What does an interpreter do?

Interpreter place at the European Court of Justice

Image via Wikipedia

If you read my post What Does a Translator Do?, you’ll remember that translators handle written texts while interpreters deal with spoken language. When people picture an interpreter, they typically conjure up a headphone-wearing, glass-enclosed United Nations type interpreter, like Nicole Kidman in the movie “The Interpreter.” While this is a fairly accurate portrait of what some interpreters do, it is just one facet of the language interpretation profession. I’d like to present a brief outline of the different types of interpreters and what they do.

First of all, interpretation comes in two forms: consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpretation, a speaker talks in short segments, typically 15-60 seconds, then the interpreter presents the message to the audience. This usually requires the interpreter to take notes to be sure nothing is missed. The interpreter usually is visible and speaks into a microphone for the whole audience to hear. This sort of interpreting is common for short speeches or events where the schedule allows for the additional time needed for the interpretation. Consecutive interpretation is by far the most common form with interpreters working in all fields. Though some government entities, courts, and hospitals employee their own interpreters to handle their daily needs in specific languages, the majority work as independent contractors. Consecutive interpreting can also be provided telephonically. You might have noticed that some stores now have special language telephones set up next to the customer service desk to allow non-English speaking shoppers access to an interpreter within a few minutes. Telephone interpretation has become more prevalent in recent years with many hospitals and government agencies relying on it as a quicker and cheaper alternative to having a physical interpreter come out to their location. When an interpreter needs to be mobile during a presentation, such as a company plant visit or city tour, the interpreter is referred to as an escort interpreter. This is an unfortunate name given some of the requests I have gotten over the years with specific physical descriptions of the “interpreter” the client desired. Consecutive interpreting tends to be used more in shorter events since it doubles the time necessary to convey the message.

In simultaneous interpretation the interpreter begins to interpret the message nearly at the same time as the speaker. In fact there is a brief 2-10 second lag before the interpretation begins to enable the interpreter to gather the whole meaning of the sentence. With languages where the verb comes at the end, like German, the interpreter must wait until the end of the thought before starting to interpret. This type is usually for large conferences, corporate meetings and in some courtrooms. Simultaneous interpreters are often referred to as conference interpreters since these are the types of venues for which they most often interpret. This sort of interpretation is frequently judged to be more difficult since it requires the interpreter to both listen and speak at the same time. Consequently, there are fewer simultaneous interpreters in the interpretation field and they can be quite expensive to book. Like consecutive interpreters, most work as freelancers. However, unlike consecutive interpreters they are much more likely to travel aross the world from one venue to the next. The interpreters are equipped with a headset and microphone to hear the speaker and then relay the interpreted message into the microphone. The interpretation is transmitted either by radio or infrared waves to the audience that has wireless receivers. In the case of a multiple-language event, the audience may be able to choose from several languages on different channels. Simultaneous interpreters always work in pairs, trading off every 20-30 minutes. They are often unseen and work in either an enclosed interpretation booth or glass-walled room in order not to distract from the event.   

Depending on the circumstances, both types can be used. I have personally been in depositions where I have whispered the interpretation simultaneously into the person’s ear while the lawyer was asking the questions, then consecutively interpreted the answers back to the lawyer. This is just a very brief glimpse into the fascinating and high-demand field of interpreting.

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