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Companies with fledgling export departments may, understandably, have very limited experience of the languages industry. This basic guide to interpreting provides an overview of the difference between translation and interpreting, and looks briefly at the different types of interpreter which they commercial organisations may need to call upon for conferences, foreign visits and meetings.

Interpreting the differences

There is a tendency for people who aren't involved in the language industry to use the terms "interpreting" and "translating" as if the two were one and the same thing, and yet there is a very fundamental difference which divides these two linguistic disciplines. Granted both are processes whereby one language is transferred into another, and both require a high degree of understanding in the two languages in question. However, interpreting involves the spoken word and is thus a faster and more immediate transfer process whilst translation describes the written process of transferring one language into another, usually entailing a slower and more considered approach.

Horses for courses

Interpreters can provide a valuable service in a wide variety of different situations, such as:

• international conferences and meetings;
• visits by foreign delegations involved in trade and industry;
• court cases where the defendant or a witness doesn't speak the language of the court;
• hospital appointments where patient and doctor speak different languages
• tours for business and/or pleasure

Each interpreter will have areas in which he or she feels particularly at home, and when a new subject area is being tackled, considerable amounts of prior research are often required on the interpreter's part.

Simultaneous or conference interpreting: the voices in your headset

Perhaps the best known form of interpreting is "conference" or "simultaneous" interpreting. Often cameras covering a political summit for television pan round the conference hall and catch a glimpse of the earnest interpreters in their cell-like booths, or focus on delegates adjusting their headset so that they can listen to their own language version of the speech being given. Conference interpreting is a highly demanding activity, requiring intense concentration, almost bilingual fluency in the source and target language, plus an articulate speaking voice. Sometimes interpreters are fortunate enough to be given a copy of the speaker's speech in advance, so that precious minutes can be spent identifying any particularly problematic sentences, phrases or terminology before the speech begins. In other cases, the interpreter doesn't know precisely what the speaker is about to say, which obviously makes the job somewhat more challenging.

So what is it like to be a simultaneous interpreter? Well, next time you're listening to the news on the TV or radio, wait until the announcer has said five or six words and then start repeating every word he says, whilst still continuing to listen to what he's saying i.e. you should be repeating the speech word for word, but several seconds behind the original speaker. Then imagine that you're not simply repeating what the speaker on TV or radio is saying, but that somewhere in between a lightning-fast cerebral operation has to take place in order to convert the source language into the target language (often the interpreter's mother tongue). With German, this can be particularly challenging in that you often don't discover until the end of the sentence which verb the speaker has used ' and, even worse, whether the verb is in the affirmative or the negative! In such cases, the interpreter is often obliged to make an "educated guess" at what the verb is likely to be and whether it's likely to be prefaced with "not". As you might imagine, this leaves a certain margin for error, since if the interpreter has not followed the speaker's train of thought correctly, sometimes he or she might have to add in a quick "aside" to rectify what they've just said.

Ad hoc or liaison interpreting: telling both sides of the story

Liaison interpreting, as the name suggests, involves passing information to and fro between two or more delegates. This format is used for smaller meetings and discussion groups, with perhaps a dozen or so people around a table and the ad hoc interpreter acting as a linguistic go-between. The segments of speech being interpreted are not generally too long ' often just a few sentences at a time, and the ad hoc interpreter ' unlike the simultaneous interpreter ' does have the option of asking the speaker to repeat or elaborate upon what he or she has just said. So, for example, at a meeting between representatives of British and French sister companies, the Chairman might open the meeting in English and make a few introductory remarks. The ad hoc interpreter would then repeat these remarks in French for the benefit of the French attendees. Then one of the French delegates might respond, thanking the British counterparts for their hospitality etc. and emphasizing the most important aspect of the impending discussions from their perspective. The ad hoc interpreter would then render these French remarks into English for the benefit of the English native speakers present, and so the process would continue, to and fro for the duration of the meeting.

Whisper interpreting: not just for the Chinese!

At smaller meetings where there may be delegates present from two or more countries, "whisper" interpreting is sometimes used in order to avoid a meeting becoming protracted (thanks to each remark made being interpreted into several languages in turn!). This involves a multi-lingual interpreter sitting between two (or three) delegates round the table and literally whispering to them what each speaker is saying as the meeting proceeds.

Consecutive interpreting: how fast is your shorthand?

Good note-taking is the key to good consecutive interpreting, as here the interpreter often has to note down the contents of an entire speech, then stand up and deliver the same speech "consecutively" (hence the name) in the target language. This system can be used where booths and simultaneous facilities are not available and avoids a speech being interrupted every few sentences as would be necessary if the speech were interpreted bit by bit. Note-taking systems used by consecutive interpreters are many and varied ' some use short-hand, some rely on symbols and others use a combination of both. For example, the symbol for a country is a small square, the symbol for world is a small square in a circle etc. Obviously it's not possible to have a symbol for every single word or concept, so abbreviated words are also used. The advantage of using as many symbols as possible, apart from the fact that they're quicker to write down, is that it avoids the interpreter being "tied" mentally to a particular word in the source language and thus removes one of the mental processes which has to take place when one language is being interpreting into another.

© Karen Elwis


Translation services - Lingo24 is a leading provider of translation services between all major world languages.
Based in the UK, the company also has full-time operations
in China, Romania and New Zealand.

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