Conference interpretation is the interpretation of spoken contributions to a conference from one language to another. For obvious reasons, it is most often carried out at international conferences. It is to be distinguished from translation, which deals with written texts, and from other forms of interpretation, which deal with spoken language in other contexts.

There have been interpreters for as long as there have been people with different languages who want to talk to each other. Interpreting is therefore sometimes referred to as 'the second oldest profession.' Conference interpreters worked for the League of Nations and the International Labour Office between the First and Second World Wars, but the modern profession of conference interpretation is generally considered to date back to the Nuremberg trials, which were the first occasion on which simultaneous interpretation was used on a large scale. Proceedings in the Nuremberg court were held in English, French, Russian and German. Consecutive interpretation of everything said in one language into the other three would have taken a prohibitively long time, so the interpreters for the different languages were placed in separate booths with headphones for the incoming sound and microphones to pick up the interpretation, which could then be heard on different channels through headphones in the courtroom.

The growth of multilateral/multilingual institutions such as the United Nations and the European Communities led to an increase for demand for interpretation and consolidated the dominance of the simultaneous mode after the war.

The essential skills needed for both consecutive and simultaneous interpretation are the same: the ability to grasp the points and arguments that a speaker is presenting after hearing them once, and to reproduce them clearly and immediately. This requires analytical thought, concentration, and articulacy. The difference between consecutive and simultaneous interpretation is to be found in the nature of the 'immediacy' required: in consecutive interpretation interpreters take notes during a speaker's contribution and give the interpretation immediately afterwards, while in simultaneous interpretation they interpret while the speaker is still talking, listening to what they are saying now while saying what has just been said. This gives rise to the question most frequently asked of interpreters, which to an interpreter is the equivalent of 'where do you get your ideas' to a writer:

How do you manage to speak and listen at the same time?

…to which there are various unhelpful answers, such as:

The real answer, if it is one, is that people very often do more than one thing at once: drive and talk, listen to a lecture and take notes, draw a picture while whistling, and so on. The difference is that speaking and listening at the same time would not be very useful under most circumstances, so people are not used to doing it or to seeing or hearing it done.

When addressing the 'essential skills' of an interpreter above, I did not mention the interpreter's linguistic skills. This is because interpretation is not essentially a linguistic discipline. People with an aptitude for languages are not necessarily good interpreters, and as long as an interpreter understands the source language thoroughly and can express themselves well in the target language it is irrelevant how easy or difficult they found it to learn the languages in the first place. Interpretation is useful because the source and target languages are different, but the process is analytical rather than linguistic, involving transmission of ideas rather than translation of words. Thus, while an accurate translation of an English text into English would simply be a copy of the original, it is theoretically possible to interpret from English into English, as in the following example:

Hello everyone, sorry I'm late. There was an escaped jaguar on the line and my train was half an hour late getting into town. Then the taxi got stuck in a jam. Still, I think we should be able to finish all our business by lunchtime. Do you all agree with the agenda as it stands?Morning, everyone, apologies for the delay. An escaped jaguar held my train up for half an hour, and then my taxi got bogged down in the traffic. But we still ought to be able to wind this meeting up before lunch. Any comments on the agenda?

Of course, although it is not unknown (although not exactly common) for a tired interpreter to fail to notice what language a speaker is using and to interpret their comments into the same language, this is more likely to happen at the end of the day. Unless it was a really good party.

There are two main reasons for the difference between a good interpretation and a verbatim translation: the first is that usually such a translation is not possible in the time available. The second is that if despite this the interpreter tries to produce a spoken translation the result is unlikely to be very good: there is a very great risk that the constructions and vocabulary of the source language still ringing in their ears will affect and contaminate their use of the target language. The response to this risk is to say what the speaker has said in your own words. The further these words are from the original words, the better.

There are several thousand professional conference interpreters in the world today. Several hundred are full-time employees of international organisations, the largest number at the European Union and the United Nations. The rest are freelancers. Freelance interpreters work for the European and international organisations when they need more or different interpreters than they have on the staff, at political, economic, scientific and technical conferences, for NGOs, at intergovernmental conferences, in international tribunals, and so on.

For those of us who value variety over security, the life of a freelance interpreter is preferable to that of a staff interpreter. The subject matter covered in a single organisation tends to repeat after a while. Freelancers must be able to read their way into a new field and sound like an expert very quickly. This should not be confused with being an expert: there is a big difference between being able to follow and reproduce an argument and and being able to construct it. Nonetheless, an interpreter who wants to ends up learning a lot about things that might otherwise not have awoken their interest. As also about things that do not.

The languages required of an interpreter vary in function of the market being served. The European Union Institutions want as many passive languages as possible to be interpreted into the interpreter's native language. To serve national markets for interpretation at technical and business conferences it is often useful to be able to interpret in both directions, into and out of the local language and one other, usually English. Given the difficulty of learning to speak a foreign language well enough to interpret into it professionally, interpreters with a second active language tend to have fewer passive languages.

Given the demands of the level of concentration required for simultaneous interpretation, at least two interpreters work in each booth (i.e. into each language), so that they can take turns and get some rest. Working alone is regarded as unprofessional, although an exception is made for very short meetings. At meetings where large numbers of languages (more than six or seven) are spoken there should usually be three people per booth to cover the languages adequately or to make up for the extra stress of working on relay (from an interpretation from another booth) if this is not possible.

Another option for covering a large number of languages is to have every booth work into and out of one single relay language. This was the system used in the Soviet Union, with the relay language used being Russian. It gives a lower quality result and puts the one language which is always directly interpreted in a privileged position.

As the English language appears to become ever more firmly entrenched as a medium of international communication, there are some question marks over the future of the profession. On the one hand, communication is usually better served by people speaking their own languages and making use of high-quality professional interpreting services. On the other hand, those services do not come cheap, and it is tempting to try to do without them. On the third hand, an international conference is an expensive affair even without interpreters. If the organisers take care to hire people who are good at their job, the slight extra expense is justified by the gain in the quality of communication.

More information available from the International Association of Conference Interpreters

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