Everything about conference interpreting
Conferences come in all shapes, sizes and locations, and are held in all sectors, from politics and sports to engineering and fashion. If people from several countries are taking part or several languages are being spoken, then communication must be ensured.
With their expertise and experience, conference interpreters make sure that the linguistic aspect of a conference runs smoothly and that all participants can follow and actively take part in the proceedings.
But which type of interpreting is needed for which setting? And which technique? And what requirements do the interpreters have to fulfil? We answer these questions in this article.
Whether small or large, online or on-site – every conference is different. Before we dive into the different types of interpreting and the technology that goes with them, let’s first take a look at what conferences themselves can look like.
We all have the image in mind: many people sitting in a large room, one or more people on stage talking in a discussion group. This is the ‘classic’ form of face-to-face conference. From annual meetings to press conferences to product launches – they exist for all topics and in all industries.
The number of languages spoken at a conference or event can vary greatly. If participants from only one other country are present, interpretation will usually be between just two languages. However, for conferences with several international participants, or meetings such as in the EU or UN, things become more complex. But even then, you can’t simply say ‘well, let’s just speak English’. After all, not everyone speaks this language at the same level. In this case, interpreters have to get involved within the framework of relay interpreting. Read on to find out how exactly this works.
Especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, online conferences have gained in popularity and here, too, interpretation is needed time and again. Conferences have moved from the boardroom to the virtual hall, so to speak. But everything else is the same: from speakers to participants to presentations and videos. Even if face-to-face events are on the rise again, online conferences remain popular: Not only do you save a lot of time (e.g. travel to and from the conference or hotel accommodation are no longer necessary), but you also save a whole lot of money that can be invested elsewhere in the company.
Yes, these conferences are quite different. But the good news is that we have the right type of interpreting and interpreting technology for every conference, even hybrid forms.
In consecutive interpreting, individual passages of a speech are translated into another language with a time delay using a special note-taking technique. But this is not shorthand, even if it seems obvious. Instead of individual words, units of meaning are noted down, which then serve as ‘mnemonic bridges’ during the interpretation itself.
The disadvantage: The duration! Consecutive interpreting is suitable for shorter conferences, as the duration of the event is doubled by time-delayed interpreting.
The advantage: The cost! No technology has to be purchased, as the interpreters only need their notepad and a pen. And due to the shorter duration, only one interpreter is needed in many cases.
A classic example for this type of interpreting is a press conference, such as after an international football match. Next time, watch closely to see how it works!
Liaison interpreting is a sub-type of consecutive interpreting and, as the name suggests, it is used in negotiations. But it is also often used in small conferences with only a few participants. The interpreter sits at the round table with the participants and interprets what is said into the other language with a time delay and in individual passages using the same note-taking technique as in consecutive interpreting.
Simultaneous interpreting is much more flexible. In this case, what is said is simultaneously transmitted into another language so that all participants can follow the event live or actively participate.
Simultaneous interpreters sit in a soundproof booth equipped with the very basics: a table, two chairs, two lamps, power sockets and, of course, the interpreting equipment with two headphones and microphones.
On one channel, they hear what is being said. On another channel, the listeners can listen to the interpretation via their own headset.
Since simultaneous interpreting is one of the most stressful professions in the world, interpreters in this type of interpreting work in teams and take turns every 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the arrangement and requirements. However, while one interprets, the other doesn’t just lie back. They continue to listen actively, both to the speakers and to their partner. If necessary, they also note down any figures, dates or reminders on a pad lying on the table in the middle.
The disadvantage: Money has to be spent on technology and technicians.
The advantage: There is no time delay whatsoever. The event can therefore follow its planned schedule.
However, simultaneous interpreting doesn’t always just take place in a booth.
1. Chuchotage or whispered interpreting
If interpretation is required for only one person or two people, what is being said can be whispered simultaneously into their ears. No special technique is necessary for this type of simultaneous interpreting.
2. Remote interpreting
If a conference takes place online, remote interpreting is used. In this case, the interpreters are not on site, but behind the computers in their own office – just like the participants themselves. Alternatively, there are now more and more interpreting hubs in various cities where professional technology (i.e. booth, interpreting equipment, etc.) is available and is also supervised by technicians.
3. Interpreting with a tour guide system
At a face-to-face event, it can also happen that the conference continues outside the meeting room, such as when a car that has just been presented is examined in more detail. In this case, interpretation can be continued with a so-called tour guide system. Each participant receives a headset with receiver and the interpreter receives a headset, a transmitter and a microphone. The process works in a similar way to a museum visit, only with an interpreter in between. They hear what is being said on one channel, while the participants hear the interpretation on another.
4. Relay interpreting
If a conference requires interpretation not only into one other language, but into several languages, then relay interpreting (briefly mentioned above) is the right choice. For example, if a conference is held in Finnish, but interpretation is required into English, French, Chinese and German, one team interprets from Finnish into English and the others interpret this English interpretation into their own languages. This is because it is easier to find interpreters whose working language is English than interpreters with a language combination such as Finnish to Chinese. Since each team needs its own booth, more technical effort is required for this type of interpreting.
So the conference location, interpreting equipment and catering have all been arranged. But who takes care of the interpreting itself?
The conference interpreters
To ensure smooth communication, conference interpreters have to bring a lot to the table.
In addition to linguistic skills, conference interpreters must have the necessary training. While basic interpreting is often also part of a translation degree, conference interpreting is more specialised. In a separate course of study, all the nuances of the different types of interpreting, techniques and settings are studied and practised, practised, practised.
Even though conference interpreters usually receive preparatory material for a conference, there may well be changes to the agenda – from revised presentations to impromptu speeches. As mentioned above, it may also happen that people spontaneously leave the meeting room to see the presented products with their own eyes. In this case, not only is a change of technique necessary, but sometimes also different clothing, such as flat shoes instead of high heels, or a thick coat in winter. In short, conference interpreters have to be prepared for anything, true to the motto ‘You never know’.
Stress resistant and resilient
According to a WHO study, simultaneous interpreting is the third most stressful profession in the world. Although it may appear on the surface that simultaneous interpreters are merely listening and speaking at the same time, there is actually much more going on. They have to listen to what is being said, understand and translate it, then pronounce it and change sentence positions in the process (there are big differences between English and German sentence structure, for example). And if the interpreter doesn’t remember a certain word? Then they look it up on their laptop while they continue interpreting. Sounds really stressful, doesn’t it?
Cosmopolitan and curious
And last but not least, simultaneous interpreters should be curious and cosmopolitan in order to be able to practise their profession successfully and happily. After all, they are always dealing with new topics, industries, settings and people from all over the world.
Conclusion: There are many factors involved in conference interpreting and we hope that this article has shed some light on them.
If you still have some questions or are planning a conference, please feel free to contact us. As a renowned language service provider in Switzerland, we take care of the technology, the interpreters and everything else that goes with it – so that your conference is a complete success for everyone involved.