Why you need two simultaneous interpreters

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Why you need two simultaneous interpreters - Bilingva

Why you need two simultaneous interpreters


One of the most common questions we hear from the customers when it comes to simultaneous interpreting – is about the requirement of having two interpreters for the event. “Is it really necessary to have two? Can I have just one instead?”

For the most part, the answer is: “yes, if you care about quality, accurate interpreting, you do need two (and sometimes three) people”. Simultaneous interpreting is an extremely demanding task on the interpreter, and it is necessary to give them breaks, so that they can continue to perform at their best for the entire duration of the event.

How simultaneous interpreters work

If you ever take a peek into the interpreting booth during the event, you will see that simultaneous interpreters always work like a team: one is actively interpreting – listening to presenter or speaker and following with translated speech in real time. The other is assisting with terminology, writing certain terms down or making notes – and also following the timer.

Even the most highly skilled interpreters can do up two twenty minutes of real-time flow. After that, they need to switch off and rest a little, while their partner takes over. The timer is reset, and now the roles are reversed.

Simultaneous interpreting is complex and demanding: it requires listening, understanding, sharp memory, accurate structure, inflection, and syntax, as well as a mastery of key terminology. Additionally, interpreter needs to master two (or three) cultures to interpret idioms and address the audience in the correct register (most foreign languages have more registers than English has). You can imagine the mental fatigue an interpreter might go through while working,  almost anticipating what the speaker will say next. Because simultaneous interpreting happens in real-time, there is no room for mistakes.

The task of simultaneous interpreting is so involving, that interpreters are completely immersed into it when they perform – the real-time speech processing takes over all the other activities in the brain, so you will see interpreters moving, waving their hands, staring intently at a single point, speaking at the top of their voice – they do not even notice this. That’s why it is important to provide them a sound-isolated space like an interpreting booth or a separate room with either direct visibility into what’s happening on stage or in the meeting, or a direct feed via the monitors. The best option is for interpreters, of course, to be physically in the same space and take in everything that is happening at the event with their own eyes, as they adjust the translation and fine points of language in real time.

In certain countries, like Japan, the minimum requirement is often three interpreters, not two – because of the complexities of Japanese language and cultural norms when it comes to interpreting. In United States the common setup is just two interpreters for this language pair. Certain organizations such as United Nations frequently use the three-interpreter setup as well.

In fact, many interpreters will simply refuse to work alone as they are realistic about their capabilities, and they understand that anything more than twenty minutes alone will inevitably impact their performance and the quality of the translation. This may cause complaints from the customer and a hit to their reputation. So they would rather not work the event at all.

What if my meeting is only an hour?

Sometimes, the budget constraints are tight, and the meeting isn’t very long. So what are the options?

  • Consider changing interpreting to consecutive. This will impact the meeting length, however, you will be able to have a single interpreter instead of several
  • Schedule breaks in the meeting, so that each session does not run longer than twenty minutes
  • If the subject of the meeting isn’t a highly complex or technical presentation with breaks for discussions between the participants (for example, round table), sometimes it is possible to have a single interpreter in certain languages

Have more questions?

Contact us today – and our simultaneous interpreting specialists will work with you to create the best possible event for your budget.