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Translation mistakes during simultaneous interpretation

simultaneous interpretation

During simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter translates the speaker’s words in real-time, with very little lag. Unlike consecutive interpreters, who take turns with the speaker, simultaneous interpreters talk at the same time as the speaker. This type of interpretation is mostly used in courtrooms and conferences.

Simultaneous translators have to rely on their short-term memory and think fast on their feet, multitasking the whole time. It’s a complex skill that requires both talent and extensive training. What makes it delicate is that for such a demanding task, there’s very little room for error, especially for high-stakes situations like political negotiations. From choosing expert simultaneous translators to speaking clearly, here’s how you can avoid mistakes,


Look at Skill and Credentials

One common mistake is asking someone who’s bilingual to act as an interpreter. This can lead to embarrassing and even disastrous situations! Interpreters aren’t just bilingual, after all. They’re language experts who are equipped with formal training, whether through a degree or a certification program, as well as several years of experience.

Before deciding on a simultaneous interpreter, conduct an interview to assess your candidate’s expertise, both in the language to be interpreted and the subject matter. For example, an interpreter may be extremely skilled in French, but they’ll have a hard time unpacking engineering jargon if it’s not their specialization.

Work with Several Interpreters

Simultaneous interpretation is demanding and even draining. Even the most seasoned interpreter can only do it continuously for around 20-30 minutes, as opposed to consecutive interpretation where interpreters can focus for as much as 2 hours. Given the high-pressure environment, mental fatigue quickly sets in, and a worn out interpreter may start omitting important sentences or even misunderstanding words.

It’s best to have at least two interpreters around, depending on the scope and duration of the project—in fact, some organizations hire an entire team. This way, interpreters can take turns resting without disrupting the discussion flow. However, if you only have one interpreter, the best remaining option is to schedule regular breaks.

Give a Detailed Briefing

Whatever the skill level of a simultaneous interpreter, they will need some background information about the event. Always schedule a briefing some time before when you explain the details, including the general topic and copies of presentation slides, or supporting documents in advance. For technical, information-heavy discussions, you can distribute a glossary of terms.

Apart from the content, you might want to bring up sensitive points, such as cultural differences or tricky issues, so they can adjust their tone when interpreting. On the day itself, be prepared by bringing extra copies of the materials in case the interpreters forget to bring them or they’re replaced by somebody else because of an emergency.


Allow for Preparation Time

Aside from doing a detailed briefing, giving simultaneous interpreters plenty of time to prepare is also essential. Do your best to hire interpreters early and provide them with information at least a few weeks before.

During this time, interpreters will study your materials and the topic as much as they can, looking at culture, linguistic nuances, and recent news. Although they’re already knowledgeable about the language, interpreters may have to learn hundreds of new words with each project! After all, language evolves, especially when it comes to slang and colloquial phrases. Continuous learning is part of any interpreter’s job, and the better prepared your interpreter is, the better the results.


Speak Clearly

Speakers should go through their own briefing, when they’ll be informed about the interpretation process. Because the interpretation is based on what the speaker is actually saying, speakers should make an effort to talk more slowly and enunciate words clearly rather than mumbling. Interpreters should be able to hear the speakers very well.

The speaking speed is also important because interpreters need as much time as they can get to digest what’s being said. If the speaker is too fast, interpreters may get stressed and overwhelmed. Speakers don’t have to speak unusually slowly, but it would be helpful for them to pause every now and then so the interpreter can catch up.


Avoid Word Play

Humor is a great way to connect to an audience, but it’s harder to execute when interpretation as involved. As tempting as it may be, speakers should minimize puns and metaphors. Wordplay rarely survives when translated, and a joke may fall flat, be nonsensical, or even be considered offensive. If you’re going to tell a joke, rehearse it beforehand with your interpreter.

Language should also be kept simple. Acronyms, slangs, and insider jargon might not work very well. If your interpreter doesn’t understand these, then the audience definitely won’t. Instead of resorting to acronyms, it’s better to explain concisely and use proper, complete words.

Simultaneous interpretation is definitely more challenging than consecutive interpretation. It may be easier to make mistakes throughout the whole process, but preparation is key. By following the steps above, you can ensure clear communication and successful results.

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