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The art of simultaneous interpretation is used during United Nations gatherings, presidential speeches, and large international conferences. It is the process in which an interpreter interprets what a presenter is saying at the same time as they are speaking so that listeners receive the interpretation without delay. If the interpreter pauses, it is usually no more than a couple of words behind the speaker, and it is done in order to give the interpreter time to both process the speech and provide the interpretation.

Simultaneous interpretation is demanding. It is doubtlessly one of the most difficult language skills to learn. Just because someone is fluent in two languages does not mean that person will be able to render the nuances Simultaneous Interpreters at workcorrectly in such a fast-paced environment. Simultaneous interpretation doesn’t allow time to search through a dictionary for unfamiliar expressions, and gives no chance to consider how to best reinterpret unknown words or phrases. The interpreter must therefore be confident in thinking and speaking on the fly. Being able to quickly improvise is an essential skill. It is also extremely important that the interpreter is completely comfortable living and working within both cultures and able to convey the nuances of each of them in word, tone, and expression. In other words, it is not enough for them to merely restate a foreign language equivalent; they must assume the role of an actor who is able to convey the speaker’s words perfectly. Since body language differs among cultures, the interpreter must also be comfortable in conveying physical gestures and interpreting these gestures to communicate the same meaning to his or her audience.

Since it is such a mentally demanding profession, lengthy meetings and technical material will cause a single interpreter to tire and the quality of the interpretation to suffer.  It is important to remember that for international meetings and conferences, interpreters are the voice of the one speaking. For an audience who does not understand the speaker’s language, they take every word the interpreter utters to be true and accurate. If the quality declines as the interpreter tires, listeners may not receive the full impact of the original speaker’s words. For this reason, it is common industry practice to hire two interpreters for simultaneous interpretation assignments. By switching off every 15-30 minutes, interpreters can stay fresh and avoid costly misinterpretations.

Simultaneous interpretation may be challenging, but it isn’t impossible. For people with the right language skills and cultural background, simultaneous interpretation can be both personally and financially rewarding. The interpreter is exposed to a great variety of situations, people, and materials, and has an opportunity to help bridge gaps in communication and spread ideas.

Do you currently work as a simultaneous interpreter? What advice would you offer a newcomer to the profession?

19 thoughts on “Simultaneous Interpretation Series Part 1 of 6: Introduction to Simultaneous Interpretation

  1. While the process of learning could be a bit different for different individuals, there are some steps that will help everyone. I am going to introduce one of these steps in each of the 6 parts of this series. Below is the first step:

    1. Simultaneous interpretation includes the process of being able to listen, think, speak and write at the same time. The first step is to put on headphones and listen to a reasonably paced speech or discussion. Then simply repeat as you hear it, in the same language.

    I will continue with step 2 in part 2 of this series.

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    1. Thanks for sharing !

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  2. Thank you for posting this series. I’d like to be involved in simultaneous interpretation.

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    1. Thank you Elisabeta! Please read all the post in this series and do let us know if you have specific questions. We will be happy to help you achieve your goals.

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  3. Thank you Nisar. This introduction sounds like a good beginning. I look forward to more series to come and some useful techniques to be revealed.

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    1. Thank you Elena! We will post the 2nd part of this series today. In the comments section, I will post the second step of preparing to become a skilled simultaneous interpreter.

      Reply
  4. I wish it was as simple as you pretend Nizar.
    It is in fact ONE of the simple excercises, but technique is other thing.
    You won’t be able to interprete simultaneously if you don’t know consecutive, chouchotement or liaison. It is also important to go through terminology….
    And in any case a minimum of 2 years study is required.
    Let people think they can interpretate because they speak one or 2 languages results on so many lack of profesionnal work.

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    1. Interpret, Martha, correct “penultimate” line. LOL, you probably wrote it as a joke.

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    2. Martha,
      Pardon me, but I don’t think you read the article properly.
      Firstly, the writer does not say or imply at any moment that simultaneous interpreting is easy.
      Secondly, he/she has only begun with an introduction, and clearly states that there are many more steps to prepare for the profession.
      Lastly, you made several grammar/spelling mistakes in your short writing. Were you trying to demonstrate the “so many lack of profesionnal work”?

      Reply
      1. Martha and Nany: “interpret” and “professional”. No spelling mistakes allowed. One should start with being a good translator.

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  5. Very informative , thank you! Most of my interpretations are IEP meetings for Special education , and the’re pretty exausting . I could just imagine how these interpreters can get pretty tired .

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  6. It is very instructive. Please continue the good work you are doing.

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  7. Abdulrahman A. Wheibeh November 27, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Truly fantastic contribution and a spreading of knowledge without stint ; real generosity of spirit, May Allah Almighty reward you boundlessly. All says : ” And who is more unjust than him who withholds an Evidence he has been endowed with by Allah. ” Well done Nizar.

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  8. My “humble” (as an amateur) advice to a newcomer would be: practise, pratise, pratise!!! It is important to practise anyway. Do some shadowing in both languages; listen to a lot of speeches in both languages; practise interpreting for short periods (start with 3-5 min) providing that you have someone to assess your pratice.

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  9. I would love to do this. Where are there schools in West Coast Canada?

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  10. Thanks Nisar…looking forward to reading the next five….

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  11. Thank you Nisar for the valuable information. I work as a simultaneous interpreter for more than ten years now. I do enjoy the job although its mental exhaustion and the requirement of a full presence. My advise for the newcomers: Don’t start such a job before being well-trained under the supervision of a professional interpreter (by attending many events as listeners first, interpretation of short speeches, preferably delivered by native with a clear accent speakers) to avoid critical situations or causing inconvenience, as this might be the end.

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  12. BECOMING A TRULY PROFESSIONAL INTERPRETER REQUIRES MANY , BUT MANY YEARS PRACTICE. FIRST AND FOREMOST , YOU MUST HOLD A UNIVERSITY DEGREE IN LANGUAGES. BEING TRULY BILINGUAL IS NOT JUST A MATTER OF BEING FULLY BILINGUAL. IT IS MUCH MORE THAN THAT M I SOMETIMES READ WHAT SOME PEOPLE WHO SEEM TO BE WORKING AS INTERPRETERS WRITE AND I AM AMAZED AT THE NUMBER OF LANGUAGE MISTAKES THEY MAKE. HOW CAN THOSE PEOPLE EXPECT TO DO A GOOD JOB ??

    Reply

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