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From a whisper to a button in the ear – learn about the different types of interpreting


Whether at press conferences, in negotiations or on the news – we’ve all seen, or rather heard, interpreters at some time or other. They often work behind the scenes and are invisible to the audience. But that isn’t always the case: each situation has its own needs and therefore calls for a corresponding type of interpreting. In this article, you can find out more about the differences between them and learn about when and where they are used.

Interpreting vs translating

Let’s start by clarifying a little misconception: interpreting and translation are not the same thing. Translation involves transferring written material from one language to another, while interpreting is the act of transferring spoken words. Not every interpreter can translate, and not every translator can interpret. Both disciplines require their own special skills, and there are even differences within the disciplines themselves.

While some translators can juggle numbers and language (see our blog on financial translation), others are more comfortable handling creative content found on websites and social media, for example. Interpreting is just as versatile as translating, because every assignment is different.

Simultaneous interpreting

Perhaps the best-known type of interpreting (some also call it the ‘supreme discipline’) is simultaneous interpreting. With this technique, the spoken word is translated almost instantaneously into another language. Simultaneous interpreting was born during the Nuremberg Trials, which took place from 1945 to 1946. Because time was of the essence, consecutive interpreting, which had prevailed until then, would have taken far too long.

To this day, simultaneous interpreting is still used whenever the audience has to follow what is being said simultaneously and/or if several languages are used, such as at conferences or during live events on television.

As this form of interpreting requires enormous concentration, two colleagues will usually work together and take turns every half an hour. It is not just a matter of listening and speaking at the same time. The content of what is said must also be understood. To make things even more difficult, the sentence structures of the two languages are usually different, and the speakers may have an accent that is unfamiliar to the interpreters. It’s therefore hardly surprising that simultaneous interpreting is one of the most stressful professions in the world. According to the WHO, only pilots and air traffic controllers have a more stressful job.

Konferenz: Simultandolmetschern in der Dolmetschkabine

Possible view from the interpreting booth at a conference. Source: Teemu Paananen – Unsplash

The different facets of simultaneous interpreting

The technology used for simultaneous interpreting varies depending on the situation. In most cases, mobile booths are used. These are placed in the conference room itself, so that the interpreters also have a view of any presentations. If the audience moves from room to room, such as during museum tours or product presentations in different showrooms, audio guide systems (consisting of microphones and headphones) can be helpful.

If interpreting is required for a small number of people, whispered interpreting is often used. In this case, the interpreter takes a seat between the recipients and whispers what is being said simultaneously into their ears.

Last but not least, we have remote interpreting. This type of interpreting is becoming increasingly popular – not least because of the pandemic, during which in-person conferences were not possible. It allows participants and interpreters in remote locations to meet online using video conferencing software.

Consecutive interpreting

In contrast to simultaneous interpreting, consecutive interpreting involves translating what is said into another language with a time delay. A special note-taking technique is used, the principles of which are learned during the study course. Each interpreter develops their own note-taking technique over the years, and no interpreter is able to read the notes of another. Although it may seem obvious, this technique is not based on shorthand, since it is not the word that is noted down, but the meaning. Because the speed makes it almost impossible to record every word, only units of meaning are recorded. Listening carefully is therefore the be-all and end-all.

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Consecutive notes of a panel discussion on the topic ‘Munich 1972 – 40 years after the Olympic Games’.

Areas of application of consecutive interpreting

Consecutive interpreting is mainly used for speeches or conversations. However, rather than the entire speech being delivered first and then interpreted, it is broken down into shorter passages. The interpreter and the speaker then alternate back and forth. This technique is very straightforward: the interpreter only needs a pen and pad. For longer assignments, it is also possible to work with two colleagues.

Liaison interpreting

As the name suggests, liaison interpreting is mainly used in negotiations or discussions. The participants take their seats at the round table alongside the interpreters. As with consecutive interpreting, what is said is time-delayed and, if necessary, transmitted in passages so that no content is lost. No specific technique is necessary in liaison interpreting – here, too, pen, paper and careful listening are enough.

These different disciplines and facets all fall under the term ‘conference interpreting’. As you can gather, this field is quite complex. To practise this profession, it is not enough to simply be able to speak two languages. It requires extensive, focused study, and learning the various techniques down to the smallest detail. Then it’s all about practice, practice and more practice.

If you are planning an event or have a negotiation coming up and you’re not sure which type of interpreting is best for you, feel free to contact us. As one of the most renowned language service providers in Switzerland, we offer a range of high-quality interpreting services and will be happy to help you find the right type, the right technique and, of course, the ideal interpreters for your field.

Because we know first-hand what matters: our managing director Silvia Cerrella Bauer has been a successful interpreter in Switzerland for many years and is looking forward to making your event a success.