Have you ever tried listening to one language while at the same time saying the same things in another? That is, not only translating words one after another but paying close attention to all the nuances of the language and what the speaker really wants to say?
Even the smartest smart devices can’t do that, but professional simultaneous interpreters can.
What is simultaneous interpreting?
Interpreting in which the interpreter translates – or rather interprets – into another language at the same time as the speaker speaks is called simultaneous interpreting. It is exactly this idea of everything happening at the same time that sets simultaneous interpreting apart from other forms of interpreting in which the speaker and the interpreter take turns speaking.
Simultaneous interpreting is often called conference interpreting as it is typically used at conferences, seminars and different meetings. For example, an annual general meeting may be held in English, the company’s working language, but Finnish-speaking shareholders can listen to the meeting in Finnish in real time.
Since interpreting takes place simultaneously, simultaneous interpreting does not take up extra time and can “happen in the background” without disturbing those who don’t need it. At the meetings of international organisations, you might notice interpreting only from the fact that participants are wearing headphones, even though dozens of languages are being interpreted in the interpreting booths.
What happens in an interpreter’s brain?
Simultaneous interpreting is challenging both physically and cognitively. An interpreter listens to the speaker, processes what they hear, stores information and produces speech in another language simultaneously. Linguistic understanding alone is not enough: in addition, the interpreter needs an excellent ability to concentrate and to pick out the essential elements that make up the idea to be interpreted.
In addition, there might be other stress factors, such as poor sound quality, the speaker’s strong accent, speeches read quickly and directly from paper, unfamiliar terms and abbreviations, fatigue and stress. No wonder the work of a simultaneous interpreter is often compared to working as an aircraft pilot or a heart surgeon!
According to several studies, many cognitive systems are activated in the brain during simultaneous interpreting. These include at least listening and analysing, the working memory needed for remembering what has been heard and the ability to produce speech in the target language.
How does a simultaneous interpreter prepare for an assignment?
It is said that most of an interpreter’s working time is spent preparing for their next interpreting assignments. This may even go unnoticed as interpreting services are normally invoiced on the basis of the time spent on interpreting itself.
The interpreter prepares for each assignment separately, but they also prepare themselves on a general level by constantly accumulating general knowledge. For example, the Swedish interpreters who have interpreted at the coronavirus press conferences organised by the Government and various ministries have had to constantly follow the news in both Finnish and Swedish to be ready to interpret even at short notice.
Before an interpreting assignment, the interpreter goes over glossaries and texts related to the topic in question as well as any materials they receive from the customer. It is the customer’s task to enable the simultaneous interpreter to prepare for the assignment by delivering the meeting materials in advance.
Remote simultaneous interpreting
Before the coronavirus pandemic, simultaneous interpreting was mainly available at meetings where both participants and interpreters were present at the meeting venue. However, in these exceptional circumstances, the need for remote simultaneous interpreting increased exponentially, and today more and more meetings and conferences offer the opportunity of remote participation and also remote simultaneous interpreting.
It is possible to incorporate interpreting in, for example, the most common videoconferencing services such as Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc. In addition to this, there are hybrid models where the conference or meeting is organised on-site to some extent and only participants attend remotely. In practice, participants can, in both cases, listen to one of the language channels offered either with their computer or smart device.
Why should you offer simultaneous interpreting?
It should be kept in mind that even if people have small talk skills in a language, their language skills may not be sufficient to understand special terminology or complex linguistic structures. Speeches and presentations may be superficially understood, but the nuances of the language, the deep meaning of the message or the quick speech of a native speaker, for example, might not be fully understood.
When participants have the opportunity to follow the meeting or the conference in their own language, they get the feeling that they and their language needs have been taken into account. By offering simultaneous interpreting to a participant with insufficient or no skills in the speaker’s language, the organiser responds to the needs of customers or participants, which is one of the key issues, especially in the world of business.