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  • Writer's pictureFang Sheng

Consecutive vs. Simultaneous Interpretation, how do they work and which one do I use?

Photo by: Ted Chai

For first-time clients, it’s often hard to tell the differences between these services and how to use them. Several things to consider if you are planning an event, a conference, or even just a meeting or tour:

In a nutshell, consecutive interpretation is an interpreting mode in which the speaker and interpreter take turns: when the speaker talks, the interpreter waits and takes notes; after a few sentences or making a point, the speaker pauses for the interpreter to deliver what’s just said into the target language. Simultaneous interpretation, on the contrary, is an interpreting mode in which the speaker does NOT wait for the interpreter. S/he just talks in the normal way s/he would and the interpreter talks in the target language almost in real-time. I say “almost” as there must be a few seconds of delay because the interpreter works by listening for the first few seconds, delivering into the target language, while SIMULTANEOUSLY listening to the current sentences being spoken. As the speaker and interpreter talk “at the same time”, they must be placed in separate spaces to avoid cross interference. The interpreters must work from an enclosed booth, where they listen in to the speech from earphones while talking into microphones, and the audience uses wireless receivers and earphones to listen to the language of their choice. This requires specialized equipment and on-site technicians to handle the audio console, radio transmission, etc. The cost of simultaneous interpretation is much higher than consecutive because of such equipment and technical requirements. In addition to equipment, simultaneous interpreting calls for at least two interpreters in the booth, because as the interpreter’s brain multi-tasks in such high speed, his/her focus span cannot go much longer. There must be at least two partners working in small shifts of 15-20 minutes each to keep the interpretation sharp all the time through. And when one of the interpreters is “taking a break”, s/he is actually still listening, and occasionally providing support to her/his partner with notes or suggestions. Most of the time only conferences large enough warrant this service. However, simultaneous interpretation doesn’t take away speech time, a tremendous advantage for conferences with tightly packed agendas, or for interactive panel discussions. We occasionally also do “whisper interpretation” where we sit behind/beside the VIP client and “whisper” the speech to their ears. This mode of simultaneous interpreting is even more challenging as we must overcome noise, and make our delivery heard while trying not to disturb the surrounding audience.

Photo by: Pency Tsai

These are all the factors you should consider when planning and budgeting an event. Even though prevailing market “perception” tends to think simultaneous interpreting is “harder” than consecutive, as the speakers don’t wait for the interpreters, real professional interpreters know these are two forms of interpreting that require different skills: simultaneous interpreting calls for lightening quick thinking to transform between the source and target languages in almost real-time (of course there’s always a few seconds delay), with minimum loss of information; while consecutive interpreting requires meticulous note taking, ability to capture the structure of much larger passages with minimum loss of information. Though a consecutive interpreter has the “luxury” of the speaker’s wait time, the interpreter must stand in the spotlight to face the audience staring alongside of the speaker. For a professional interpreter, the “stress level” of these different forms of interpreting is quite the same, just in different ways. However as personal “feel”, some interpreters find simultaneous interpreting more “stressful” than consecutive, while some find vice versa. It’s just personal preference. As for myself, I’m equally comfortable with both.

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