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Conference Interpreting

Conference interpreting

What is conference interpreting?

Have you ever wondered who makes it possible for people from different countries to attend international events and understand what is being said? Conference interpreters are crucial in the European Commission, the European Parliament, and conferences and events involving political leaders from different EU countries. In these settings, conference interpreting plays a decisive role in enabling understanding between organisations and institutions. Despite the importance of interpreters’ work for the members of the Commission, world leaders and the general public, these professionals are rarely seen in the media. Conference interpreters are said to have done a good job when their presence is not noticed.

Conference interpreting is a separate specialization of language  interpretation, along with liaison interpreting and whispered interpreting or chuchotage.

In this type of translation, an interpreter verbally translates a message from one language into another for a large group of listeners. It is also the most commonly used type of interpreting for speeches, press briefings, conferences and TV programmes with audiences that don’t speak the same language. The interpreter can render the message into the listeners’ language directly by sitting or standing next to the speaker and repeating what they say in the target language, or they can interpret from a different room. To do this, the interpreter works from an interpreting booth, where they hear everything that is being said through their headphones, and deliver their interpretations through their microphones.

Modes of conference interpreting:

Simultaneous interpreting

In this subcategory, the conference interpreter interprets while listening to the speaker. In other words, they verbally translate what the speaker says in real time. The interpreter works from an interpreting booth, where they listen to all the information and convey it to the attendees using headphones and microphones. There are often two interpreters in a booth for one language pair if the event lasts longer than an hour.

Simultaneous interpreting is an extremely complex job. involving specific learned skills.  It is a very complicated type of interpretation.

Simultaneous interpreting is used at conferences and international events.

Consecutive interpreting

In this type of conference interpreting, a speaker talks in one language, and the interpreter notes down what is being said. Once the speaker has finished, the interpreter renders the information into the other language.

At events with a consecutive interpreter, the speaker pauses every three to five minutes for the interpreter to repeat their message in the target language. The consecutive interpreter has a turn to speak, not to react or join in the conversation, however, but to reproduce accurately in another language what was said.

Consecutive interpreting is used for bilateral meetings, business talks, press conferences and interviews.

Whispered interpreting

The European Commission’s website says that, in this type of conference interpreting, “The interpreter is seated or standing with the participants and interprets simultaneously directly into their ear.”

In other words, whispered interpreting or chuchotage is a type of interpretation that consists of translating what is being said, in real time, from language A into language B, in the client’s ear, or in a low voice (if there are two people, at most three). To do this, the interpreter sits or stands next to the client, without interfering in the meeting. In this case, the listener’s native language is usually different from that of the other attendees.

Whispered interpreting is ideal for short events, such as small-scale meetings, conferences, site visits, and small product demonstrations.

Conference interpreter skills

  • Excellent knowledge of, and fluency in, the source and target language.

A truly professional interpreter must have in-depth knowledge of both languages, understand double meanings, master register changes and understand the cultural references of the country or countries in which the languages are spoken, as well as being familiar with the relevant subject matter.

  • Ability to think quickly and improvise.

Events with conference interpreters don’t always follow a predetermined structure. The order in which people speak and the amount of time they spend speaking can change, and they may add new content to their speeches without prior warning or make other changes. The interpreter must be focussed and ready to improvise. This is a skill that comes with practice.

  • Impartiality

An aspect of interpretation that many people find challenging is the obligation to never take sides under any circumstances. The interpreter must stay out of the interaction between the parties, always remaining impartial and translating faithfully and accurately, regardless of the focus of the discussion.

  • Clear speaking voice and good diction

The interpreter must know and master oral expression techniques (diction, intonation, elocution, voice projection etc.) and have a good voice, as well as public speaking skills. Here, experience is crucial.

  • Ability to analyse and summarise

The interpreter must develop the ability to quickly analyse what the speaker says in order to capture the essential details and summarise the general concepts, transmitting the information to the audience at the event. To do this, they use a variety of speech processing strategies, such as layering, inferences and mind maps, applying the best strategy as required. To do this, the interpreters must have another two skills:

  • Memory and concentration

These skills are the cornerstones of conference interpreting. Master’s students in conference interpreting learn techniques for developing memory and concentration, which are essential characteristics on the interpreting market.

Preparing for conference interpreting

The following information is necessary when preparing conference interpreting:

  • Number of attendees
  • Approximate event duration
  • Language(s) of the speakers and attendees
  • Interpreting equipment available
  • Preparatory documents.

It is extremely important that interpreters have access to the documents prepared for the lectures, meetings, conferences or courses they will interpret. This includes the name, position and company/organisation of each speaker, the drafts or summaries of the speeches, reports and presentations, any slideshows or videos that will be used at the event, product or service catalogues, laws and regulations that will be discussed or reviewed, and anything else that might help the interpreter to gain an in-depth understanding the topic or topics that will be addressed. It is also useful to know the client’s preferred translations of certain terms.

Professional interpreters always do their best work when they are provided with contextual information.

When are conference interpreters needed?

You need a conference interpreter for your event whenever the speaker’s language and the audience’s language are not the same.

Whether at a conference, course or convention, communication is essential, and effective communication can’t happen without help unless everyone in the audience is bilingual. There are several reasons for this:

1.      Even if the listeners know the other language, it is never the same as hearing the message in their own. When people are listening to a foreign language, they can miss nuances, intentions and even meanings.

2.      The attendees have to invest so much energy in following what the speaker is saying that they may not understand the core message. They will be so busy trying to understand that they could miss what really matters: absorb and understand what is being said.

3.      People are often too embarrassed to admit that they haven’t mastered the other language. Ultimately, language learning is the way to go although, Spain still has a lot of work to do before everyone masters a foreign language.