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When to use consecutive or simultaneous interpretation?

Updated: Jun 21

As any trained french interpreter, I have several interpretation techniques up my sleeve: simultaneous, consecutive, whispered, relay, liaison...

It isn't unusual for meetings and conference organisers to chose the wrong mode, but it isn't always practical to change it at the last minute because, among other reasons, they don't use the same technology.

To help you book the right interpretation service and avoid wasting time and money on the wrong service, I explain the pros and cons of the two main options.

Simultaneous french interpreter
Should you choose simultaneous or consecutive interpreting ?

What is consecutive interpreting ?

Consecutive interpreting requires for the speakers to pause after a few sentences to allow the interpreter to translate what they said for the benefit of the other language speakers. The interpreter will then either indicate that the original speaker can continue, or wait for the other participant's response and translate that back.

What is simultaneous interpreting ?

Simultaneous interpreting involves using technology to allow the interpreter to listen to the source language (directly in their ears) and to talk into the other language participants' ears. It provides a much smoother multilingual experience, because the listeners don't have to sit through the speech in its original language, they can't just chose a "channel" and listen to the language of their choice with a very short delay.

Pros and cons of consecutive interpreting

  • Sligthly cheaper: you only use one interpreter to talk back and fourth, so your hourly cost will be divided by two, but...

  • Time consuming: effectively, everything is being said twice, so you'll need to double the time allocated to the meeting or presentation. Which makes the above a false economy.

  • No specialist technology required: you can simply involve the interpreter in your meeting just like any other participant, be it online or in person.

Pros and cons of simultaneous interpreting

  • Two interpreters needed: simultaneous interpreting is a cognitively intense task, and interpreters need to work in pairs so they can share the load. The cost will instantly look doubled... but your meeting will be kept at its natural duration.

  • Smoother experience: your participants won't have to listen to the original presentation (which they don't understand anyway), they can simply listen to the language of their choice.

  • Requires interpreting equipement: this can either be an interpreter's booth (can be temporarily installed, or may be available already if you're hiring an auditorium), portable equipement (known as a "bidule", which is made of earpieces for the listeners and a headset with microphone for the presenters and the interpreters), or an online interface such as Zoom with interpretation.

In what settings should consecutive interpreting be used?

Consecutive interpreting is a good option if technology isn't practical. In particular, it will be the preferred choice for short meetings and group conversations where everyone is expected to contribute. It is also the main interpreting mode of public services such as social services, health services or court rooms because the use of interpreting technology wouldn't be practical.

In what settings should simultaneous interpreting be used?

Simultaneous interpreting is ideal for conferences and high level meetings where one person is expected to address a larger group of overseas attendees. It works well online and in auditoriums equipped with interpreters' booths (or where temporary booths have been installed), but it can also be done via portable equipement or by whispering in one person's ear (the preferred option in court rooms and governement meetings).

Generally, simultaneous interpreting (or its close relative, whispered interpreting) is under-used. Technology to facilitate simultaneous online interpreting is now broadly available, and portable equipment can also be hired to provide a much smoother experience during multilingual guided tours, workshops, seminars and training sessions. I have even been known to switch to simultaneous during social services or HR meetings if I sit close enough to the french speaker - they normally find the experience much more fluid than having to wait for me to translate my notes!

Feel free to get in touch (or see my contact details below) to discuss your needs and I'll happily help you determine the best interpretation mode for you situation.

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