Simultaneous vs. Consecutive Interpreting: Pros and Cons

April 15, 2014

ConferenceTopping the list of the world’s most stressful jobs, the work of an interpreter could determine the outcome of international peace treaties or multimillion dollar deals. Whether interpreting simultaneously, as the lecturer speaks, or consecutively, after a whole thought is uttered, the interpreter is usually under a lot of pressure to transmit a message quickly and accurately. Many language service providers can put you in contact with trained professional interpreters but the choice between simultaneous or consecutive interpreting will depend on your specific needs. To help with this decision we’ve compiled a list of pros and cons for each type of interpretation.

Simultaneous Interpretation

In simultaneous interpretation the interpreter is expected to translate the speaker’s words immediately after they are uttered. The interpreter receives the message in a soundproof booth and then transmits this message in another language to audience members via headsets. The interpreter translates the speaker’s words while new information is coming to them at the same time. This taxing mental activity requires highly trained professionals. Simultaneous interpreting is usually done in pairs of two because the mental energy needed demands frequent pauses.

Pros

  • Speed – no time is wasted between speaking and interpreting so a translated speech lasts only as long as a monolingual speech would.
  • Fluidity – no interruptions in the flow of speech makes for a more fluid presentation that may be easier to follow.
  • Multilingual Audience – one presentation may be transmitted in multiple languages at once and the audience members may choose the language they want to listen to.
  • Need to know basis – ideal for large meetings or conferences in which the majority of listeners understand the language being used by the presenter. Only the listeners that need the speech translated will tune in to the interpretation and the rest of the audience is free to listen without interruption.

Cons

  • High cost – Two interpreters per language pair plus an investment in high tech sound equipment means a greater expense which is probably only feasible for very large international conferences.
  • Awkwardness of expression – the simultaneous interpreter must begin translating a sentence before hearing the end of the idea that is being expressed. They must work very quickly, with no time to search their memory for a word that fits perfectly into the target language sentence. This means that false cognates and awkward constructions are more common in simultaneous interpreting.
  • Lack of connection – since simultaneous interpreters work from a soundproof booth, they are cut off from any cues from the audience or speaker that could help them adjust their delivery. They are also unable to ask the speaker to repeat a term or clarify ambiguities.

Consecutive Interpretation

In consecutive interpretation the speaker must stop at regular intervals so that the interpreter may translate for the audience. Professional consecutive interpreters should be able to work from memory to render up to 5 minutes of speech. Crucial to the consecutive interpreter’s success are frequent pauses by the presenter, after each complete thought.

Pros

  • Cost-effective – One interpreter may be used to communicate back and forth between two sides and no equipment is necessary for consecutive interpreting, bringing costs down considerably.
  • Think time – listeners have more time to absorb the information being presented. This is particularly useful for sensitive negotiation situations where processing time is essential.
  • Personal connection – many people see a trusted interpreter as their linguistic ally and the personal contact afforded by consecutive interpreting is especially important in situations that require delicacy or diplomacy.
  • Thought wholeness – since the interpreter translates only after the speaker has finished a complete thought, messages are clearer, more natural, and easier for the audience to follow.

Cons

  • Time consuming – the time needed to translate after each idea means a presentation will take twice as long as it would otherwise.
  • Language limit – consecutive interpreting would not be ideal in situations involving communication between more than two languages due to the extensive time it would require.
  • Choppy presentations – the constant starts and stops of consecutive interpretation can hinder fluid comprehension of the information being transmitted.

From a huge conference to a one on one negotiation, any time ideas need to be exchanged across language barriers an interpreter should be on hand to make sure all parties are able to comprehend and communicate. Both forms of interpretation have their own merit and the choice of one over the other will depend on the specific situation. Simultaneous interpretation is probably best employed in large, multilingual settings, while consecutive interpreting is most successful in smaller, more personal meetings or negotiations. Whichever type of interpretation you choose, be sure to select a trained professional to take on this extremely challenging task.

If you would like additional information on this topic or have questions on planning and executing your next translation or multilingual initiative, contact us today for a free 30-minute consultation or call us at (800) 413-7838.

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