In the WHO’s ranking of the most stressful professions, conference interpreters ranked a nice third, just behind fighter pilots and air traffic controllers. No wonder. At any one time, interpreters have to be able to concentrate on several mentally demanding parallel processes: listening, thinking, translating, speaking, not to mention often trying to understand what they are actually hearing and saying. International conferences could not do without them.
A buffer against the proverbial Babylonian confusion of languages
The aim of interpreters is to ensure that conference participants understand each other, regardless of the language they speak. The speaker on stage usually speaks into a microphone in his or her own language, the audience wears headphones with wireless receivers and receives a translation of the message in a language they understand. And somewhere in the background, hidden (live) translators sit in glass booths and interpret.
Quality interpreting is seemingly invisible to conference participants. It should feel completely natural, no matter the time the listener puts on the headphones. Therefore, perfectly functioning technology and well-managed logistics on the part of the organisers are essential. A single malfunctioning microphone or an undisciplined speaker speaking without a microphone can cause dozens of listeners to miss their translation. The perfect interplay between interpreters and technological support is thus absolutely essential for the successful running of an interpreted conference.
Organisers should therefore take the time to prepare the facilities and carefully discuss all their requirements or at least ideas with an expert advisor from among experienced professional interpreters in advance.
How many languages are offered via the headphones?
There are several options for interpreting conference papers, speeches and subsequent discussions. The ideal solution – especially for larger events – is usually simultaneous interpreting, which saves time compared to consecutive interpreting and provides the audience with a more authentic experience, as they can follow the speaker with only a slight time delay.
There is also the question of whether there will be direct interpreting between all the languages, or whether, for example, speeches in the local language will be interpreted by one interpreter into English and from there into the other languages. Each option has its own benefits and pitfalls and each event might benefit from a different solution. It is also increasingly being discussed whether it would be appropriate to add a sign language interpreting option.
How are the interpreters going to handle it?
Many studies have shown that the quality of interpreting declines after 30 minutes, even for experienced professionals. Therefore, conference organisers should plan for at least two interpreters to interpret each of the selected languages, who will alternate at shorter intervals and can assist each other with notes or monitoring and solving more difficult situations. Sports commentators of live TV broadcasts also work in pairs. An interpreting team that is able to accommodate each other and knows how to distribute its forces is a great advantage.
Comprehensive interpreting services are always tailored to the specific event. The price for interpreting depends on the specific requirements. It is not only possible to include the hourly rate of interpreters for the time they spend interpreting, but it is also necessary to take into account the complexity of their preparation and, for example, to provide quality facilities for their rest.
An in-ear device is no substitute for an interpreter
So is there a different way to go about it? Without live interpreters? Technological advances are staying idle and they are increasingly marketing a new type of digital device. A digital interpreter or voice translator is remotely similar to a dictaphone, usually connected to a wireless headset or designed as a headset connected to a mobile phone app. The instant pocket translator, which enables real-time simultaneous interpreting of live recorded speech into another language, is of course a user-friendly innovation.
However, it is still a device more suitable for informal and individual use in situations where a basic understanding of speech is sufficient and higher accuracy of interpreting is not required. Like when going shopping after the main conference event. Even the most advanced digital devices are not able to replace the demanding services of professional interpreters. They are here to stay for many a year to come.