Everything you need to know about conference interpreting

Conference interpreting is for many people an intriguing profession. What exactly does it involve? Find out what this profession is really about.

Simultaneous interpretation is for many people an intriguing profession. What exactly does this involve? What role do conference interpreters play? What skills are required to become an interpreter? Let’s look at a few key aspects that characterise the profession.

Interpreting or translation services?

First, it’s necessary to establish the difference between conference interpretation and translation. Interpreters are often erroneously called “translators”, because the distinction between these two disciplines is confusing for many people. However, interpreting is very different from translation.

Interpreting is strictly limited to oral communications, while translating focuses exclusively on written texts. Furthermore, the time constraints and output levels involved in both disciplines are diametrically opposed. In fact, the conference interpreter does not have access to the equipment and sources which the translator uses to work with. Thus, the conference interpreter needs to prepare very carefully before each job. They have to work at a highly intense and demanding rate in order to transmit information. For example, a translator can generally translate between 2,000 and 3,000 words a day, while the interpreter is obliged to follow a rate of 150 words per minute.

What is conference interpreting?

In brief, conference interpreting means orally passing a message from one language into another. The particular usefulness of interpretation lies in the fact that while speakers best express themselves in their native language, their audience prefers to listen to them in the nuances of their own language.

Active and passive languages

Another important point which often leads to confusion is the fact that being an interpreter does not mean being bilingual. In interpreting jargon, languages can be either “active” or “passive”. The active language is one that the interpreter speaks while the passive language is one that the interpreter understands. In other words, the interpreter works from a passive language, which he or she fully understands and speaks to some extent, into an active language which he or she speaks perfectly.

The skills required

Besides being good at languages, an interpreter must be intellectually agile, responsive and, above all, have an excellent standard of general knowledge. This is not about specialising in one area or another, but about being a specialist in all fields. The conference interpreter should be hungry for knowledge and interested in everything.

The advantages and risks of the profession

For adventure lovers, this profession is full of surprises, travel and discovery. Here, there is no room for routine! The topics covered are varied: from milk quotas to the claims of trade union delegates, passing through customs tariffs. Interpreters touch on all kinds of issues and are constantly learning more about everything. However, we must not forget that interpreters are there to repeat the words other people say. They must be discreet and never voice their opinion. They regularly work in difficult conditions and are under severe pressure.

A magical profession

In an increasingly international level world, interpretation is undoubtedly one of the jobs of the future. Globalisation is slowly pushing back national frontiers and increasingly people of different languages and cultures need to meet to talk, discuss and negotiate. The interpreter, as an intermediary, is key to these exchanges. These guardian angels of multilingual communication spend most of the time sitting in the shadows, yet they are an unavoidable link in the chain of international relations.

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This article has been written by Lola

Lola studied Translation and Interpreting at University of Liège (Belgium). She currently lives in Buenos Aires and works at Cultures Connection.