Surprising Facts About Fascinating World Of Simultaneous Interpreting

Working in teams, dozens of professional interpreters at the United Nations provide simultaneous interpreting. These real-time, oral interpretations help to translation the many messages and discussions that occur during the General Assembly and other meetings. Known as simultaneous or conference interpreters, these are rigorously-trained and well-credentialed professionals. These individuals complete a task at odds with basic human physiology—that of both listening and speaking at the same time.

A simultaneous interpreter both listens to a message being delivered and orally interprets that message into another language. Without both listening and interpreting, simultaneous interpretation cannot occur. Simultaneous interpreters fill important roles throughout communities and in governments around the world. These individuals help to provide fast and accurate language interpretation between individuals and groups. This fascinating, highly specialized field, distinct from other types of interpretation, is not even a century old. Read on for these and other surprising facts about simultaneous interpretation.

Simultaneous interpreting often occurs in group settings.
Most simultaneous interpreting occurs during conferences, meetings, and other events.

1. Simultaneous Interpretation Differs From Consecutive Interpreting

Simultaneous interpretation occurs in real-time, where the interpreter translates as the conversation occurs or goes along. That is, while the interpreter listens, the interpreter does simultaneous interpretation immediately unlike consecutive interpretation. Consecutive interpreting, in contrast, occurs when the interpretation of a message follows the statement by the original speaker. That is the speaker pauses and allows the interpreter to provide a translation during the pause. During simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter provides a translation while the speaker is still talking in the target language. Most professional simultaneous interpretation occurs during meetings, conferences, and events during which multiple speakers and audiences may not share the same language. This type of interpreting, often referred to as conference interpreting, relies on the speed, accuracy, and preparation of the interpreter to provide real-time translation of what is being said. This makes well-executed simultaneous interpretation techniques highly valued

However, in the case of American Sign Language, interpreting almost always occurs simultaneously, where the interpreter signs the translation while the speaker talks. Jill, in a ASL Stew “Jill Signs” video talks about the difference between Simultaneous vs. Consecutive Interpreting. She explains that, unlike voice interpreting, simultaneous interpretation is more common for ASL interpreters. These individuals are often experienced and sign what is being said while it is being said. She notes, though, that consecutive interpreting does allow for a reduced potential for errors or information being glossed over. The same is true for professional conference interpreting—the intensity of the interpretation situation can lend itself to information being glossed over or even left out making correct communication using simultaneous interpretation more challenging. Because of this potential for misinterpretation, interpreters have to take extra care to make sure that they repeat everything that is essential for the audience to hear.

Technology helped advance simultaneous interpreting.
Simultaneous interpreting developed with the advent of technology in the 20th century.

2. This Type Of Interpreting Is Less Than 100 Years Old

While consecutive interpreting has been around for centuries, simultaneous interpreting is a much more recent development. Advancements in wireless technology after the end of World War II  simultaneous interpretation helped simultaneous interpreting to become a possibility. Once organizations and governments realized the potential of breaking language barriers using for better, faster communication through simultaneous interpreting rapidly became indispensable in many highly specialized settings. Today, thousands of professional interpreters around the world fill this role in everything from local municipal courts to the highest echelons of governing organizations. The United Nations alone employs hundreds of simultaneous interpreters in the primary languages of the assembly—Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Top-notch language services such as AFLS can provide simultaneous interpretation services as well.

Simultaneous interpretation has become a necessary tool for communication in highly complex situations, such as communication between two independent governing nations. The animated TedEd video by Ewandro Magalhaes captures the history of this specialized field. To begin, Ewandro shows how developments in the mid-20th century helped to make simultaneous interpretation possible. This video also explores the complexities surrounding how simultaneous interpretation works, including how an interpreter listens to the target language and its impact on the brain of the interpreter. For hundreds of years, interpreters have provided consecutive interpretation—the oral translation of a message during a pause in the delivery of that message. Today, though, thanks to technological advancements, simultaneous interpreters can provide oral translations in real-time as a message is being delivered.


Simultaneous interpreting requires extensive study.
Simultaneous interpreters dedicate hundreds of hours to both preparing for and staying current in their given languages and fields.

3. This Field Requires Extensive Preparation And Ongoing Training

Professional interpreters will spend a minimum of two years training to become simultaneous interpreters. This training involves not only expanding vocabularies in their chosen languages, but also undertaking training that will enable them to perform during the intense situations that encompass simultaneous interpreting. Some simultaneous interpreters will also complete advanced degrees in either interpreting or in one or more of the languages that they speak. This graduate education will help them to navigate the complex world of simultaneous interpreting, whether they work for the United Nation General Assembly or for a local governing body.

Simultaneous interpretation, just like any language interpretation that matters, requires a well-versed view of the context surrounding each word to prevent losing the meaning when doing the simultaneous translation as it happens in real-time. Providing a meaningful verbal translation to their own language requires building an extensive vocabulary for the target language in order to build a more versatile and accurate interpretation system. Even after simultaneous interpreters have begun to work professionally in the field, they will need to continue their education constantly over time. This ongoing training will help them both to prepare for interpreting assignments and to stay current in their chosen fields.

For example, if a simultaneous interpreter works for the United Nations, that interpreter will engage in advanced training and ongoing education on a regular basis. In a United Nations DGACM clip, interpreter Lama Azab shares about working as a simultaneous interpreter in the languages of Arabic, French and English at the UN. She explains that her primary function is to provide simultaneous oral interpretations during meetings. She works with other interpreters in the booths surrounding the General Assembly’s primary meeting rooms. Lama explains that she seeks to be faithful to the message of the speaker for whom she is interpreting. Her primary focus is on rendering the original message with precision and accuracy. To do this work, she spends extensive time preparing for interpreting assignments. She will read many documents about the subjects and speakers related to the meeting.

Extensive preparation needed for simultaneous interpreting.
Extensive, focused preparation is necessary for every simultaneous interpreting assignment.

4. Simultaneous Interpreting Is Not As Easy As It Looks

An experienced interpreter will make simultaneous interpreting look almost effortless. But the work can be as involved and stressful as working as an air traffic controller. The preparation and precision needed to perform well as a simultaneous interpreter is considerable. As a result, interpreters take years to excel at this craft. An experienced professional interpreter will make the work of simultaneous interpreting look simple. However, this individual will have spent extensive time preparing such as studying documents and about the issue, usually written in the source language if possible. The interpreter will also be careful both to manage emotions and to keep track of extensive information during the assignment. When a simultaneous interpreter begins to interpret a spoken message in another spoken language, that individual faces considerable pressure. In that moment, the interpreter’s task is to render an accurate and precise rendition of the message they are interpreting. This message must also be rendered in a very short amount of time during simultaneous interpretation.

An experienced interpreter at the United Nations, Diana Liao discusses the pressures involved with simultaneous interpreting. In an interview for a “United Nations, A Day in the Life of Real Interpreters” segment, Diana explains the pressures facing a simultaneous interpreter. In that role, an individual needs to know extensive details about the subject being discussed in multiple languages in the participants’ respective native language. An interpreter knows as well the technical tools used during an assignment.  “It is seldom not stressful,” she explains. “You are sharing someone else’s thoughts, and you don’t know where they are going to lead you. When it is politically charged, it is particularly stressful because you really don’t want to make a mistake.” Diana explains she enjoys the challenging nature of the job but an interpreter needs a certain disposition. When discussions center on stressful subjects, an interpreter must be able to continue translating.

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