Interpreting: How does it work?

When it comes to written translations, playing with wording or browsing a synonym dictionary is part and parcel of the job. But interpreters live in a completely different world: they have to deal with time pressure in a higher dimension.

illustration interpreting

A time-honoured profession

It might not be the oldest trade in the world, but we translators and interpreters can certainly claim that our profession is one of the oldest. According to what are seen as well-informed circles, the first translation agency is said to have opened its doors just 48 hours after The Confusion of Languages at Babel (1 Moses, 11,7–9) – an event that unfortunately didn’t make it into the Old Testament.

There is, however, historical proof that there were interpreters in ancient Egypt, and there is one interpreter who worked for the Spanish conquistadors at the beginning of the sixteenth century who was actually so famous that she is known by name: the Aztec slave Malinche became interpreter to conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519. As she initially was not able to speak Spanish, she translated out of the Mayan language into Aztec and another interpreter translated that into Spanish – an early example of what is referred to today as “relay interpreting”.

The oral translation of spoken language takes place in various forms today. Four of the most important are:

  • Consecutive interpreting
  • Simultaneous interpreting
  • Whispered interpreting (chuchotage)
  • Negotiation interpreting

Consecutive interpreting: probably the oldest form of interpreting

In consecutive interpreting, a speaker speaks for around 10 to 15 minutes before the interpreter translates what has been said. Even though it is more about a general as opposed to a precise, word-to-word translation, you still need a good memory and mental flexibility to do the job well. It is helpful if the interpreter gets the speeches or background information beforehand because not everyone can take notes with one hand and, at the same time, quickly google something else with the other … 


Simultaneous interpreting: multitasking at the highest level

Simultaneous interpreting is used in particular at conferences. It involves the spoken word being translated into another language practically in real time and then broadcast over the headphones of those taking part in the conference. The interpreter sits in a sound-proofed booth and also listens to the speakers using headphones.

Simultaneous interpreting is extremely demanding and requires maximum concentration. This is why it always takes place in teams of at least two interpreters who each do shifts of around half an hour before handing over to their colleague. Although they constantly give top performances, they themselves are never in the spotlight: in fact, it is a sign of just how good their work is if you hardly notice they’re there.


Whispered interpreting (chuchotage): whispering from the background

Chuchotage is actually a variant of simultaneous interpreting, but is done without any elaborate technical equipment. This type of interpreting involves the interpreter sitting next to or just behind listeners during a meeting or event and whispering the translation into the listener’s ear. When there are a large number of people taking part, classical chuchotage naturally soon reaches its limits. In situations, in which an interpreting system with a sound-proofed booth is not an option – for example during a guided tour where the listeners are moving around – the use of a tour-guide interpretation system, a bidule, is a good option. The interpreter translates into a radio microphone and the participants receive the translation over wireless headphones. This solution can be used without any great technical effort, but is limited to a maximum of 20 participants.


Negotiation interpreting: switching effortlessly in both directions

Just as chuchotage can be seen as a variant of simultaneous interpreting, negotiation interpreting can be seen as a form of consecutive interpreting. The participants speak for a certain amount of time in their own language and then give the interpreter time to translate what has been said into the language of the counterpart. The special thing about it is that the translator then also translates the reply and so is constantly changing the direction of translation – this process is often also referred to as “bilateral consecutive interpreting”.


How does an interpreter work?

The difference between doing a written translation and interpreting is that the research has to be carried out in advance: an interpreter gets ready for a job by doing research on a particular customer or the customer’s products or by studying the latest news on the topic of a conference in both the source and target language. They note down any new terminology and look for the correct specialist equivalents.

Efficient note-taking plays a key role in consecutive interpreting: naturally, there simply wouldn’t be the time to write down every word, and even shorthand would be too slow. Instead, consecutive interpreters use drawings and symbols to get the key points of a speech down on paper and also keep them in relation to one another. This also helps the interpreter to deliver the translation in a listener-friendly manner instead of just reading from a sheet of paper. The University of Mainz has posted a video in German on YouTube that gives a good impression of how a consecutive interpreter takes notes.


CAI instead of CAT: tools for computer-assisted interpreting

The obstacles for computer-assisted interpreting (CAI) tools are somewhat greater than for standard CAT tools. The first question a CAT tool asks when it is woken up from its hard disk sleep is: “Where is the source text?” A CAI tool already knows that there is no point in asking this question because, in its case, the source text comes in acoustic form. To date, computer software has supported or facilitated some aspects of interpreting, for example creating glossaries or extracting

useful information from preparatory documents. It is only recently that capabilities such as automatic voice recognition and terminology extraction have been added.

Software does, however, play a central role in remote interpreting (RI), in which the interpreter no longer has to be physically present on site, but joins an event using tools such as Zoom, Teams and Interprefy – a development which has gained momentum due to the corona crisis. However, simultaneous interpreting by video conference is even more strenuous and stressful than the traditional variant of being physically present. A master thesis (in German) from the University of Graz is a very interesting read on this subject (PDF).

Have you had any experience of interpreting yourself? Do you think everyone could learn to do it, or does it take a special talent? Email us at – we’d love to hear from you!

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