contributed by Isaiah Curtis and Sam Goldfarb, LUNA Summer Interns 2017

Conference interpreting is a special subtype of interpreting. It generally occurs at high-stakes formal meetings and negotiations, like multilingual conferences for international organizations, and at large conferences for businesses working in bilingual or multilingual markets.

Approximately ninety percent of conference interpreting is performed simultaneously. This means the interpreter is interpreting at the same time the message is being delivered in the source, or starting, language. As you can imagine, this leaves little time for processing the speaker’s words; conference interpreters must, therefore, be extremely sharp and quick to keep up with the speaker’s pace, which can vary greatly speaker to speaker. Conference interpreters must be precise in their terminology, fluent in their delivery, and be mindful of the tone of their voice and the register, or formality, of their language.

In simultaneous interpreting, interpreters do not start interpreting immediately once the speaker begins speaking. Generally, there is a décollage— a brief delay of about half a sentence—between when the speaker begins speaking and the interpreter begins interpreting.

Conference interpreters often work in soundproof booths and interpret via microphones. When they do so, they generally work in pairs. One interpreter—the “on-line” interpreter—does the actual interpreting. The other interpreter assists the on-line interpreter by providing relevant documents and recording figures, terms, and names that pop up during the conference. Every thirty minutes or so, the two switch. These switches provide somewhat of a respite for the on-line interpreter whose job is extremely mentally and physically taxing.

Simultaneous interpreting “require[s] an extraordinary blend of sensory, motor, and cognitive skills, all of which ha[ve] to operate in unison.” MRI scans of the brains of simultaneous interpreters show a “complex network” of activity in various regions of the brain. The height of activation in these brain regions and the way in which activity is scattered across the brain demonstrates just how much is going on mentally when an interpreter is engaged in this type of work. Grasping how fatiguing and exacting the job is makes the notion of working in pairs and switching off at regular intervals logical and easy to understand.

Sometimes conference interpreters also engage in what is referred to as relay interpreting. This means a “pivot” interpreter interprets from a less-common language into a more common language. Other interpreters, in turn, interpret from this common language into other languages. This facilitates the interpretation process because it circumvents the need for finding interpreters that work into very rare language combinations. Obviously, this relay process creates more of a time lag than the normal décollage, so interpreters must respond with flexibility. Pivot interpreters must be highly adaptive, making sure to use easily-understandable vocabulary, condensing text when a speaker is talking too fast, and adding cohesive devices when necessary for the understanding of the other interpreters.

At LUNA, we understand the complexities and vast demands of conference interpreting; our team of trained and qualified interpreters can assist with all of your conference interpreting needs and have the skills necessary to make your event a success! For more information, contact us today!