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Most of us remember the feeling of acting in a school play. You practiced for hours until you memorized your lines flawlessly. You were confident and sure of yourself. Then, it’s opening night. You stand up on stage, under the hot lights and in front of the crowd who is completely focused on you, and you can’t remember what you’re supposed to say. Your mind goes blank, and all the lines you so carefully memorized disappear in an instant.

Although you are not the sole focus of the audience’s attention as a simultaneous interpreter, you are still an actor of sorts. You are responsible for transmitting both culture and language, although you may or may not be

Simultaneous Interpretation

Interpreters Kelly Musick and Rosabelle Rice along with technician Nathanael Burt (right to left)

working from a script. While you may have had some preparation for this moment, you do not have any time to pause and think of just the right word. Your performance reflects upon the original speaker, because you are his or her voice to those listening to your interpretation. So what do you do when the speaker says something you don’t understand, don’t catch, or aren’t sure how to interpret?

A presentation’s flow is one of its most important aspects, so you should take your cues from the speaker. Therefore, if the original speaker doesn’t pause, neither should you. You must keep pace, no matter what may happen. You would ideally be familiar with every single term someone could possibly think up and would be able to use the equivalent expression without hesitation, one hundred percent of the time. Because this is real life, though, speakers use words and expressions unfamiliar to others all of the time and listeners must often adapt to such circumstances. For People speaking the same language, context gives a hint about what was implied by the speaker’s words, since topics are usually related to one another. As an interpreter, you could simply rephrase what was said in a slightly different way, assuming you had no idea what the presenter said. If you heard the speaker’s words, but were unsure how to render them in the other language, it’s usually best to quickly and confidently talk around the unfamiliar expression while conveying as much of its essence as possible. In an absolutely unavoidable situation, you could admit to your audience that you didn’t understand exactly what was said and could ask the speaker to repeat his or her last few words. This should be avoided whenever possible, however, as it may cause you to appear careless and inattentive.

No matter how prepared you may be for your assignment, unexpected words or phrases may be used, and you should be prepared to confidently and quickly convey the essence if the exact meaning is unknown. Sufficient preparation for the presentation can help avoid any unnecessary nerves on your part and help deliver an interpretation that accurately reflects the original speaker’s intent.

Do you have any tips to share as a simultaneous interpreter? What should listeners keep in mind when receiving a simultaneous interpretation?

5 thoughts on “Simultaneous Interpretation Series Part 4 of 6: Stage Fright, or Forgetting Your Lines

  1. I have done so many simultaneous translations in Afghanistan with the US army during the meetings ,Shuras ,Jirga and briefings ,you are right sometime you just lose it and it like a blank page you stack don’t know what to say because you didn’t understand what the speaker is saying ,but I keep taking and working around it don’t stop because it will piles up in seconds until I get back to what exactly the speaker was saying .I like it , this is very challenging task and I am very good at it after so many years of practicing and working in the field .

  2. Hi Tony,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. As you know, simultaneous interpreters must learn how to listen, think and speak simultaneously. For instance, you listen to the first sentence, process it in your mind and speak while listening to the second one and so on. You are absolutely right, it is very challenging but one can get real good at it with practice and experience.

    Interpreting in Afghanistan, you must be fluent in Dari/Pashto or both. Did you interpret for both languages or just one? If one, which one?

  3. Okay, it is time for step number 4 (please see the first 3 parts of this series for the first 3 steps). Once you feel comfortable with step 1, 2 & 3, it is time to listen to some slow paced news/discussions that you have not heard before. Continue practicing easy ones and slowly work your way towards more difficult ones. Remember, do not get stuck on difficult words. At this stage, you should focus on doing your best to provide an approximate interpretation rather than being overly concerned with precision. Keep on practicing!

  4. Thank you very much for your post. When we are going to accept a simultaneous interpretation assignment, we will, generally speaking, ask our clients to send us the relevant materials one week in advance. Our interpreters will study the materials carefully and we will even know something about the speakers. Having enough and careful preparation is the key to successful simultaneous interpretation. If we do not have enough time to prepare or the field is very unfamiliar to us, we will even decline the work.

    Best Regards


  5. Good information and tips, thanks. Not only must simultaneous interpreters learn to listen, think and speak simultaneously, they must also be alert to the speaker’s voice expressions and intonations which express his/her emotions. I did a couple of jobs where the client specifically asked that I also show the same voice expression of the speaker, e.g. joy, surprise, confusion, disappointment. And what about sobbing along with the speaker in cases where the situation was really full of emotion? I sobbed along with the speaker as I interpreted – couldn’t help it, the situation was so emotional. :) Talk about multi-tasking!!! But this is a very interesting job, scary sometimes, but interesting.


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