Simultaneous interpretation is a crucial tool in today’s globalized world. In this article, we will look at the present of this profession (its characteristics and challenges) and its future (focusing on remote interpretation and the use of artificial intelligence).
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This post has been updated in August 2021.
What is Simultaneous Interpretation?
Simultaneous interpretation is the transformation of speech, from one language into another, in real-time. This is generally done by a professional human interpreter, who is an expert in the source and target languages. This professional is usually certified.
Simultaneous Interpretation vs. Translation
Simultaneous interpretation is often confused with translation, but they have important differences. In the case of simultaneous interpretation, an interpreter transforms speech from a source language and into a target language. The interpreter does this as precisely as possible. Sometimes, however, the interpreter is not able to transform all of the speech. In these cases, an interpreter must keep on interpreting, rendering intent as closely as possible, though using a certain artistic license.
Translation, on the other hand, is most closely associated with the translation of written texts. A translator will, therefore, work on written material such as books, articles, academic texts, etc. In translation, extreme precision is usually expected, and a necessity.
Differences between Types of Interpretation
Simultaneous interpretation is usually done with the aid of electronic equipment. Thus, a typical setup would involve an interpreter sitting in a booth and rendering an interpretation to the audience using such specialized equipment.
Consecutive interpretation is different to simultaneous interpretation. In consecutive interpretation, an interpreter waits for a pause in the speech to provide an interpretation. Usually, an interpreter will stand or sit next to the speaker, and not in a booth.
A lesser-known form of interpretation is ‘whispering’, also called ‘chuchotage’ in the original French. Essentially, what this means is that the interpreter sits next to one or two people and interprets what is being said by the speaker. Such a form of interpreting is reserved for business meetings and situations of that sort.
Challenges of Simultaneous Interpretation
There are several challenges in simultaneous interpretation and techniques to handle special situations.
Transforming speech from a source language into a target language is already a challenge. Fast speakers, however, add an extra layer of complexity to the situation. Speakers who are also reading out a speech are particularly vexing for an interpreter. To weather this scenario, a trained and seasoned interpreter may use several strategies:
This technique is properly called ‘segmentation’. It is basically taking fast and large phrases and turning them into shorter and more logical ones. Salami technique or segmentation also demonstrates a particular characteristic of interpretation, namely, that it is about ‘interpreting’ speech and not about ‘translating’ speech word for word.
The aim of this technique is to be able to keep up with fast, complicated speakers, no matter what. Although it transforms speech to a certain degree, perhaps even taking a certain artistic license to do so, it does fulfill the main responsibility of interpretation: to transform the source language into the target language and assure that the speech is understood.
In the dualism between precision and naturalness, an interpreter should aspire to precision. There are times in which the ‘salami’ technique or segmentation, however, will save the day.
Sometimes an interpreter will anticipate what a speaker says. This technique is called ‘anticipation’ and is useful when dealing with a complex topic which requires an ordered interpretation. The use of anticipation requires an interpreter who is experienced and knows the topic being discussed.
‘Decalage’ is the time that elapses between the start of a speech and the start of the interpretation. A longer ‘decalage’ gives the interpreter the chance to gather more speech and context, before submitting an interpretation.
The Future of Simultaneous Interpretation
There are some important trends in simultaneous interpretation that will come to define the profession. A closer look into them is certainly warranted.
Remote Online Interpretation
The biggest trend in the world of simultaneous interpretation is remote interpreting. The use of online technology is enabling the use of a remote interpreter, instead of an in-person interpreter.
Online platforms such as Bunny Studio already provide voice over, audio ads, translation and writing services. It is within reason that, as platforms like these move towards all-included solutions, they may eventually offer remote simultaneous interpretation as well.
Benefits of Remote Simultaneous Interpretation
There are a number of benefits to remote simultaneous interpretation. Here are a few:
- Availability: The first advantage is having interpreters ready to go, 24/7. An in-person interpreter, on the other hand, is a professional who may work a limited number of hours per day, who has to commute to the place where the interpretation takes place and so on and so forth.
- Many Languages: Online providers of simultaneous interpreters are able to keep a varied team and roster of interpreters. Finding a talented simultaneous interpreter in, say, Arabic or Chinese may be a challenge in a smaller city. That is the advantage of an online hub, that it is able to provide such talent, to global customers.
- Costs: The issue of cost is a significant advantage to customers. An in-person interpreter must charge a customer a higher fee, to account for things such as commuting. Also, an in-person simultaneous interpreter often has to account for the instability of the profession itself, and thus will have to set higher fees. In the case of remote interpretation, costs may decrease. This is because interpreters are able to work from home and thus save time commuting, amongst other things.
Challenges of Remote Simultaneous Interpretation
- Constant Recruitment: In the case of remote simultaneous interpreters, a well-staffed online hub must be permanently recruiting talent. This means vetting/examining candidates and rapidly receiving applications and putting people to work. This constant recruitment can be very challenging.
- Technology: Remote simultaneous interpretation demands a robust and state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, such operation will succeed or fail depending on the technological base that it is able to build and constantly refurbish.
- Cultural Awareness: One of the advantages of an in-person interpreter is that such a professional resides in the area and is thus privy to the particular culture, accent, jargon etc. The challenge with a remote interpreter is that this professional may be talented but unaware of the peculiarities of the area. For instance, consider the following scenarios:
An in-person interpreter in Bogotá, Colombia, is called upon to interpret (English-Spanish-English) a conference in the same city. Such an interpreter goes to the venue of the conference and sits in a booth. There are several speakers who speak English. A member of the audience asks a question in Spanish. The Spanish is heavily accented, since the person is from a particular region in the country. Also, the question features a lot of slang from that particular region. The interpreter, however, does not have a problem. As a Colombian native, this interpreter has been exposed to such accent and jargon before.
A remote online interpreter is based in La Paz, Bolivia and is used to interpret (English-Spanish-English) the same conference as in the previous example. The interpreter works from home in La Paz. There are several speakers who give their presentations in English. When question time arrives, a member of the audience asks a question in ‘Colombian’ Spanish. The Spanish is heavily accented and is also teeming with slang. The interpreter is slightly puzzled by the question. It is possible to understand it, indeed, even to discern meaning, but there are many words which are simply unknown, even strange. The interpreter translates the question as much as possible, but the slang is so heavily lost, that it is not understood by the speakers.
Artificial Intelligence in Interpretation
What about shunning a human interpreter altogether though? Could the use of machines and artificial intelligence eventually replace human interpreters?
There are some who consider this to be a possible and beneficial thing. Others, however, point out that it is simply not feasible:
- Subjectivity of Language: For starters, it is necessary to understand that language is very subjective. Artificial intelligence is usually great at handling tasks that are based on objective reality. It struggles, however, when dealing with language.
The problem with language is that it features a number of things which are problematic for artificial intelligence. There are exceptions to grammar and conjugation rules which artificial intelligence is often troubled by.
- Slang: Moreover, slang and even accents will always be a challenge to artificial intelligence. Slang, in particular, is constantly evolving. Words are being added into the culture, and many are replaced as well. Artificial intelligence could hardly keep track. In many cases, a human interpreter would be unable to keep track too. However, a skilled human interpreter is able to discern intent and to avoid a literal interpretation, when appropriate.
- Humor: Humor is one of those things which are a challenge for a seasoned human interpreter. It is more of a challenge for machine or artificial intelligence. Often, machine translation renders a literal, and useless, translation of humor; artificial intelligence would have to overcome this tremendous problem.
In a Nutshell
Simultaneous interpretation is the transformation of speech, from one language into another, in real-time. It is different to consecutive interpretation or ‘chuchotage’.
Translation, on the other hand, is most closely associated with the translation of written texts.
Fast speakers are a great challenge in simultaneous interpretation. Salami technique or segmentation, anticipation and a longer ‘decalage’, are techniques which help an interpreter in this scenario.
The biggest trend in the world of simultaneous interpretation is remote online interpreting.
The use of artificial intelligence is an eventual possibility, although rather unachievable at the moment.
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