Introduction to Simultaneous Interpreting

June 26, 2016, updated Oct. 18


Two colleagues of mine working in the booth
Who are the strange people who sit in a booth at the back of the conference room and translate into your headset? How did they gain this seemingly incredible skill of being able to listen in one language and speak in another at the same time?

What would it take to become a conference interpreter yourself?

I've never read a single book about interpretation (oral translation). I'm not proud of that fact, but it ensures that all of my thoughts on the subject are derived entirely from my own observations and practice.

Basic requirements to be a simultaneous interpreter


  • - Fluency in both languages. That means you can speak fluidly and at medium to high speed. In some cases interpreters only need this for the language they are interpreting into, but in Eastern Europe hardly an event goes by without having to interpret into both languages, not just one way.
  • - An active vocabulary of about 5000 words, or about a C1 level, to begin interpreting in informal or highly repetitive situations.
  • - An active vocabulary of about 10000 words, or about a C2 level, to begin interpreting at formal events such as conferences.
  • - An active vocabulary of perhaps 30 or 40+ thousand words to really be a strong conference interpreter. 
  • - The requisite curiosity to research things you currently know almost nothing about.

Formal requirements

You'd think I would know something about this, but I don't! Outside of organizations like the UN that hire full-time interpreters, I've never encountered formal requirements to interpret at conferences in Eastern Europe. I personally have no formal credentials, just experience and colleagues who recommend me in communication with clients.

Most of our work consists of interpreting at isolated 1-4-day events for different organizations. How do they find their interpreting teams? They ask their local contacts if they're free on the specified dates and whether they can recommend someone if necessary. The most reliable way to find good interpreters is to keep the contact info of one good interpreter and ask for recommendations. A stellar interpreter will not recommend a poor one. No amount of formal qualifications is worth more than a personal recommendation from a well-respected interpreter.

Everyone in the industry also understands that it's virtually impossible that there is a top-notch interpreter in town that they and their friends have never heard of. If they're top-notch, then why aren't they interpreting at conferences? How did they develop their skills, and how do they keep them up?

When I appeared out of nowhere and began interpreting in Kiev, Ukraine, one of my booth partners asked me incredulously, "Where did you come from?? Why haven't I seen you anywhere??"

To get high-paying interpreting gigs, all you need is to be a pro at what you do. But the way you become a pro is through practice... Which brings us to the next subject.

Four tiers of interpreting jobs


Here is a useful way to think of career development as a simultaneous interpreter. You work at a certain level until you are so good at what you do that you start getting invitations to work at the next level up. Typical rates for Eastern Europe are indicated.

TIER 1: interpreting for heads of state, etc. // ??
TIER 2: simultaneous interpreting at conferences; consecutive interpreting at press conferences, formal events, etc. // 250-350 USD/day (400-550 if working alone)
TIER 3: consecutive or simultaneous interpreting at business discussions, interviews, film operations, etc. // 100-200 USD/day
TIER 4: consecutive or simultaneous interpreting at informal events (meeting people, introductions, dinner parties, etc.) // 50-100 USD/day

Looking at it this way, the way to get started as an interpreter — unless your language institution sets you up for jobs — is to snap up any Teir 4 jobs that come your way and work upward from their. Another way to build experience is to volunteer at nonpaying events such as presentations at museums, public events, tours, or for international volunteers. Get practice working at an appropriate level and demonstrate that you are so good that you deserve to move up a level.

Interesting facts...

Three quarters of the interpreters I meet are women. The average age of high-profile conference interpreters in Eastern Europe is probably about 50 years of age. I have never met a native English-speaker or westerner (other than myself) among the interpreters at any of the conferences I have worked at. Why this is so is still a mystery to me. Living in a country where your source language (non-native working language) is spoken is a great advantage because you get to use it on a daily basis regardless of whether you have work or not.

The interpreting profession is quite closed, and outsiders have almost no access to gigs. The high-responsibility, high-paying gigs are all distributed among acquaintances and referrals with good reputations. To get started, you typically need to meet other interpreters and make a good impression or get a corporate or organizational position as an interpreter-translator to get experience. You can also approach translation bureaus, send them your CV, and try to meet the decision makers at least briefly. Even so, it will probably not be easy. In my case, it was a couple fortuitous introductions that allowed my interpreting career to finally get off the ground. 

Conference interpreters travel a lot, sometimes to exotic places. Sometimes you get agendas and presentation materials in advance, sometimes not. The quality of the electronics, as well as the temperature in the booth, varies from gig to gig. Your clothing needs to strike a balance between comfort in the booth and whatever conference attendees are wearing.

Personal qualities play a huge role in conference interpreting — inside the booth. After a while you will know most of the other working interpreters and will form your opinion of them. Some you will appreciate as booth partners, while others may irritate you. The more professional, cooperative, and amicable you are, the more people will like working with you. This can affect the number of gigs you are invited to. 

Different interpreters have different work "styles." Some insist on switching every 20 or 30 minutes, even if you're right in the middle of a presentation. Some get up and go for walks when their shift is over. Some grab the microphone without asking. Some tire you with anecdotes or their geopolitical views when you would rather rest or focus on preparation.

Simultaneous interpretation is paid well. Daily rates at international conferences in Eastern Europe are typically 200-300 Euros, and 500-1000 Euros in Western Europe. If you have to work alone in a booth the whole day, you can charge more. Interpreters who receive assignments through agencies typically get 70-90% of the agreed upon sum; the rest goes to the agency.

Some interpreters try to get direct access to clients by passing out business cards. This may be seen as disloyal; however, if you work with an organization repeatedly and they like your work, they may start asking for you to interpret at their next event. Generally, professionalism speaks for itself and doesn't require you to do much persuading or marketing — once you are in the business to begin with.

Interpreting-specific skills


In addition to the basic requirements listed above, you'll need some specific professional skills that require special training. This training you can actually do on your own if you already have the mind and method of a translator, but many interpreters go to special institutes where they practice these skills in an organized fashion.

1. Channel separation

The first technical skill is "channel separation," or being able to listen and speak at the same time. Here's how I recommend training your mind for this:

  • - Practice shadowing a bit in your native language to prove that you're able ("shadowing" means listening to an audio recording — typically through headphones — while repeating everything out loud). Figure out the right balance between the volume of the recording and your own speaking volume. 
  • - Shadow in your foreign language. Start at half speed if necessary (many smartphone apps now have this feature built in). Work up to full speed. 
  • Practice shadowing until your endurance is at least 20-30 minutes (the typical shift of a conference interpreter who is working in a pair). 
All you've done so far is just repeat out loud without translating. But this ability is absolutely essential to simultaneous interpretation.

2. Rapid translation

Now for the translation part. How easily you are able to form accurate translations depends on how well-linked the source and output languages are in your mind. Many people are fluent in a foreign language, but are unable to interpret because they never spent much time thinking about equivalent words and expressions in their native tongue.

If you want to become a great translator or interpreter, you must spend LOTS of time with the dictionary. Make a habit of looking up things you don't know how to translate into the other language. Doing written translations is even better training.

To interpret, your recall needs to be very fast for standard words and expressions. Here's a sample list of things you should be able to translate without any hesitation:

to deprive someone of something
to make a decision about something
- to express your appreciate for something
- to blame someone for something
- to react effectively to an unexpected situation
- an unplanned event
- do something without telling others
- the meeting will take place tomorrow
- if we had known this earlier, we would have...
- they quit after several attempts 

You should also be able to go through this entire article and translate it aloud without any long pauses to figure out how to say something. That doesn't mean that you should immediately be able to come up with the best possible translation for every single word or phrase, but you should be able to get the meaning across without any long pauses.

Simultaneous interpreters often say things that sound a bit clumsy. Sometimes they make grammatical mistakes and stumble over words in their own native language. The better you get, the fewer such instances you will have. The most important thing is to convey information accurately. This is typically more important than grammar or pronunciation.

Next step: combine channel separation with rapid oral translation


Once you have adequate skills in each of these, you can combine the two and begin to practice simultaneous interpreting. There are a number of different ways to go about this.

Here is one highly effective protocol:

1. Download some text that you can imagine having to translate at an event.
2. Make an audio recording of you reading it aloud at a slow to normal pace.
3. Do your best to translate the text out loud without listening to the recording. Don't get caught up trying to produce a perfect translation.
4. With the text in front of you, translate it out loud while listening to the recording at the same time. Mark where you are in the text when the recording ends.
5. Keep repeating this exercise until you are able to finish the translation before the audio recording ends.
6. Now remove the text from sight and translate the audio recording.
7. Repeat until you feel you managed to convey the gist of each important statement.

You will need A LOT of practice of this type before you will have the confidence to interpret at any sort of serious event.

Stress


Interpreting can be very stressful. Members of the audience, and often the speakers themselves (during Q&A sessions), depend on your translation. That's a lot of pressure. Some people seem more cut out for it than others. Many interpreters show signs of significant stress, including various addictions, sleep problems, neuroses, etc. I don't know if it's any more than the general population, but it does seem to take its toll on a lot of people.

Some linguistically minded people enjoy translating but not interpreting, others enjoy both, and some enjoy interpreting but dislike translating.

But ultimately stress is linked to skill development, experience, and personal purpose. You are confident because you have good interpreting skills and you know what you're doing. You know what to expect, and you're sufficiently versed in the subject matter. You're there in the booth because you have a personal purpose to be there beyond simply making money.

Interpreters come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments, but if there is a universal trait that all good simultaneous interpreters have, it is intellectual curiosity and a love of learning.

Tips for working conference interpreters


  • - Create some sort of personal electronic glossary of terms and expressions. I organize mine by year and month, but others organize by alphabetical order or by subject matter.
  • - When your partner is interpreting, listen in and add all the terms you wouldn't be able to translate easily to your glossary. Look them up in the best online dictionaries.  
  • - As much as possible, take care of your Fitness before and during assignments. In other words, keep your mind and body functioning at the highest possible level. 
  • - For best results, you will need to divert as much attention as possible from visual input to audio input. Close your eyes if you have to strain to understand what's being said. Or stare at the speaker's mouth or something. Your eyes should probably not be darting around the room. 
  • - Pay attention to your breathing and posture. Sit in such a way that you can breathe with your stomach as well as your upper chest. When you are nervous, your breathing becomes shallow. Counteract this by sitting tall and breathing deeply.

My colleague plays simple games
on her smartphone while working...
Eventually interpreting "standard" topics and situations will become second nature, and you'll find you're able to do other things while interpreting!

Does our profession have a future?


I've been interpreting on and off for 20 years now (English/Russian) and on a regular basis for the past two years. Over the years the percentage of people in the audience wearing headphones has dropped markedly. Most people at international conferences now know English. Following trends, in 5 or 10 years there may be no one to interpret for at most English-language events in Eastern Europe and many other regions.

Add to this the fact that three technologies are now coming together to allow for primitive simultaneous interpreting in the not-too-distant future:

1. voice recognition and dictation software
2. machine translation (think Google Translate)
3. voice production

Machine translation was laughable 20 years ago. Today it's approaching the level of mediocre human translators for many language pairs. The same will occur with oral translation.

This means that there will eventually only be work for the best interpreters since machine interpretation will be cheaper and "good enough" for most purposes.

It is possible that software will do steps 1 and 2 and a human translator will read the translation aloud and make improvements to it on the fly.

It will be interesting to see how these technologies are applied in practice. It's possible that machine translation and simultaneous interpretation will become so good that there will be no compelling need for most people to learn foreign languages anymore. And people will channel their energy into other pursuits, like traveling to Papua New Guinea to hang out with the natives with the aid of their pocket smartphone interpreters...

More information

I wrote an article about simultaneous interpreting for my site TryUkraine.com.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the article! Great info. It would be nice if you added something about formal "qualifications" too. Are they required? Always? Rarely? For some jobs? Not at all?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the feedback, Jonathan! I just added sections on "formal requirements" and "Four tiers of interpreting jobs."

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    2. Nice! Thanks so much! Really helpful. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts about what you expect from employers, for example what is a "day" for you? Do you charge more for overtime? I understand in the beginning stages you can't be too picky, but at some point it would be useful. I'm in a slightly similar situation to you. Served a mission in Ukraine and have lived over 3 years in Eastern Europe. My wife and I are traveling the world now, but when we go back to Moscow, I'm thinking about trying to get into interpreting a bit.

      Jon

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.