What is simultaneous interpreting?
A woman once called me from Texas: "My boss and I recently heard your
interpreting at a conference at The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and we would like to rent some of
your headsets. We have a group of people coming over from Russia and we want them to understand us."
"OK," I said, "let's see how many interpreters and booths you
are going to need. How many days will your guests be visiting with you, and how many hours each day are you
going to be talking to them?"
"Oh," she said, "we don't need any interpreters, and no booths
either. All we need is those translating headsets we used in Atlanta. Those were so good."
"Well," I said, "did either you or your boss happen to look
"I don't think so. I'm pretty sure we didn't."
"Well, had you looked back, you would have seen booths at the back of
the room and through the windows in the booths you would have seen interpreters. They talk into a microphone,
and a transmitter sends out the signal, which the receiver in your headset catches. That was what you heard in
"And there is no way to do it just with headsets?"
"I'm afraid not."
"I'll have to talk this over with my boss. I'll call you back." She
hung up so fast, I knew I would never hear from her again. The poor woman may have been a mite embarrassed.
Although the case of the Texan lady and her boss is extreme, many people's
understanding of the simultaneous interpreting process is vague, and although no one else has tried to cut out
the entire interpreting system, many clients have tried to throw out essential parts of it, thinking that they
would be streamlining the procedure and maybe saving money. It is for their benefit that I decided to describe
here the basics of the process.
Why booth and headset?
The booths that interpreters sit in are soundproof. This is to protect the
audience from being distracted by the interpreters' incessant mumbling. More importantly, it is to insulate
the interpreter from all distractions and sounds except the speaker's voice. The next step is to insulate the
interpreter's ears from his or her own voice. He or she is listening in one language and talking in another at
the same time. This can be distracting. In order not to hear his or her own voice, the interpreter wears a
headset, preferably with a large cup earphone covering each ear and thus making insulation as complete as
possible. Some interpreters carry their own headsets with them. The investment is well worth it. It is sort of
like a tennis player carrying his own racquets to tournaments.
There are two schools of simultaneous interpreting. One believes that the
interpreter is expected to lag half a sentence to a sentence behind the speaker, so as to have time to process
and rephrase the text. The other school believes that the interpreter should strive to finish the sentence at
the same time with the speaker, in other words, to be as close as possible to the speaker in time. The second
approach has the result of the foreigners laughing at jokes at the same time when everyone else is laughing at
them, and has the added advantage of making the interpreter more closely connected to the speaker's thought
process. In my experience, interpreters of the second school retain a higher percentage of what is being said
in their translation. Be that as it may, in either case the interpreter requires an immense amount of
Why are there windows in the booth?
Every bit of information helps, and that is why booths have windows. The
interpreter looks through the window at overheads and at the speaker's facial expression, and watches his or
her lips. When booths are located at the far end of a large room, I have seen interpreters pull opera glasses
or field glasses out of their bags. Sometimes for space or security reasons it becomes necessary to position
booths backstage or in some other room where there is no visual contact with the speaker. In this case a video
camera is directed at the speaker and TV monitors are placed in front of the interpreter booths. That is how
important visual information is in this essentially audio-based process.
Why can't one interpreter do it?
The U.S. State Department uses three interpreters per booth. So do The United
Nations, The International Monetary Fund, The World Bank, and other agencies that have developed a profound
understanding of interpreting because their existence depends on effective communication. Commercial clients
with short conference agendas frequently use two interpreters per language with only a slight loss of quality.
Lately I have occasionally been asked to staff a conference with one interpreter per booth. This is beginning
to happen because, with globalization, companies and agencies inexperienced in international communication
find themselves needing to function globally. After a few hard knocks they come around to understanding that
if you are not communicating well you've got nothing, and that there is a very good reason why one interpreter
cannot possibly effectively man a booth for more than a couple of hours at most.
When there are three interpreters, one interprets for thirty minutes and then
rests for an hour while the other two take their half-hour shifts. In the case of two interpreters, they take
half-hour turns: half an hour of work, half an hour of rest.
Although interpreting, especially when done by one of our virtuoso
performers, seems easy, it is anything but. A circus gymnast may smile carelessly while performing vaults high
above the arena, but make him work eight hours a day without a break, and his chance of making a fatal mistake
will increase dangerously. The same happens to an interpreter. A non-professional may not notice it, but
usually, after half an hour, the trained ear of a professional will detect a slowing down, hesitations, an
occasional missed name or mistaken number. To avoid this sort of decline in quality (and worse ones) and to
prevent interpreter burn-out, high-level professional interpreters are usually not willing to work alone.
Who is a good interpreter?
A good interpreter is a language specialist. It is a person who has a natural
ear for languages, extraordinary verbal comprehension, the ability to write a clear and beautiful text, acting
skills to convey the intonations and intent of the speaker, and who is a quick learner. Add to this an active
sense of humor, because you want your audience to laugh at your jokes, and there you have it.
Attempts have been made to use engineers with experience in the particular
field of the conference as interpreters. These attempts always fail. Not having the experience, the language
training and the love of language, engineers do not sound good, their language is not clear enough, and they
simply do not have the fluidity without which one can never be really good in our profession. A linguist can
learn terminology fairly quickly, but interpreting is a skill, and skills take much longer to master.