Consecutive vs. Simultaneous Interpreting: What’s the Difference?
Linguists rejoiced at the trailer for The Covenant when it stated what many of us have been grumbling about under our breath for decades.
If you’re curious about why the distinction matters, check out our article on the difference between translation and interpreting. To summarize, translation is written and interpreting is spoken.
Knowing that is a great start, but there’s still more to interpreting than meets the eye (or ear). Interpreting is generally performed in one of two ways: consecutive or simultaneous. And to determine which one you need – as with all things language – context is key. This article will dig deeper into the difference between consecutive and simultaneous interpreting and when to employ each method.
What is Consecutive Interpreting?
If you’re looking for a definition of consecutive interpreting, the name says it all: interpreting done consecutively (after a speaker has finished talking). As such, it’s usually used for scenarios in which each utterance is short, but can extend to speeches of around ten minutes. Some situations where consecutive interpreting might occur include:
- medical appointments
- legal proceedings
- business or diplomatic meetings
Consecutive interpretation requires an excellent memory and note-taking skills on top of a comprehensive vocabulary. Interpreters’ notes use a system of symbols representing common ideas (e.g., a pitchfork might represent agriculture). If you’d like an example, this video demonstrates one interpreter’s note-taking system for a 14-minute speech.
Every consecutive interpreter uses their own symbols. The goal is not a word-for-word recap (especially since the interpreter will have to use different words), but rather a memory aid. They help interpreters remember the speech they’ve just heard in order to present it in the target language. But what if a speech is too long to simply remember?
What is Simultaneous Interpreting?
As the name suggests, simultaneous interpreting is interpreting done simultaneously (at the same time as another speaker). Because it relies less on memory, it’s used for longer speeches, though interpreters generally swap out with a partner every 30 minutes or so. This interpreting mode is used in places like:
- the UN, European Parliament, or other diplomatic bodies
- press conferences
- live performances and concerts, where ASL interpreters expand access to those with hearing impairments
The pandemic has also popularized the use of remote simultaneous interpreting for things like online meetings.
This practice often relies on simultaneous interpreting equipment. The interpreter listens to the speaker through headphones and interprets the speech into a microphone for their listeners. They’ll still have a notebook handy to accurately recall statistics, dates/years, and the names of organizations or people. For things like Zoom simultaneous interpreting, their equipment also includes a computer and solid internet connection.
What makes simultaneous interpreting really tricky is having to listen and talk at the same time. This depends on finding the right ear-voice span, or the gap between when a speaker and interpreter each start talking, which can vary by language pair. Too long, and the interpreter will forget what was said. Too short, and they risk mimicking the source language grammar or tripping up over false cognates. For example, the Spanish word compromiso most often translates to commitment, not compromise. It takes a trained, professional interpreter to catch that distinction and accurately interpret it in real time.
How Consecutive and Simultaneous Interpreters Work
Interpreters often work in one or more fields (e.g., legal or medical), so they already have extensive knowledge of their specialization. On top of that, if they know the topic of the event they’re interpreting for, they’ll do additional research and come up with a set of specific symbols for that subject.
While interpreting, it’s all about active listening. Interpreters have to focus on the concepts being discussed rather than the words being spoken. They then have to reflect the tone of the original speaker and accurately convey their meaning. If you want to see interpreting in action, Wired has a great video on interpreting that demonstrates how hard interpreters work and their importance in multilingual communication.
Finding a Consecutive or Simultaneous Interpreter
Now that you know how and where consecutive vs. simultaneous interpreters work, you’re ready to find an interpreter to get your message across. If you need a place to start, the ATA’s Language Services Directory allows you to select an interpreting mode – consecutive or simultaneous – so you can hire the right professional interpreter for your needs.
About the Author
Olivia C. Caputo is a Spanish to English audiovisual translator. She works primarily in subtitling and multimedia accessibility, English copy editing for brands and marketing, and some literary translation on the side. She is also an active volunteer for the American Translators Association. The American Translators Association represents almost 9,000 translators and interpreters in more than 100 countries. To hire a translation or interpreting professional, please visit www.atanet.org/directory.