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Conference Interpreting

What is an interpreter?

Interpreters are links between two cultures. They step in when people who speak different languages need to discuss things. They are trained to put the ideas of one language across to another one effectively and precisely. Interpreters understand the linguistic and cultural subtleties hidden in each sentence so that they can express all the nuances of discourse. 

The types of interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting:

In simultaneous interpreting the oral translation takes place at the same time as the original speech. The interpreters sit in sound-proof booths and speak into microphones whilst the speakers and audience have headphones to listen to the interpreting in their own languages. Two interpreters per booth are needed for each target language. Given the intense concentration required to interpret, they switch every 20-30 minutes. This technique is preferable for conferences and meetings with large audiences and/or several languages, such as conventions, colloquia, and so on. 

+: time savings, comfortable and flexible listening, better meeting discipline, complete and faithful translation, enhanced quality of interpretation due to the interpreter’s comfortable listening conditions and presence of a technician. 

-: more costly (depending on the equipment used), more space required for the interpreting booths. 

Suitable for: conferences, conventions, symposiums, colloquia, seminars, big meetings, press conferences, training events, etc. 

Mobile interpreting with portable equipment

The tour guide system, sometimes called an infoport case or bidule (French for “thingamajig”) is a portable system composed of one or two multi-channel transmitting microphones for the interpreter and speaker and twenty headset-receivers for the listeners. The equipment is provided in a sturdy case with fully-charged headsets and extra batteries for the microphones.  Originally designed for construction site or industrial facility visits, the tour guide system is intended for small groups. If the speaker has no microphone and there is no amplification in the room, the interpreters will have to move about freely to get closer to the speaker to hear the source well. 

+: mobile system, appropriate for site visits, fairly inexpensive. 

-: several people speaking at once, limited to two working languages and to a small group of people. 

Suitable: for visits of construction sites and noisy industrial facilities and for small working parties. 

Consecutive interpreting: 

In consecutive interpreting the interpreter translates speech after each separate idea. The interpreter sits next to the speakers and takes concise notes. This method is more suitable for banquet orations, inaugurations, small meetings, and negotiations amongst a small number of people. The consecutive interpreter’s fees are usually about 30 percent higher than for simultaneous interpreting. Quality consecutive interpreting calls for two interpreters, or possibly a single interpreter provided that the job is limited to – and does not go beyond – one hour. 

+: less space needed; cost savings; slower pace, which has the advantage of giving the parties taking part in negotiations more time to think. 

-: the speech is sliced up and drawn out; limited to a single language pair; smaller pool of service providers. 

Suitable for: small bilingual meetings, inaugurations. 

Liaison/whispered interpreting:

In whispering, the interpreter translates in a low voice to one or two listeners at their side. If the interpreter has to interpret for a larger number of people, a portable system (see the tour-guide equipment above) must be used. 

+: cost and time savings. 

-: less precise, limited to two listeners, several people speak at once and it is often hard for the interpreter to hear the original. 

Suitable for: negotiations, visits, and so on. 

Remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI):

Interpreting done from the interpreter’s home/office or a studio, known as an interpreting hub. The advantage of a hub is to put a technical team at the interpreters’ disposal, for an additional guarantee of quality. The hub is equipped with booths and screens and is insulated to enable the interpreters to follow the event from afar. The technical team can manage the online interpreting platform and control the booths and interpreting channels. Certain hubs also have premises for the speakers and moderators and offer their clients a more complete range of services. 

When interpreters work from home they use their own computers and an online interpreting platform. This interpreting mode, which has boomed in the wake of the recent health crisis, comes with many requirements: the interpreter must master the way the platform works and have equipment that meets certain technical criteria (prevention of acoustic shock, relay system capability and ability to listen to two audio feeds). Limiting the length of working sessions and having regular pauses are recommended in order to take account of fatigue, the cognitive burden of the job and the fact that the interpreter must perform multiple tasks in addition to interpreting. Having two interpreters is recommended, even for sessions of one hour or less, especially to guarantee uninterrupted service in the event of a breakdown or technical issue. 

The quality of the participants’ equipment (microphones and headphones) should also be checked. This often overlooked point has a major impact on the quality of an event. 

+: no travel (hence time and money saved), allows activity to continue in the case of teleworking and boosts interpreting at videoconferences (which was not necessarily the case before the COVID-19 pandemic). 

-: no physical contact, less convivial, poorer sound/picture quality, multitasking for the interpreter and no assurance of source sound quality. 

Suitable for: a large range of teleworking/hybrid events, videoconferences, training events, etc. 

How do I choose my interpreter ? 

The CBTI/BKVT’s directory will enable you to select interpreters according to their working languages (A = main target language, B = secondary target language and C = passive language) and areas of specialisation. Choosing an interpreter who is a member of the CBTI/BKVT means choosing a service provider with verified qualifications. Don’t hesitate to contact the interpreter upstream from your project, for he or she will be able to answer all your questions and guide your choices for optimal results. 

Making the right choices 

The brochure entitled Getting It Right will shed light on the points to consider and the information to provide to your interpreters. Indeed, choosing the right interpreter means taking account of several parameters: the language combination foreseen during your event, type of interpreting required, specific subject of the meeting, working hours, venue, and so on. This summary brochure is a gold mine of information about the documentation to supply, equipment and technical tests to foresee, travel and accommodation costs and other elements likely to influence the price of a job.

Market practices: Public Tenders Vade Mecum 

This reference handbook is designed for all government agencies that procure interpreting services. It describes the concepts that are indispensable for drawing up effective specifications, which will guarantee good collaboration with the party awarded the contract and maximal satisfaction for the contracting authority. It takes up only the “profession-related” aspects of the specifications; no legal or financial issues are covered. The information that it contains will help the authors of specifications to draw upon the best practices in the sector and make demands on interpreting professionals that will guarantee success. 

Frequently asked questions

Why do interpreters always work in pairs per language? 

Interpreting takes enormous amounts of concentration and mental effort. CT-scan studies have shown that the mental activity of working interpreters is second only to that of air traffic controllers! Consequently, an interpreter usually interprets for 20-30 minute segments before handing over to their colleague. The “resting” interpreter nevertheless remains attentive for, depending on the situation, they will help their partner by jotting down figures, names or specialised vocabulary. For very long meetings, it may prove useful to hire a third interpreter for the booth, or even have a second team of interpreters, notably for events that exceed ten hours, breaks included. 

How many hours does an interpreter work? 

Interpreters adapt to the length of their client’s event. Still, a normal work day rarely exceeds 8 hours of onsite presence (breaks included) and 6 hours (breaks included) in the case of remote interpreting. If these time periods are exceeded, payment for overtime will apply.   

The rates are calculated on a lump-sum basis, not hourly. Since the advent of RSI many events have become shorter. Clients must be aware of the fact that if an interpreter accepts an assignment, even a short one, they will often end up being unable to accept another assignment for another client due to time conflicts (this includes the need for set-up time, technical tests, etc.). Consequently, the basic payment will not be less than a minimum lump-sum amount. 

The fees that interpreters set include the time spent preparing the assignment based on received documents and the research that they do. In the case of RSI, if the client wants the online interpreter to participate in technical tests and other rehearsals, allowance should be made for this in the fees paid.   

Can interpreters translate everything? 

Interpreters by definition translate the spoken word – speeches or remarks. Their interpreting will be all the better if the quality of the source and technical means give them clear, understandable raw material. If participants in an event are to read written statements, interpreters must be given the written texts beforehand to be able to have enough time to prepare them. Videos are not normally interpreted, unless the interpreter has had a chance to view the videos or received the scripts ahead of time. 

Is recording the interpreting allowed? 

Interpreting is foreseen for direct, immediate consumption by the audience during a conference. It must be considered to be a tool to enhance communication. No recording or broadcasting of the interpreting may be done without the prior consent of the interpreters concerned. Keep in mind that interpreters have intellectual property rights to their interpreting. If recordings of the interpreting are broadcast or distributed, a surcharge of at least 30 percent of the agreed basic fee is usually applied. 

Are interpreters bound by an oath of confidentiality? 

Interpreters are bound by the rule of professional confidentiality and in no event will they divulge information made available to them for their assignments. They are forbidden from drawing a profit, be it for themselves or for a third party, from any confidential information.