The Difference Between Consecutive and Simultaneous Interpreting

Caitlin Nicholson

Difference Between Consecutive and Simultaneous Interpreting

The job of an interpreter is to be a real-time mediator for people who communicate in different languages. Interpreters must be masters of idiom, tone, semantics, and colloquialisms in order to render an expression accurately from one language into another. Not only that, but they must also interpret intention and nuance to convey the overall feeling that one person is trying to express to another.

Professional interpreting services can be rendered in multiple ways, but the two primary modes of interpretation are consecutive interpretation and simultaneous interpretation. In order to understand which method of interpreting will best serve your needs, it’s important to understand both modes. Let’s take a look at simultaneous versus consecutive interpreting.

Simultaneous Interpreting

As the word ‘simultaneous’ suggests, simultaneous interpreting is listening to what is being said in one language, and concurrently saying it in another language.

Think about a sign language interpreter at a business conference. He or she listens to what is being said by the presenter, and simultaneously “says” the same thing to the entire audience. That is an example of simultaneous interpreting. However, it gets a little more complicated when dealing with two spoken languages.

Simultaneous interpretation with two spoken languages usually requires some equipment. First, whoever is presenting needs a microphone. The microphone will probably be hooked up to some loudspeakers so the entire audience can hear what is being said, but the microphone will also feed into pairs of headphones worn by the interpreters.

The interpreters will usually be located in a soundproof booth in the back of the conference room. There, they can listen to the presentation without too much interruption.

As the interpreters listen to what is being presented, they simultaneously say the same thing in another language. The interpreters speak into a microphone that feeds into headphones worn by event attendees who cannot fully understand the presentation.

While the interpreter is speaking, he or she is also listening to what is being said so they can accurately interpret the next sentence. Interpreters usually wait until the end of a sentence to translate; the truth is that “simultaneous” is a bit of a misnomer as the interpreter cannot begin the translation until they hear, at the very least, the subject and the verb of the sentence. The general meaning must be understood for the interpreter to begin their translation. 

But, because people don’t tend to pause for extended periods of time, this should illuminate just how difficult a job simultaneous interpretation really is. Even as the interpreter is speaking his or her translated sentence, he or she is listening to the next sentence and attempting to translate it.

This particular job takes a great deal of confidence and decisiveness: there simply isn’t enough time to compare and contrast the merits of various translations of the same sentence, or to try to call to mind the correctly nuanced idiom. You have to be fluent enough to act quickly, because any delay can result in lost words or entire lost thoughts or sentences, which could be disastrous to the overall understanding of the speech in translation.

Simultaneous interpreting is most effective when someone is speaking in front of an audience, but is less effective in a casual setting. Some times when you might use simultaneous interpreting include:

  • Board meetings of business meetings
  • Courtrooms
  • Diplomatic conferences
  • International conferences
  • Tours
  • Lectures and presentations

The first time simultaneous interpreting was used was during the Nuremberg Trials, which were a series of military hearings held by the Allied Forces in 1945 and 1946 at the end of the Second World War. Then, in the early 1950s, the United Nations declared simultaneous interpretation to be the preferred method for the majority of official UN meetings, as it saved time and improved the quality of the interpretation itself.

Consecutive Interpreting

As the word ‘consecutive’ suggests, consecutive interpreting between two people is interpreting one person’s message, and then the other person’s message, and then the original person’s response, and so on.

If someone is interpreting consecutively, the speaker will stop every so often (typically at the conclusion of a complete thought) in order to allow the interpreter to step in and to translate what was said from the source language into the target language.

This means that a consecutive interpreter must have excellent note-taking skills as well as language and interpretation skills. Since few people are able to memorize a full paragraph after hearing it once without losing significant detail, an interpreter who interprets consecutively must master shorthand. But it’s even harder than it is for a stenographer, as the interpreter has to write down notes about what is being said in one language and then interpret them into another.

This means that many professional interpreters will develop their own style of shorthand, usually image or symbol-based, which allows them to take notes on the thoughts and intentions of the speaker, rather than their precise words. In this type of interpreting, the interpretation is more idiomatic and less literal.

Consecutive interpreting is the interpretation style of choice for medical interpretation, since speed and efficiency is ever so slightly less important than clarity and intention. It is a popular option during both formal and informal meetings, and could be most effectively employed during the following occasions:

  • Human resource meetings
  • Parent-teacher conferences
  • Interviews
  • Court depositions and client/attorney meetings
  • Medical consultations

Consecutive vs. Simultaneous Interpretation

Choosing which method of interpretation will best suit you and your needs will require you to prioritize what is most important to you in your interpretation.

Simultaneous interpretation saves a considerable amount of time and helps you to feel as though the conversation were happening in real time. But you have to consider the cost of equipment (sound booth, headphones, microphones, etc.) as well as account for interpreter fatigue. Simultaneous interpreting can be so tiring that two interpreters are often required so that they can take turns.

Consecutive interpreters have much more control over the words they are translating, and they can take a little more time to get everything right before they pass on the interpreted message. But this can mean it will take a lot more time to get your translation. Nonetheless, the consecutive interpreter is able to ask for clarification and repetition in order to ensure that the interpretation is as accurate as possible.

In today’s fast-paced business world, simultaneous interpretation reigns supreme, since time is a luxury that few professionals can afford to waste. However, consecutive interpretation is more cost-effective and more precise, despite the fact that it does take considerably more time to execute. But regardless of which method you choose, the most important element is a skilled, reliable interpreter who specializes in your industry. 

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