I have been working in the language interpretation industry for more than 20 years now, and when I get asked the question “What do you do for a living?”, I sigh and prepare to attempt as short and concise an answer as humanly possible. However, this usually leads to the inevitable definition of what simultaneous interpretation is and how it works. I usually start with, “you know, like they use at the UN…”, but that is rarely sufficient for the curious mind.
The clinical definition
Language Interpretation, which is an easier-to-digest term for simultaneous interpretation, is the procedure by which people that speak different languages can communicate with each other with only momentary time delay, using professional interpreters and specialized equipment. The most common error in terminology is to refer to language interpretation as “translation”. Translation refers to the written word and is usually a literal translation (this word in this language means that word in that language). Language interpretation refers to the spoken word, and is easier described as “this is how we would communicate that message in our culture”, often using a completely different set of words.
The next question is inevitably “don’t they have computers that do that now?” The answer is no, they don’t. The nuances of culture and language are a bit too advanced for a pc to deal with at present. Language interpretation still requires first and foremost a human being that is very skilled in the language arts, called a simultaneous interpreter. These performers are able to listen to speech in one language, instantaneously convert it to another language (and culture) in their head, while carrying on the conversation in the second language. WHAT??? This is not as easy as it may sound and takes a highly trained individual to do this. Just being bi-lingual doesn’t cut it. Try repeating a news cast back to the TV, English to English, and don’t be surprised when you start tripping over your words after about five minutes.
Language Interpretation also requires specialized electronic equipment. A simultaneous interpretation system is actually a complex audio routing system designed specifically for this purpose. The audio needs to travel from the person speaking, in as pure a sound quality as is possible, to the interpreter, then back from the interpreter to those that want to understand the message in their own language.
Ok, so technically how does it work???
In simple terms, a person speaking in the original or floor language must be speaking into a microphone to capture their speech. The audio is routed to a sound-proof booth in which a pair of simultaneous interpreters are seated at interpreter consoles with a headphone and a microphone each. They will take turns performing the interpretation with only one of them ever “live on-air” at a time. The “live” interpreter listens to the floor audio from their headphone, and simultaneously interprets it into a second language and speaks that interpreted language into their microphone. This process is repeated for each required additional language. The next step is to distribute the interpreted languages back into the audience and allow each participant to choose which language they want to listen to. This is accomplished with either a wired listening station solution or a wireless transmitter/receiver solution. In both cases, a channel selector, volume control, and headphone are supplied to achieve this functionality. That completes the circuit and the result is almost-real-time multi-cultural communication that bridges language and cultural barriers.
Simple Language Interpretation Diagram