As a conference interpreter with over 15 years of international interpreting experience, I’ve travelled across continents providing interpreting services for projects of organizations such as the United Nations, European Union, Cities, Presidents of nations, multinationals such as Philips, Bridgestone, Hero, Pringles and many more and television shows. I always get questions about how we listen and talk at the same time during an interpreting assignment and how it’s possible to memorize so many words that go back and forth simultaneously. Also they ask me often what an interpreter does when he/ she doesn’t understand what’s being said or what happens when you make a mistake as an interpreter during an assignment.
First, let’s get the confusion out of the way and make a distinction between “simultaneous” and “consecutive” interpreting. Simultaneous interpreting means a word for word interpretation where the interpreter uses a headset and talks at the same time with the speaker to transmit the message to the audience simultaneously. We see this a lot on news channels when a president visits our country and we hear the voice of a live interpreter translating the president’s message to our native language. This is very common in press conferences or live interviews on television. Consecutive interpreting takes place when the interpreter summarizes what is being said in a few short sentences. This means that the interpreter waits until the speaker pauses with talking and gives a brief summary of what has been said. There’s also other types of interpreting like whisper interpreting, relay, liaison, phone interpreting and travel interpreting.
To me, interpreting has always been a wonderful way of facilitating communication and partnerships between companies, countries and people. What I love to share about my journey as an interpreter is that interpreting is so much more than just translating words into sentences that make sense. Interpreting is all about context and culture, whether we talk about a company’s culture or a country’s culture and traditions. As an interpreter, you don’t only transmit the message between sender and receiver, you also transmit a thought process and emotions. At the same time, you are dealing with different cultures and certain cultural values and morals. Therefore it’s crucial to develop an understanding of the cultures that you are dealing with. For example, the Dutch culture has a very open and transparent way of communicating where there’s no beating around the bush and saying “no” is common. However in countries like Turkey, it’s considered rude to be very direct and say “no” to a person’s face. Therefore they use more subtle ways of transmitting this message by politely smiling and using multiple sentences that eventually lead to a “no” answer.
Another thing that intrigues me about interpreting is how this profession gives back by always expanding your knowledge about a wide variety of topics. Interpreters are required to have a broad general interest and knowledge about a lot of industries like the medical field, engineering, finance, politics, education, logistics, marketing and so much more. As an interpreter, you are always a student increasing your vocabulary and learning new technical terminology by attending new conferences and meetings where you are required to master and use this terminology throughout the event. I’ve had dozens of experiences where I needed to improvise on the content since unexpected subjects or technical jargon came up. In an ideal world, the interpreter is informed in advance about what topics are going to be discussed during a summit or a press conference. However it has happened to me so many times where I didn’t get any briefing prior to the event and I had to fall back on my “general knowledge” in order to keep the communication process smooth and accurate. All I can say is that interpreting has turned me into a more flexible person developing my improvisation and crisis management skills. I love everything about this high adrenaline profession where every single day is full of unexpected twists and surprises.