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Modes of interpreting: an introductory guide

Many members of the public fail to appreciate that interpreting is an incredibly complex profession, with some even using the term synonymously with translation. In reality, taking the spoken word and rendering it in another language is a taxing affair, putting enormous pressure on interpreters to match the speaker’s tonal and emotional register without recourse to dictionaries and glossaries.

Interpreting is also taxing from a logistical standpoint. Event organisers, debate chairs and government departments have long struggled over the question of how best to promote dialogue in situations where delegates require an intermediary: is it best to prolong the conversation twofold so the interpreter has a chance to repeat each statement one by one, or should they be asked to interpret simultaneously as the respective parties speak?

The answer, of course, is that different approaches suit different problems. The interpreting needs of the European Parliament are a long way removed from those of an automotive industry conference, for example, while a hospital has very different requirements to a works council.

As a result, there are several styles of interpreting in active use today. A language professional who intends to interpret in multiple fields needs to be au fait with all of these modes, some of which call for very different skills and aptitudes than others.

To find out a little more about the various techniques used by today’s interpreters – including the situations in which they’re most often used, as well as their unique advantages and drawbacks – then read on.

Simultaneous interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting is one of the most common styles of the discipline in use today, representing the bread and butter of the many language professionals who deal in European Works Councils, parliamentary meetings and exceptionally large conferences. It almost always involves the use of technical aids, with the interpreters – who typically work in pairs – entering a soundproof booth from which they can listen to the action while it unfolds before broadcasting the interpreted version via microphone to delegates’ headsets.

This provides a mostly painless and efficient solution for interpreters and listeners alike, with multiple delegates able to listen to the same interpreter without affecting the flow of the debate. In fact, such is the popularity of this interpreting style, many organisations offer ad hoc implementations that use tour guide systems to mimic the booth’s functionality.

Whispering interpreting

Whispering is perhaps the style of interpreting most similar to the simultaneous technique, though it differs from the latter in one fundamental way – the interpreter has no technology at his or her disposal, and instead quite literally whispers into the listener’s ear. It tends to be used most often in bilateral meetings, such as discussions between politicians, and might also play a key role during question-and-answer sessions at conferences.

Though whispering is similar to simultaneous interpreting, the lack of technical aids such as sound isolation can make it significantly more challenging. It can also be taxing on the voice to whisper into a person’s ear for a prolonged period of time.

Consecutive interpreting

Unlike the above two modes of interpreting, the consecutive style is not real-time – the speaker and interpreter quite literally take turns to talk, with the former stopping every few minutes in order to allow the latter to render the preceding statement into the target language.

This might not sound like it’s a million miles from real-time interpreting, but it actually puts significant pressure on the intermediary in terms of note-taking. Few people can memorise a full paragraph after hearing it just once, especially if they need to remember every detail, so an interpreter in a consecutive environment requires the ability to multitask – they have to listen to the words, commit the message to paper in some form, then render it in another language.

Liaison interpreting

Finally, liaison – or ad hoc – is perhaps the most informal mode of interpreting in active use today. Any language professional who lends his or her services as an interpreter in contexts such as exhibitions and trade shows, or any informal meeting with a small number of delegates, will be expected to be fluent in this technique.

This is really a form of consecutive interpreting, except without so much pressure on the intermediary to take notes on long segments of speech – instead, they typically relay what is spoken sentence by sentence. While this won’t necessarily suit a lengthy, eloquent address, or a debate in which more than two languages are spoken, it’s perfectly suitable for informal meetings and conference floors.

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