Professional Interpreters are a key part of international relations and their profession has been around for centuries. Throughout history, crusaders, explorers, conquistadors, merchants and diplomats have depended on people to act as liaison to bridge the linguistic and cultural gap.
Although their origins are similar, we currently have two main interpretation approaches: consecutive and simultaneous. What is the difference between them?
The Evolution of Professional Interpreting
The first interpreters that called themselves by that word appeared in the Old Greek city of Byzantium, in England, after the Norman Conquest and in the Ottoman Empire.
The profession evolved and, in Western Europe, in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, educated individuals communicated in Latin, the language of international communication, until the 18th Century. Then, French replaced Latin as the language chosen by interpreters, until the early 20th Century, when the representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States preferred to speak English. The first conference interpreters (such as Paul Mantoux and Jean Herbert) started the era of consecutive interpretation.
The first international organizations —the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization (ILO)— also used this mode of interpretation initially, but started testing the simultaneous mode in the 1920s, when they noticed that consecutive interpretation made proceedings too long. In the 1930s, André Kaminker and Hans Jacob, two founding members of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (IACC), also made attempts with simultaneous interpreting to translate Adolf Hitler’s speeches to French.
The UN has 6 official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Their correct interpretation allows for a clear communication on topics that have global impact.
Until 1945, the only known approach to interpret international meetings was consecutive interpretation. Simultaneous interpretation, as we know it today, was successfully used for the first time during the Nüremberg trials, after WWII. This mode finally became official when the UN was created shortly after. Léon Dostert decided that the task required four interpreter teams.
Definitions and Features of Each Mode
There are three approaches to Conference Interpretation:
- Whispering (chuchotage)
In consecutive interpretation, the speaker produces a short idea (some phrases) while the interpreter takes notes. Then, the interpreter renders what the speaker said in the target language for the audience. In this approach, interpreters are usually standing or sitting close to the speaker, with a notebook and a pen in hand to take notes, and they use the microphone (if available) only when the speaker has made a pause and it is their turn to speak.
For this task, the consecutive interpreter needs the following skills:
- Active listening (understanding)
- Analysis (structured note-taking)
- Reformulation (communication)
Simultaneous interpretation, on the other hand, occurs while the speaker is speaking and uses specific technological aides, such as booths, earphones or microphones. The simultaneous interpreter not only renders the ongoing speech in a different language, but also carries out other tasks that overlap at least partially.
In 2020, there were 56,920 interpreters and translators working in the United States.
Many factors and challenges come into play during the comprehension phase (such as memory, non-verbal communication, pauses, sense and emission context, potential noise, and the speaker’s speed and visibility), as well as during the emission phase (consistency, use of proper terminology, reformulation and syntactic restructuring, intonation, etc.).
Simultaneous interpretation —the most popular in Conferences nowadays— is very complex in terms of multitasking, coordination, self-correction and lexical and cultural knowledge, among other issues.
Finally, in the whispering or chuchotage approach, the interpreter is sitting or standing between the participants and performs a simultaneous interpretation by whispering close to the ear of the attending party. This type of interpreting is not widely used anymore as the other interpreting approaches provide better results depending on the desired outcome.
Pros and Cons of Each Mode There are many pros and cons for each approach, and these should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. These are some considerations:
- Consecutive interpretation requires time: the time scheduled for the meeting will double if this approach is chosen.
- Simultaneous interpretation makes for a more natural translation of speech, since it synchronizes with the speaker’s gestures and expressions.
- Simultaneous interpretation is preferred when several languages need to be translated at once.
- Consecutive interpretation is technically less complex, since it does not require insulated booths, high quality microphones and earphone systems with different channels for attendees.
In all cases, it is vital to engage qualified professionals with the necessary experience in the chosen approach. Like the first interpreters who gave the early steps in this profession centuries ago, experts still leverage their expertise to act as a conduit of multilingual communication.