keynote addresses from stage then simultaneous interpreters will be best.

There is more useful information in our free interpreting buyers guide, “Interpreting Without Tears”.

We are always happy to advise on the ideal solution to suit your need and budget and look forward to speaking with you soon.

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