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Interpreting Without Tears

Aug 17, 2007
There are several different types of interpreting. Simultaneous interpreting is the one which most people are familiar with if they have seen interpreters in use at large conferences such as those held by the United Nations.

One person speaks and many listen through headphones. Simultaneous interpreters sit in a sound-proof booth and interpret in real-time.

Simultaneous interpreting is highly skilled work requiring many years of experience and subject matter expertise. To be successful, events requiring simultaneous interpreters need careful planning and specialist equipment.

If I had to give a single tip for success it would be the importance of using experienced simultaneous interpreters. As simultaneous interpreting is a real-time skill, there are no second chances once the moment is lost. If you do not have the budget to engage simultaneous interpreters, I'd urge you to consider whether a Consecutive Interpreter (see later) would suffice rather than attempt to cut corners and have your event ruined.

Hiring Simultaneous Interpreters, things to be aware of:

Of the three different categories of interpreting (the other two being Consecutive Interpreting and Facilitating Interpreting), Simultaneous Interpreting is by far the most demanding.

A minimum of 2 interpreters are required for continuous service of more than a couple of hours. This comes as a shock to most people.

Why do we need 2 people? Surely the interpreting company is just trying to sell us extra interpreters? The truth is, simultaneous interpreting demands so much concentration that any individual can only hope to be effective for periods of 20 minutes or so. After that time they will need to hand off to a fellow interpreter and rest. Whilst resting they will continue to follow the proceedings and prepare for their next slot.

For an event lasting more than a couple of hours, 2 interpreters are required to allow adequate rest periods. Many interpreters will refuse assignments unless they have a deputy, ideally, someone they have worked with before.

Specialist equipment is required. Simultaneous interpreters require a sound proof booth within view of the speaker. A clear audio feed from the speaker to the interpreters' headphones is required.

Each interpreter must be equipped with a microphone to relay the interpreted audio to the audience via headphones. I strongly recommend you hire in professionals to set up your venue. Attempting to cut costs by doing it yourself and getting it wrong can lead to disaster, unintelligible audio, a dissatisfied audience and embarrassed interpreters.

Background information.

Having adequate and timely background information ahead of a simultaneous interpreting assignment is vital. As the interpreting is being carried out in real-time, there is no scope for going back and correcting mistakes. If at all possible I suggest you:

1. Provide drafts of speeches and explain any specialist vocabulary.

2. Schedule some time with the interpreter ahead of the day to brief them on any company politics they should be aware of.

3. Provide a breakdown of how the day will be structured so that the interpreters can begin to plan their work. It is very likely that one of them has specialist knowledge which would be best used during a particular part of a presentation.

Whilst I may have made it sound frightening, organizing a successful event is really a matter of forward planning, your interpreting company should be more than happy to help you.

Consecutive Interpreting.

Consecutive interpreting is best thought of as "Listen before talk" interpreting. One person speaks and then pauses; one or many people listen whilst the consecutive interpreter repeats what has been said in the target language.

Unlike Simultaneous Interpreting, Consecutive Interpreting does not happen in real time. Consecutive Interpreting is the most popular type of interpreting as it does not require any specialist equipment or complex planning. It is also considerably cheaper than Simultaneous Interpreting.

Less demanding than Simultaneous Interpreting, the speaker delivers a few sentences and then pauses whilst your interpreter repeats what has just been said in the target language. The interpreter may interpret for the whole group or, as is becoming increasingly common, sit next to an individual and whisper what has just been said.

The main differences between Consecutive Interpreting and Simultaneous Interpreting are that specialist equipment is not required and the interpreting is not real-time.

Money saving tip: Consider conducting your meeting via teleconference or video conference as opposed to face to face. Consecutive Interpreting lends itself very well to these formats and can result in dramatic savings in cost and executive downtime as fewer interpreters are required, no specialist equipment is needed and travel time is zero.

Examples of where consecutive interpreters are used.

1. After dinner speech by head of foreign affiliate addressing English target audience. The interpreter will listen to the speech and repeat what has just been said in English.

2. Visit by foreign delegation to a factory in the UK. English Manager explains how machines work to a small group of foreign executives. The interpreter accompanies the group and interprets what has just been said.

3. Presentation by UK marketing department to international sales team.

Hiring a Consecutive Interpreter, things to be aware of:

A good way to approach this is to think of an interpreter as someone who has just joined your company to start a new job. There will undoubtedly be acronyms, technical terms and politics which will be unfamiliar to them. Briefing him or her on such issues before the assignment will lead to a far more satisfactory day for all involved.

Background information.

As with simultaneous interpreting, always try to provide some background information about the company and its products well ahead of the assignment. Provide drafts of speeches and explain any specialist vocabulary.

Phone interpreting.

Phone interpreting is simply Consecutive Interpreting over the phone instead of face to face. It is the ideal solution when geographically dispersed people need to talk but do not share a common language.

How does phone interpreting work?

Your interpreting company will issue you with a telephone number and personal identification number (PIN). At the prearranged time, all participants dial into this number and enter the PIN code to enter the teleconference. Once dialled in, all participants are able to hear each other. Your interpreter will also be on call and will interpret as directed by whoever you have nominated as the chairperson of the call.

Facilitating Interpreting.

Facilitating Interpreting covers a range of activities. Typically many people talk and many people listen alternately. Facilitating Interpreting is the term used to describe work which is less structured than Consecutive Interpreting or Simultaneous Interpreting assignments.
Sometimes you just need someone bilingual on hand who can help out with ad-hoc requirements during an event. Facilitating Interpreters are often hired to attend international corporate hospitality events and team building sessions. They are a great help in making your clients and staff feel comfortable and can help avoid misunderstandings and consequent embarrassment.

Facilitating Interpreters are often used when some group members have a smattering of both (or all) the languages involved and require someone bilingual to clarify points of confusion by saying it 'in other words'. Other times, the various group members can only speak their native language, in which case we can help by switching between Consecutive Interpreting to the group and providing one-to-one help to group members who are struggling.

Facilitator interpreters, examples of use:

1. Marketing department running a 'focus group' exercise as part of a new product initiative.

2. Information systems department involved in a global software development project running a workshop to decide on roles and responsibilities.

3. A colleague from a foreign affiliate needs help understanding what is being discussed in meetings or over dinner.

Hiring a facilitator interpreter, things to be aware of.

1. If you need someone to facilitate at meetings where the subject matter is very specialized, please provide as much background as possible to help your interpreting company select the most appropriate individual to help you.

2. It is difficult for a single interpreter to facilitate in very large meetings/workshops. If you intend to have more than (approximately) 8 people present, consider splitting the group and running two meetings either simultaneously (you will need to hire another facilitator) or consecutively.

3. If you know in advance, or even suspect, that you will want the facilitator to accompany your team to dinner in the evening, please mention this at the time of booking so he/she can make personal and travel arrangements.
About the Author
Peter Bennett is founder and CEO of London translations Limited, one of London's fastest growing business translation and interpreting agencies.
Download his free report, Interpreting without tears, from:
http://www.london-translations.co.uk
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