Navigating art of simultaneous interpretating

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-02-06

A simultaneous interpretation booth Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

The interpreter’s role encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, serving both the speakers and the listeners. The interpreter acts as a facilitator of communication, employing skills akin to those of a negotiator, debater, and public speaker in order to accurately convey the message of the source speaker.

Interpreter’s role

The easiest way to understand an interpreter’s role is to think of what would happen without interpretation in the European Parliament. We have a diverse continent with many languages, cultures, and different ways of approaching negotiation and debating. We are united in diversity. Many Europeans can conduct business in a foreign language. But whenever there’s a danger of a language barrier, that’s where we step in. Our role is not so visible. And what we do is smoothly avoid these obstacles to diplomacy and democracy by allowing multilingualism to happen almost as a matter of course, so that people can speak spontaneously in the language which they are most comfortable speaking in, and interact with others on a deep level. If that happens, then people are focused on the content. Because communication is happening, nobody is thinking about a language barrier. And if nobody is aware of a language barrier, then I think we can say that we have played a role.

Principles of interpreting

We have to analyze not only what somebody is saying, but why and how they’re saying it. We also need to assess the impact on the listener. If a politician is highly persuasive in her or his native language, how can we ensure this persuasiveness extends to the target language audience?

If you want to connect with the rest of the world, being an interpreter is an admirable aim and an investment that can pay off. But I wouldn’t underestimate the extent to which you need the empathy and the emotional intelligence to put yourself in other people’s positions. How does my listener perceive me? That would be the key question the interpreter of the future should ask.


When I was growing up, I would sometimes hear my parents disagreeing and Mum would say “But you know when I say X, I actually mean Y!” Dad would reply “Well, if you mean Y, why don’t you just say Y? Why do you make me guess what you are trying to say?”

These fundamentally different ways of approaching communication often resulted in confusion. I witnessed that the perception of one’s own message is not necessarily what other people receive. That is why developing empathy and emotional intelligence, so that you can understand how what you say is perceived by others, is vital to all communicators.

Public speakers will often start with that trick of “I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, how is he going to give me advice on this topic?” or whatever. You can try to engage with your audience’s assumptions. In fact, anything you can do to put yourself in the listener’s position will help. In more practical terms, be your own audience. As a writer and performer in the theatre, I would go into a theatre, sit at the back, be an audience member, and analyze how the people on stage were achieving their effects on the audience- not just as an abstract exercise, but by physically being in that audience I could transform my perception.

We can apply this approach to interpretation too, through the customer. A recipient of interpretation is not typically listening to the source language and making comparisons, rather is actively, rigorously, and analytically engaging with the interpreted version. How does the interpreter achieve an act of communication directly to this listener, without interference from the source language? If you can physically engage with the process, and take a turn playing the role of customer, you will improve your ability to communicate.

Miscommunication, misunderstanding, and those moments when you think “I’m not quite getting this” are just as instructive as successful moments of communication, and don’t forget- they occur within one language too, as my parents discovered! So this analysis can tell us a lot of things.

Techniques for interpreters

Firstly, treat your source language like you are a detective, even if it is your mother tongue. For a Chinese “A” interpreter, this would mean you should listen to the Chinese source as a detective, not as a fellow speaker of Chinese. There is a common assumption that when it is your mother tongue, you must automatically understand it. In fact, as in all interpreting, we should give some thought to what somebody really means, rather than just focusing on what they are saying. You also can’t afford to start evaluating the speaker’s Chinese, and reflecting “I wouldn’t have said it like that,” while your English listener is waiting for an intelligent, comprehensible message!

This happens a lot with European interpreters too. We will get frustrated with speakers who we feel are, for example, not getting to the point. This is psychologically quite natural, because as interpreters, we are trained to get to the point. We analyse, we have an idea, and we express it. So, when somebody fails to express an idea immediately and directly, that runs counter to our instincts. What we have to do is take a step back and remember: we are detectives. We are tracking down the ideas and what somebody means; we are tracking down their intention.

Secondly, I find systematic reformulation helpful. While source language formulations may have direct equivalents in the target language, there is a risk of closely following the original structure. It can lead to interpretations which are nonsensical, incomprehensible- completely baffling to anyone who does not understand the source language. So, what I like to advocate is a much clearer, rather brutal technique, which is reformulation. For example, I teach beginner simultaneous interpreters: “Don’t say the first thing you hear- say the second thing!”, regardless of the language pair. If you immediately say the first thing you hear, you are trapped in a structure which has been decided by the source speaker and defined by the source language. It may work. Sometimes beginner interpreters land on their feet like that. But there are huge dangers when it goes wrong. It sometimes goes very wrong, and you end up saying something incomprehensible. So, the defence mechanism is to start with the second thing you hear. In consecutive interpretation, we have freedom to deliver our own structure. In simultaneous, we can keep some control by keeping back the first element, building something with the second element, and then working the first element back in. While this may not always align with the most natural way of interpreting in every language pair, and can be replaced by more sophisticated techniqures later, it forces you to be creative as a beginner. It forces you to forge a structure in the target language on the basis of the idea you have understood.

Thirdly, it is important to figure out who does what, which is not always explicit. For example, if a French speaker answers a question with “Un préavis favorable, mais besoin d’une réflexion ultérieure,” if you translate it literally into: “A favourable prior opinion, but a need for further reflection,” it is comprehensible, but the English listener has to do a bit of work to decide who does what, who has the opinion, and who needs to do the reflection. In context, a French-to-English interpreter may infer the meaning as “I think that sounds good, but I need to think it over.” The “but” remains, but now we have active, personalised verbs.

Another example is “family planning.” The concepts of “family” and “planning” can each be translated perfectly easily and correctly between Chinese and English, but in context, we need to know who does what. I heard a Chinese colleague use the phrase in the context of government policy, such as the “one child policy.” But in my culture, Family Planning is a synonym for reproductive health services i.e. couple’s choices about contraception. Individuals perform the action rather than the government- and that is contained within an abstract noun. Everything is inferred. The planning is still planning, and the family is still a family. These are universal. But what we really mean is dependent on other factors (the speaker, like my Mum, expects the listener to know that “When I say X, of course I mean Y!”). Therefore, for all interpreters, I would advocate thinking about the broader context of communication.


Matthew Perret is a conference interpreter at the European Parliament.

Editor:Yu Hui

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